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 recipes and adopting their ways.
Now the chef and owner of Tsion Caf in Harlem, New York, Barhany continues to draw on culinary traditions, including one that has become the subject of much controversy in recent decades: washing raw meat before cooking.
The question of whether meat should be washed or not has long pitted safety recommendations against tradition. While experts, including representatives from the CDC, strongly recommend against it, warning that the practice could inadvertently spread pathogens rather than eliminate them, others see it simply as a habit.
For Barhany, immersing a raw chicken in salt and lemon water is both functional and ceremonial, as Jewish kosher rules require the meat to be soaked in salt. No matter what they say, I’m going to keep washing the chicken, says Barhany. This has been done for millennia.
Barhany is hardly alone. Despite the USDA’s ongoing campaigns to discourage people from washing meat, studies show that the majority of consumers are either unaware of the advice or choose to ignore it. The USDA recommendation has been in place since at least 2005, says Shauna Henley, senior lecturer in family and consumer sciences at the University of Maryland. It’s still a hot topic.
So what’s the problem with meat washing? Food scientists and culinary professionals ponder 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 unwanted pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter being introduced into the kitchen.
Washing meat before cooking doesn’t really help, says Betty Feng, assistant professor of food science at Purdue University. The only thing it does [is] spills and can cross-contaminate many of your kitchen utensils, the sink, probably clothes, whatever you have next to the sink.
Studies have shown that pathogens can be transferred through the splashing of contaminated water droplets, for example by rinsing meat under a running tap. Bacteria can’t jump, they can’t move, says Drexel University nutrition science professor Jennifer Quinlan. 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 splashes but not the spread of bacteria. When observing the participants while preparing the meal, the researchers also observed higher levels E.coli in the sink than on the surrounding countertops, regardless of whether people are cleaning the chicken or not. However, concentration E.coli was higher where the chicken was washed.
I would treat the entire sink just like the outside of a chicken, because it’s a biohazard, says Benjamin Chapman, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Agricultural Sciences and Humanities.
In some cultures, soaking or rinsing uncooked meat in salt water and acids such as lemon juice or vinegar is a common washing method.
For example, when preparing pollo guisado, Nelson German, a Dominican-American chef says that the traditional is to wash the chicken with something other than water. You take a bitter orange, sour orange, lemon or lime and just rub it all over the chicken.
Although this procedure is believed to cleanse and impart flavor, only half is true. Feng cautions against using salt water, vinegar or lemon juice, as they simply aren’t strong enough to effectively kill foodborne pathogens. If the acidity is high enough to kill bacteria, it’s unlikely you can wash with your bare hands, he says.
Ultimately, experts are convinced that washing raw meat is simply not worth the risk.
The way we make meat safe is by cooking, not by removing pathogens, Chapman says. Heat kills 10,000 times more than rinsing.
Why do some people wash meat
Washing meat likely originated in cultures around the world as a way to get rid of the inedible material left over from freshly butchered meat, says Kathleen Glass, associate director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before industrial 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 pathogens living in raw meat.
I grew up on a farm and we butchered our own chickens and beef and pork. And [washing] was part of the slaughter process, he says.
But over time, these safeguards have become codified and passed down into culinary traditions, some of which have found their way into modern American kitchens. Even with industrial meatpacking processes, including strict cleaning standards, meat washing continues across the country. A 2015 survey of more than 1,500 US consumers found that nearly 70 percent rinse or wash their poultry before cooking it.
Quinlan, who conducted formative research on consumer meat handling practices, says that for some it’s a matter of personal taste. With poultry, for example, some people just don’t like it, he says. But he and his fellow researchers were surprised to find that the majority of people of all cultures and backgrounds abstain from meat simply because they were raised that way.
We saw that whether you were white, black, Asian, Hispanic or Latino, it didn’t matter, says Henley, a food scientist and one of Quinlan’s collaborators. Everyone really did breed poultry to some extent.
Family, tradition and custom
For some, washing meat is deeply ingrained in the preparation of certain dishes. Ji Hye Kim, chef and owner of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan, describes this practice as an essential part of Korean cooking, especially when making stews and broths. He learned from watching his mother that washing would remove impurities “to make really clean-tasting stews or clear stock.
Disinfecting the work area is also a critical part of the process. The German links this practice to fear of disease and mistrust of medical systems. Caribbean moms are pure as hell. They fear every microbe, every virus, he says with a laugh.
Some Chinese cuisines also require a special 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 feathers and other debris and scrubbing the wings under running water.
Kung learned the practice from his parents in Hong Kong, where much of their meat came freshly butchered from the wet market and would have to be cleaned of any lingering animal waste. You could call it a cultural practice, but its roots are in pragmatism, he says.
It was 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 had no refrigeration, so it was customary to salt and wash fresh meat, which he continues to do today.
It is salted. Either a cup of vinegar or lime juice is added to the meat and then it is washed, he says. These things are just ingrained in us. That’s what we do.
Quinlan believes that educating people about safety measures is important and has been involved in several national campaigns warning against meat washing. But he doesn’t want to interfere with people’s traditions. I’m not going to tell those people, don’t manufacture your culture. I’m going to say that you don’t need to wash it for safety reasons.
After years of living in the United States, especially in professional kitchens governed by strict USDA guidelines, many chefs have abandoned the taboo practice of washing meat. But not everyone has let go completely.
Nik Sharma, a molecular biologist turned chef and cookbook author, says washing meat was standard practice in India, where he grew up. When I was growing up, we never bought pre-cleaned or pre-cut chickens at the grocery store, she says. So in that sense, it’s always been important to me to wash it. In his food and recipe writing, Sharma never recommends washing meat and has mostly stopped it himself. But he still sometimes finds himself giving the chicken a quick, cleansing soak in the bowl.
German says he learned to apply his methods in professional settings where he works with chefs from different cultural backgrounds. When the chefs were challenged to keep our tradition alive and still do things safely, he says. But he still washes and salts certain types of meat when cooking at home. This practice is not so much about hygiene as it is about keeping to one’s roots.
You can do whatever you want at home, he says. I think those traditions will always last.
It’s easy to find less than civil discussions on this topic online.
Often, criticism from both sides of the conversation seems like a coded way of considering culture or food to be inferior, dirty or for some reason impure, Kung says. Washing meat or not washing meat is not a moral failure.
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