How to Handle Raw Chicken So That You’ll NEVER Get Food Poisoning

I've been told the way I handle raw chicken borders on abject paranoia. But I've also gone my entire life and never had, and never caused anybody to have, a case of chicken-related salmonella or food poisoning. In today’s post, I’ll share with you my routine for the safe handling of raw chicken in the kitchen.

Even a cursory look at large scale chicken processing techniques reveals them to be pretty messy, to put it diplomatically. And this recent data on salmonella prevalence isn’t exactly encouraging. The bottom line is that salmonella and other food-borne bacteria are commonly found in and on raw chicken.

My goal today isn’t to disgust you so thoroughly that you’ll never eat chicken again (although some of the links above might do exactly that…). Instead, I want you to have a good grasp of how likely it is that you’ll meet up with microorganisms when you handle raw chicken, or any raw meat for that matter. Hopefully, this will give you all the reason you need to apply the following seven rules of chicken-handling safety. You too can have confidence that nobody will get sick on your watch!

1) Thaw Carefully
It goes without saying that if chicken isn’t all that clean when it comes out of the processing plant, it can become a perfect culturing medium for bacteria if you don’t take precautions when you thaw it.

Usually the best way to thaw frozen chicken is to put it in the fridge overnight. If you must speed things up, you can leave the chicken out on the counter for a few hours at most. Certainly never leave raw chicken out at room temperature for much longer than that. It’s never a good idea, for example to put raw meat out on your counter in the morning, take off for work, and then come back in the evening to cook it. That’s simply too long for uncooked meat to sit out at room temperature. Don’t risk it.

2) Rinse the chicken thoroughly in extremely hot tap water
Chicken, especially when it is mass-produced, is often sprayed with disinfectants or detergents and then rinsed (hopefully rinsed well) before being packaged for consumption. So we don't just have salmonella or e. coli to worry about--we also might be ingesting cleaning chemicals along with our chicken too.

You never know for sure how clean your chicken is. I solve this issue by running hot water (as hot as I can stand it) out of my kitchen sink tap, and I rinse each individual piece of chicken well under the faucet. Then I’ll place the fully rinsed chicken on paper towels on a plate before seasoning them and cooking them. If I’m cooking a whole chicken (or turkey for that matter), I run hot water in the inside of the bird too, just to make sure there aren’t any pockets of bacteria or anything else where I might put stuffing.

You’re never going to sterilize a piece of meat perfectly. We ingest bacteria all the time by eating all sorts of foods. What makes you sick, however, is when you get exposed to a critical mass of bacteria at one time. Rinsing under hot running water is a great way to kill off and physically remove most (if not all) of the bacteria so that this can’t happen.

3) Pay careful attention to everything the chicken touches
There’s a scene in “The Bourne Identity” that (weirdly) describes my philosophy on handling raw meat. It’s the scene where Jason Bourne and his girlfriend Marie wake up after spending a night in a youth hostel in Paris:

“You've already cleaned the room?”
“I wiped the whole place down for fingerprints.”
“Can I walk around or is that gonna leave any footprints?”
“You can walk around. It's no problem. But we'll just keep track of everything we touch. I just think it's better if we leave a room that we're not gonna leave a trail.”

Setting aside all my personal issues with paranoia about being chased by bad guys, I actually think it helps to think about raw meat in this way too. Any time you take meat that might be contaminated, touch a surface with it, and then touch that surface to anything else, you risk spreading food-borne bacteria. Therefore, I pay careful attention everything that the chicken touches and everything that the packaging touches. I also try to limit the workspace area I use when I’m handling raw meat of any kind. And then I carefully wash with hot soapy water (see #7 below for more on this) every surface, every dish and every utensil that came in contact with the raw chicken. I don’t want to leave a trail of food-borne bugs.

4) Be an obsessive hand-washer
Of course you should always wash your hands before beginning to cook any food. You should also wash your hands immediately after handling any raw meat, and before touching any other food or utensils. And then, I suggest you wash your hands one or two extra times, just for kicks, at various other times while preparing the meal. Here’s one instance where Lady MacBeth had it right. Of course, use hot running water and lots of soap.

5) Use high heat to sear the meat
When I’m making my house favorite Chicken Mole recipe, or searing the chicken pieces for Thai Pasta Salad, I of course want to cook the meat thoroughly enough so that I kill whatever hardy bacteria might survive steps 1 through 4.

But I don’t want to have to gnaw on dried-out, overcooked chicken. So I needed to strike a reasonable balance between healthy cooking and tender meat. I think I’ve found it. If it’s a dish where I need chunks or pieces of chicken meat, I sear it for a short time in very hot olive oil.

