Do you wash your meat? Some cooks are divided in training.

Beejhy Barhany has been cooking for as long as she can remember. Growing up in an Ethiopian-Jewish community in Israel meant helping the family in the kitchen, learning their recipes, and embracing their customs.

Now a chef and owner of Tsion Café in Harlem, New York, Barhany continues to pull from culinary traditions, including one that has been the source of much controversy in recent decades: washing raw meat before cook.

The question of whether or not to wash meat has long pitted safety recommendations against tradition. While experts including those from the CDC strongly advise against it, warning that the practice may inadvertently spread rather than eliminate pathogens, others see it as mere custom.

For Barhany, dipping raw chicken in salt and lemon water is both functional and ceremonial, as soaking meat in salt is required by Jewish Kosher rules. No matter what they say, I will continue washing my chicken, Barhany said. This is something that has been done for millennia.

Barhany was hardly alone. Despite ongoing campaigns from the USDA to discourage people from washing meat, surveys show that the majority of consumers remain unaware of the advice or simply choose to ignore it. The recommendation has been around since at least 2005 by the USDA, said Shauna Henley, a senior family and consumer sciences educator at the University of Maryland. Still a hot topic.

So, what’s the deal with washing meat? Food scientists and culinary professionals weigh in on the origins of this practice and why it persists.

The science of washing meat

When it comes to washing raw meat, the experts are clear: Don’t do it. Rather than reducing the risk of foodborne illness, washing meat increases the likelihood of spreading unwanted pathogens, such as salmonella and campylobacter, around the kitchen.

Washing meat before cooking doesn’t really help, says Betty Feng, associate professor of food science at Purdue University. The only thing it does [is] splash and many of your kitchen utensils can cross-contaminate your sink, maybe your clothes, whatever you have next to the sink.

In fact, research has shown that pathogens can be transferred by splashing contaminated water droplets, such as when rinsing meat under a faucet. Bacteria can’t jump, they can’t move, says Jennifer Quinlan, a professor of nutritional sciences at Drexel University. But when you introduce water, you give them a way to move.

A 2022 study showed that submerging meat in a bowl of water reduced splashing but not the spread of germs. Observing the participants in the preparation of the meal, the researchers also found higher levels of E. coli in the sink than on the surrounding countertops, regardless of whether or not people washed their chicken. However, the concentration of E. coli is higher where the chicken is washed.

I would treat the whole sink as if the outside of the chicken were a biological hazard, said Benjamin Chapman, one of the study’s authors and associate professor in North Carolina State University’s department of agriculture and human sciences.

In some cultures, soaking or rinsing raw meat in salt water and acids such as lemon juice or vinegaris a common washing method.

For example, when preparing chicken stewNelson German, a Dominican-American chef says that it is traditional to wash the chicken with more water. Take a bitter orange, sour orange, lemon, or lime, and just rub it all over the chicken.

Although this method is thought to clean and provide flavor, it is only half true. Feng cautions against using salt water, vinegar, or lemon juice, which are not strong enough to effectively kill foodborne pathogens. If the acidity is high enough to kill bacteria, then it’s not really likely that you can use your bare hands to wash, he says.

Ultimately, experts argue that washing raw meat is not worth the risk.

The way we make meat safe is by cooking, not by removing pathogens, Chapman says. Heat does something like 10,000 times more lethal than rinsing.

Why do some people wash meat?

Washing meat likely originated in cultures around the world as a way to remove inedible material left over from freshly butchered meat, said Kathleen Glass, associate director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before industrialized food processing (and today in communities that still butcher their own meat), washing was an important line of defense against dirt, animal waste, and perhaps also the host of pathogens that live on raw meat.

I grew up on a farm, and we butchered our own chickens and cows and pigs. And [washing] is part of the killing process, he said.

But over time, these safety precautions became codified and passed down as culinary tradition, some making their way into modern American kitchens. Even with industrial meat packing processes along with strict cleaning standards, meat washing continues throughout the country. A 2015 survey of more than 1,500 US consumers found that nearly 70 percent rinse or wash their chicken before cooking it.

Quinlan, who has conducted formative research on consumer meat-handling habits, says that, for some, it’s a matter of personal taste. In chicken, for example, some people don’t like goo, he says. But he and his fellow researchers were surprised to find that most people, of all cultures and backgrounds, shun meat simply because of how they were raised.

We found that whether you’re white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Latina, it doesn’t matter, said Henley, a food scientist and one of Quinlans collaborators. Everyone actually washes the chicken to some extent.

Family, tradition, and habit

For some, washing meat has become deeply ingrained in the preparation of specific foods. Ji Hye Kim, chef and owner of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan, describes practice as an important part of Korean cooking, especially when preparing stews and soups. He learned from watching his mother that washing would remove impurities “to get a really clean tasting stew or a clear stock.

Cleaning the work area is also a critical part of the process. German attributes the practice to fears of disease and distrust of medical systems. Caribbean moms are clean. They fear every germ, every virus, he says, laughing.

Some Chinese cuisines also require specific meat preparation. When making fried chicken wings, for example, chef and food content creator Jon Kung describes a multi-step cleaning process that includes removing any feathers or other debris and scrubbing the wing under running water.

Kung learned the practice from his elders in Hong Kong, where most of their meat is freshly butchered from wet markets and has to be cleaned of any leftover animal waste. You could call it a cultural practice, but it’s rooted in pragmatism, he says.

It’s also pragmatic for Sarah Kirnon, a West Indian chef and former owner of Miss Ollies in Oakland, California. Like many others living in Barbados in the 1970s, he didn’t have a refrigerator, so it was common to immediately salt and wash fresh meat, which he does today.

Its salted. We can add a cup of vinegar or limesits rubbed on the meat, and then wash it, he said. These things are just implanted in us. What we do.

Quinlan believes that educating people about safety precautions is important and has been involved in several nationwide campaigns warning against washing meat. But he did not want to interfere with the traditions of the people. I wouldn’t say to those people, don’t do your cultural preparation. I would say that you don’t need to wash it for safety purposes.

After years of living and cooking in the US, particularly in professional kitchens governed by strict USDA guidelines, many chefs have abandoned the taboo of washing meat. But not everyone let go completely.

Nik Sharma, a molecular biologist turned chef and cookbook author, says washing meat is a common practice in India where he grew up. When I was growing up, we couldn’t buy pre-cleaned or pre-cut chicken at the grocery store, she said. So, in that sense, it’s always critical for me to wash it. In his food and recipe writing, Sharma never recommends washing meat and mostly stops doing it himself. But sometimes he still finds himself giving the chicken a quick, cleaning soak in a bowl.

German said he learned to adapt his methods in professional settings where he works with cooks from all different cultures. While chefs are challenged to keep our traditions alive and still do things in a safe way, he said. But he still washes and salts certain types of meat while cooking at home, a practice less about hygiene than about staying connected to his roots.

At home, you can do whatever you want, he said. Those traditions, I think, will always last.

Online, it’s easy to find less civil discussions on this topic.

Often, criticism from both sides of the debate seems to be a coded way to consider the culture or the cuisine less than, dirty, or unsanitary for whatever reason, Kung said. Washing your meat, or not washing your meat, is not a moral failure.

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