NEW YORK (CNN) — Home cooks have been all a-cluck over recent guidance not to wash raw chicken before it’s prepared and cooked. While it may seem counterintuitive, food safety resources like the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Ask Karen” website advise:
“Washing poultry before cooking it is not recommended. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces. We call this cross-contamination.
Some consumers think they are removing bacteria and making their meat or poultry safe. However, some of the bacteria are so tightly attached that you could not remove them no matter how many times you washed. But there are other types of bacteria that can be easily washed off and splashed on the surfaces of your kitchen. Failure to clean these contaminated areas can lead to foodborne illness. Cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, and grilling) to the right temperature kills the bacteria, so washing food is not necessary.”
The same goes for beef, pork, lamb and veal. Eggs, too, can incur an uptick in potential contamination, because according to the USDA, “the wash water can be ‘sucked’ into the egg through the pores in the shell.”
So why did we all start bathing our birds in the first place? Probably because Julia Child, James Beard, Bettie Crocker, Fannie Farmer, Margaret Mitchell and the “Joy of Cooking” told us – and our parents and grandparents – to.
In 2001, Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume 1″ was republished in a fortieth anniversary edition, complete with a foreword to the 1983 edition that acknowledged updates in kitchen technology since the book’s original edition. Beck and Child noted that they had adapted recipes from the original 1961 version to include the use of food processors, update meat thermometer readings and adjust for shorter-cooking rice and reformulated chocolate.
However, the 2001 edition still includes the advice: “Because commercially raised chickens, on the whole, are packed in a communal tub of ice at least during part of their processing, it is probably wise to give them a thorough washing and drying before storing or cooking – just to be on the safe side.” A jacket note from the same printing indicates that the text therein “leads the cook infallibly from the buying and handling of raw ingredients, through each essential step of a recipe, to the final creation of a delicate confection.”
Plus it’s Julia Child! Her, Beck and Bertholle’s masterwork became culinary canon because of its rigorous attention to getting recipes right. That omelette technique works every time. The boeuf Bourguignon recipe is practically the basis for a cult, and while there are likely far fewer consumers are consulting brain blanching methods these days, a goodly chunk of those who do probably have their copy of MtAoFC cracked open to the relevant section. It stands to reason that a home cook would assume that every facet of the guidance offered would stand the test of time – and it may have been assumed accurate in its day.
Oeufs can be trusted to fluff as the decades roll on, but food production practices – and the accompanying safety concerns – are in a constant state of flux.
Child, it should be noted, passed away at the age of 91 in 2004. It would not be out of the realm of strong possibility that the obsessive recipe tester might have revised the text to reflect the updated safety information, had she been just a teensy bit further from the century mark.
But plenty of equally-trusted cooks of the era were in the kitchen with Julia on the topic of poultry-laundering.
The 1953 edition of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker’s “The Joy Of Cooking” (originally published in 1931) counseled at the conclusion of “To Draw a Bird” not to to soak the bird at any time, but rather: “Hold it under running water to clean the insides.” While it might seem somewhat antiquated or twee for modern cooks to take as gospel the teachings of a book with a robust aspic and “ring salad” section, “Joy” is a book that takes on more cachet, the more generations it’s been handed down through.
A cook could be forgiven for trusting a book with his or her grandmother’s notes penned primly in the margin. The same goes for devotees of Betty Crocker’s 1958 “Dinner for Two” (“Select roasting chicken or young turkey. Remove any pinfeathers and wash. Pat dry.”), or Caroline B. Perry’s 1953 classic “The Shaker Cookbook: Not by Bread Alone.” (“Select chickens weighing 2 1/2 pounds or a little over, for smaller ones lack flavor and cook up waxy. Wash well and quarter.”)
Nine different recipes in home economist Margaret Mitchell’s 1958 “Mealtime Magic Cookbook” for Alcoa Wrap Kitchens begin with some variation of “Wash, clean chicken, cut into desired pieces.” Mrs. Albert Simons of 1950’s “Charleston Receipts” believed a rooster needed a good washing before being “boil(ed) hard” for Faber’s Pilau. Even actor Alfred Lunt hopped on the chicken cleansing train with his Chicken Paprika recipe in the 1948 “The Celebrities Cookbook.” (“Wash and disjoint chicken, cutting into portions for serving.”)
Toss one more on the fire? Fine: no less an expert than Fannie Merritt Farmer advised in the 1929 edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book”:
“Remove oil bag, and wash bird by allowing cold water to run through it, not allowing bird to soak in cold water. Wipe inside and outside, looking carefully to see that everything has been withdrawn. If there is disagreeable odor, suggesting that fowl may have been kept too long, clean at one, wash inside and out with soda water, and sprinkle inside with charcoal, and place some under wings.” [Editor's note: If this even needs to be said, don't try this one at home.]
By 1972, gourmand and cookbook author James Beard made chicken washing contingent upon its origins. While lamenting about the loss of flavor he attributed to modern poultry raising methodology, Beard found one thing to crow about in his “American Cookery”:
“However, these nine-weeks wonders are beautiful to look at, perfectly drawn and cleaned, and come so pure they do not even have to be washed before cooking…There was once a time when chicken was a Sunday dinner dish and could be found in most homes stuffed and roasted, stewed with dumplings, or fried and served with cream gravy. Now it is daily food, propagandized for its low calorie count.”
Just several pages later, Beard paid homage to these heavy, homey dishes with recipes for sumptuous, long-stewed Country Captain, Stuffed Poached Chicken and Country-Style White Fricassee. He cited chicken washing in each of those, but not for any fried variation, Chicken California or anything involving poaching. American cooks, it seemed, were testing their wings, but not yet ready to fly away from the faucet completely.
Nowadays, there’s nary a peep about chicken washing, even in poultry-centric cookbooks, unless it’s a caveat against the practice. Cooks Illustrated’s 1999 “The Complete Book of Chicken” makes no mention of it, and the tenth anniversary edition of Mark Bittman’s food bible “How to Cook Everything” relies on general kitchen cleanliness (including lots of hand washing) and obsessive attention to temperature to ensure the annihilation of harmful bacteria like salmonella.
Better Homes and Gardens, however, knows how far you’ve come together, and how hard it is to let go of the past. The plaid-bound workhorse of a cookbook could be found in one million American kitchens by its eighth anniversary in 1938 and has now sold more than 34 million copies. It seems almost like a civic duty for the editors to lay it out plainly:
“Rinsing poultry and meat is not necessary. The less you handle it the better.”
Maybe…just maybe, the flock will finally follow.