Here’s my technique: I heat up a quarter-inch layer of olive oil to high heat on the bottom of a non-stick pan. Once the oil is good and hot (at this point it will just be starting to smoke a little), I’ll dump in the chopped chicken pieces, cover it, and let it sizzle violently for 3-4 minutes. Theh, I’ll lift up the lid and flip over the chicken pieces so they can have both sides directly exposed to the hot oil. The process is a bit splattery, so I suggest using a deep non-stick pan if you have one. Searing chicken meat at high heat will kill ALL the bacteria, but it will also seal the juices into the meat and prevent it from tasting dry.

Granted, not all recipes allow for cooking chicken this way. If I’m broiling chicken parts, or roasting a whole chicken, I’ll make sure to follow the old adage: cook until the juices run clear. But I’ll also use a meat thermometer to make sure the chicken is at least heated up to 185F in the center, just to assuage my paranoia and make sure I kill off any potential bad guys in there.

6) Dispose of everything carefully
Once again, you need to pay attention to everything the chicken touches, and this means everything. Put all remaining chicken parts, disposable packaging, paper towels and any other disposable items that came into contact with the chicken into a grocery bag, tie a knot in the top of the bag, and then put that bag into the garbage. Now you and anybody else in your household will have absolutely no risk of inadvertent contact with raw chicken, even if you need to reach into the garbage can! Total safety.

7) Clean and sterilize your workspace
Remember, we’re being paranoid here. Everything that the chicken touches could potentially have bacteria-laden chicken goo on it. This is where we take Lady MacBeth to a new level and clean everything that the chicken may have touched:

a) Wipe EVERYTHING down with hot soapy water.
b) Wash EVERYTHING that touched the chicken in hot soapy water.

You can see now why I told you in step #3 to minimize your raw chicken workspace, right? The more space that you use, the more surface area that needs to be carefully washed. Finally, all you need now is a last, careful wash of your hands in hot soapy water.

Congratulations! You can enjoy your chicken with complete safety and confidence that you’ll never get sick.

22 comments:

Kacie said...

When you rinse the chicken, it can splatter onto anything else, so be careful not to have other raw foods (salads, etc) nearby your prep area.

Daniel Koontz said...

Great point, thanks for adding your thoughts.

DK

Anonymous said...

The kill temp for salmonella is 160 degrees F. I'm not sure what the hot water rinse will do for you, except to mechanically remove bacteria on the skin. Rinsing alone should do that. Anyway, salmonella can reside in the blood inside the meat (near the bone) and that will have to be killed by cooking it. I find my meat thermometer very useful in making sure the meat is up to 160 --- there is also some carry-over cooking after you take it out (whole chicken roast) of the oven. Also beware that salmonella can be found on other produce: remember the spinach contamination? ugh. A 10% bleach solution is good for decontaminating equipment and surfaces. Have you ever tried "chicken and 40 cloves of garlic"? B and E

Jose said...

I have 2 pounds of raw chicken thawing on my counter at this very moment. But I'll probably get lazy and throw it into the fridge for a few days before refreezing it, rethawing it, and cooking it (without washing) another day.

I've caught food poisoning from restaurant outbreaks, but never from anything in my own home.

From my observations using my family as test subjects, veggies and seafood (neither of which I eat) cause more food poisoning than chicken and succulent rare red meats.

I chalk it all up to parental hysteria.

PS - 80% of salmonella poisoning in children is cause by exposure to pet reptiles and amphibians. I saw that statistic on the internet somewhere, so it must be true. So 'Show and Tell' is a greater health hazard than that Chicken Paprikash I may or may not make tonight.

Anonymous said...

I would NEVER thaw, then refreeze, then rethaw and consume meat. I am not sure about Salmonella, but some baterial strains, like some e. coli, produce heat stable enterotoxin (this means that if you let the bacteria grow and produce toxin -- during thawing time, lets say, the toxin is not destroyed by cooking the meat!).
Public Health hazard!

Daniel Koontz said...

Agreed on the thawing and refreezing, thanks for your comment!

DK

Anonymous said...

I walked in on my bf's mom who was prepping to make my favorite chicken and rice dish. I noticed her cleaning the chicken with a small amount of clorox bleach and dish soap. I told her that I had never seen such a thing. When the food was ready I couldn't eat. I don't know how long this has been going on for but I told my bf and he was not happy. This isn't right? Right??

Daniel said...

Hi Anon,

I'm no expert on the toxicity of bleach, but using it on chicken is probably not a good idea.

