It seems almost sacrilegious to question the wisdom of Julia Child.
First with her opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking and later with her PBS cooking show, the unflappably cheerful Child helped rescue home cookery from the clutches of convenience food. She taught us how to love — and take pride in — making something from scratch.
And yet, in at least one important kitchen skill, Child got it dead wrong: rinsing raw poultry.
"I just think it's a safer thing to do," Child tells viewers in one clip from The French Chef in which she shows us the ins and outs of roasting chicken.
"Oh, no!" says Drexel University food safety researcher Jennifer Quinlan when I inform her that Child was in the pro-bird-washing camp. "I don't want to take on that."
Yet take on the doyenne of TV chefs she must. For Quinlan is on a mission to get America's home cooks to drop this widespread habit of washing poultry before cooking.
"There's no reason, from a scientific point of view, to think you're making it any safer," she says, "and in fact, you're making it less safe."
That's because washing increases the chances that you'll spread the foodborne pathogens that are almost certainly on your bird all over the rest of your kitchen too, food safety experts say. We're talking nasty stuff like salmonella and Campylobacter, which together are estimated to cause nearly 1.9 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. each year.
Some studies suggest bacteria can fly up to 3 feet away from where your meat is rinsed — though you can't necessarily see it. If that thought alone doesn't give you pause, perhaps this slimy "germ vision" animation will do the trick:
But fear not: All you have to do to kill these unwanted bacteria is to cook your meat properly (a thermometer can help — chicken needs to reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit) and keep your utensils and cooking surfaces clean.
Quinlan and her collaborators at New Mexico State University's Department of Media Productions have created a new public health campaign to get the word out about why washing poultry is a bad idea. Her focus-group surveys, conducted as part of a research project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, suggest as many as 90 percent of people rinse their raw birds — even though the USDA has advised against it for years. The practice is slightly more common among minorities, she says, but pretty much everyone does it.
And Quinlan expects some people will continue to cling to their bird-rinsing ways. Some people, she notes, just do it because they think their chicken is slimy. "If your chicken is so slimy that it needs washing, something is wrong," she says. "Other people say, 'That's just how I was taught to do it.' "
It doesn't help, she says, that many celebrity TV chefs (not just Child) and cookbooks call for this as a first step. But science, says Quinlan, is really giving the lazy a free pass — nay, an imperative — to cut out this step.
And some people for whom raw-chicken-meat baths have been a source of marital strife may welcome Quinlan's message wholeheartedly.
As my colleague Dan Charles told me (sorry, Dan, I'm outing you here): "I never did [wash my chickens], but then my wife* forced me to. So as soon as this thing is posted, I'm sending it straight to her."
* Footnote: Dan insisted I note his wife is lovely.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, Renee. From takeaway tortellini, let's go back into the kitchen and do some home-cooked chicken. For most people, preparing a chicken for dinner begins with a basic first step: rinsing off the raw bird.
JULIA CHILD: And then another thing I like to do is wash the chicken.
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CHILD: Just run the water right through it inside and out. I just think it's a safer thing to do.
GREENE: But here's some news: turns out Julia Child was wrong. Washing chicken is actually unsafe.
NPR's Maria Godoy explains.
MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Raw poultry is covered in nasty stuff like salmonella that can make you sick. But guess what? Rinsing your poultry only makes it more likely you'll spread the stuff around. The bacteria present on raw chicken can really fly - even a gentle rinse can send them up to three feet away from where your meat is. But surveys suggest that up to 90 percent of us insist on washing raw chicken before cooking it.
A lot of cookbooks still tell us to do it - even though the USDA has been advising people not to rinse chicken for years. So researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia have started a public health campaign. They want Americans to know that chicken washing is just unsafe.
The best thing to do, they say, is to skip the bird bath altogether and just make sure to cook your chicken properly. That means heating the chicken to at least 165 degrees.
Now, all of this may be confusing. After all, we're told to wash spinach and fruit. So why not meat?
Jennifer Quinlan, a researcher at Drexel, says the difference is that we wash fruits and vegetables mainly to remove dirt and pesticide residue.
JENNIFER QUINLAN: While they may have some bacteria on them, they're nowhere near the levels of bacteria that you're going to have on a raw meat product.
GODOY: So in other words, fruits and veggies? Go ahead and wash 'em. Raw meat? Cook it to kill it. Bon appetit.
Maria Godoy, NPR News.
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GREENE: And you can read a lot more at our food blog, The Salt.
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GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.