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Should you rinse raw chicken? Ina Garten weighs in on this popular food myth

To wash or not to wash? When it comes to poultry, every chef seems to have an opinion. But here's what the food safety experts say.
by Lyn Mettler / / Source: TODAY

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It’s an age-old debate that's been dividing the culinary community for decades: Should you ever rinse a raw chicken before cooking it?

One of America's most beloved chefs, Julia Child, believed in washing raw poultry. However, her legendary co-host Jacques Pepin on “Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home” famously disagreed, saying that the heat from the oven kills off any germs or bacteria.

So which culinary master is correct?

On Sunday night's episode of Food Network's “Cook Like a Pro," Ina Garten, aka the Barefoot Contessa, said that there's no need to wash a bird before you cook it, breaking with Child, whom Garten has cited as a major inspiration. "I know there's this whole debate about whether you wash the chicken before you do this, or you don't," said Garten as she prepared to roast a whole bird.

Sorry, Julia, but it looks like Garten and Pepin have the food safety experts on their side, too.

According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), properly cooking a chicken will kill any bacteria, while washing it could have the opposite effect. Argyris K. Magoulas, a USDA technical information specialist, told TODAY Food emphatically that you should not wash your chicken due to the risk of potential cross-contamination of food-borne pathogens, like salmonella, which can be very dangerous.

“The problem is that you can splash, which can cross-contaminate,” said Magoulas, noting the pathogens could land on foods that may not get cooked later, like veggies, or cling to surfaces where they can linger.

He added, “Washing is not really removing the [food-borne pathogens]. You kill them when you cook them [at the proper temperature].” For chicken, he explained that the thickest part of the meat should reach 165 degrees before it’s safe to eat, so keep that meat thermometer handy.

Raw chicken, be careful!
When cooking chicken, it should reach 165 degrees at the thickest part when it's done. Featurepics

Still, the idea of rinsing is still being debated among the pros. TODAY Food asked several chefs for their take on whether it's OK, or even advisable, to wash raw poultry.

Libbie Summers, chef and creative culinary director for the food delivery service Terra's Kitchen, explained to TODAY Food that she prefers to wash her chicken, but for her it’s not about the bacteria, she just wants to remove any dirt.

"I grew up on a farm in Missouri, and the chickens co-mingled with the pigs and other animals that weren’t the best at keeping up with personal hygiene,” said Summers via email. “I always wash my chickens to ensure that they’re completely clean with no grit left behind."

Restauranteur and award-winning barbecue chef Melissa Cookston is also a chicken washer. "I agree that the high temperatures will kill all the germs, but I’m not taking any chances,” said Cookston. “I wash thoroughly before cooking. This also gives me a nice clean surface for seasonings to adhere to."

But plenty of pros are sticking with the USDA guidelines. And when they do rinse, it's to get rid of unappetizing extras, not kill germs.

“If you buy fresh, skinless chicken breast, it doesn’t need to be washed," Luca Corazzina, executive chef at 312 Chicago, told TODAY Food. "If you buy chicken from your supermarket that has been sitting in its own blood and juices for a few days, you will probably feel better giving it a quick rinse.”

If you're really worried about making sure your poultry is as clean as possible, Magoulas did advise a safer method of "washing" the bird. If you want to remove excess sodium (many commercially produced chickens have added sodium to help preserve the meat and remove blood), it's OK to soak it in water — so the juices don't splash— and leave it in the refrigerator for no more than two hours before cooking.

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