However, without question bleach *will* kill bacteria! After all, lots of people use a mild bleach/water solution to clean and sterilize cutting boards, floors, sinks and countertops.

I suppose in theory as long as she rinses the chicken REALLY well afterward, it should still be edible. Good luck.

DK

Anonymous said...

There are varying amounts of chlorine in our tap water. I would guess that diluted bleach water won't hurt. But I can't imagine it makes the chicken taste very good. I have used my swimming pool water test kit on tap water and found the water to very highly chlorinated at times, to the point it was above what I would have in the pool!
My problem is that I have been food safety trained for years and my husband thinks I am picking a fight when I tell him I won't eat chicken that is left on the counter at room temp. He swears that it's the best way to marinate and salt it-- at room temp. I just know too much about bacteria growth and temps to feel good about it.

Anonymous said...

I, too, am a paranoid chicken cooker and have experienced salmonella (from frozen Mrs. Pauls, musts thawed out at the store). Anyway, I go a little further than you do. I set out a supply of paper towels and a dish of soap before I start. Also, I make sure my dishwasher and trash can are empty and ready to receive the contaminated bits. As for people thawing and marinating at room temperature - are you nuts!?! Frankly, I wouldn't even use warm or hot water to rinse the chicken because that feels to me like adding room temperature minutes to the meat. I use cold water. To me, it's like how they say painting is 90% prep and 10% actual painting. It's the same when "cooking" chicken - it takes me easily as long to prep and clean up as it does to cook the stuff. And I have a digestive issue and can't even eat it, so I do all of this for my family!

djd7258 said...

Rinsing chicken serves no purpose except to spread the bacteria that may be on it. The USDA does not recommend rinsing for that reason. Cooking does kill all bacteria,and that is why rinsing is not necessary. Also, Olive oil should not be used to cook. It should always be used as is, never heated as it becomes toxic when it reaches high temperatures. For cooking stick to canola or coconut oil. Coconut oil is by far the best for cooking.

Daniel said...

DJD, quite frankly you lost me at "olive oil should not be used to cook." Thanks for your thoughts though.

DK

Anonymous said...

if you touch a raw chicken without washing your hands, then touch an important piece of paper you need, then remember to wash your hands, is this ok? is the paper now germ riddled? is the chicken ok? my hands were clean before

Daniel said...

Anonymous, you can always carefully wipe the paper, where you touched it, with a damp, clean paper towel. But I wouldn't worry too much, unless you expect to be licking or eating off this piece of paper. :)

DK

Lanks said...

DJD is right about the olive oil. It's not good for high heat cooking, coconut oil, grapeseed, or canola is good for high temps whereas olive oil is best for salads, hummus and other room temp foods.

Anonymous said...

I just touched raw chicken and licked my hands. Lets see if I get sick.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, DJD is right about olive oil. Olive oil has a low smoke point, at which it begins emitting toxic components that aren't healthy to ingest. The smoke point is around 350-400 degrees I believe.

Good article other than that. I personally wouldn't wash the chicken because of the splash factor, but I know others that do that.

Jon Stern said...

The best way to thaw chicken is to buy it in cryobags, like from Costco. Then put it in the microwave for a few minutes to partially defrost it. (Don't overdo it bc then the chix will partially cook). Then put the cryo bag in a large bowl and fill it with cold water and leave in the sink. It should be fully defrosted within 1/2 hour and still be completely sealed.

Anonymous said...

I just put the new package of chicken in my trash can w/ a new trash bag, open it up w/ a pair of scissors and take the chicken directly out of the package thats in the trashcan and set it in whatever dish im making. No mess, no fuss, no cleanup.

Anonymous said...

LOL - I also stockpile paper towels and soap when I wash chicken!

Anonymous said...

Just slip it into a nice bath of antibacterial soap and hot water and wash it well. The soap will rinse well just like your hands do. I have been doing that for years and never had any soap residue, smell or taste. Way less trouble and it removes that gummy stuff from the skin.

Mary said...

Standard for me is to wash my hands well before handling chicken or any food product but I go much further in my care with raw chicken. I am careful to keep my cutting/prepping area cean and pay attention to anything the raw chicken could come in contact with. I use a large cutting board that is bleachable inside a very large tray. I cut and bone 10 pound bags of raw leg quarters often, because they are cheap and by boning out the thighs I save a lot of money, but that means extra care. When all is finished and in freezer bags or ready to cook, I begin clean up. I use bleach water and bleach down the tray, knife all areas anything might have touched then soak my cutting board in bleach water. I also use my hands in that bleach water and make certain to ckean under my nails. No one has ever become sick from my kitchen and I cook daily.