Americans eat a lot of chicken. That should come as no surprise. But are we safely handing and eating those chickens? The answer to that question could determine whether your barbecue chicken recipe makes for happy tummies or angry ones.
When we cook for our friends and family, we tend to have two goals: 1) Make delicious food and 2) Not make people sick. Both require following some simple rules: for #1, a recipe and for #2, a set of rules that I’ve learned from the Food Safety Team at APHL.
These rules effectively put a stake in your front yard as a warning to all other bacteria saying “You are not welcome here! You will be cooked properly!” Not following these rules means inviting Auntie Campylobacter and Cousin Salmonella to your table. Unless you would like to spend next weekend doubled over with a fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps, pay attention.
Roughly half of all meat in the U.S. is contaminated with some sort of bacteria. While that is pretty gross, it is also pretty easy to address.
1. DO. NOT. RINSE.
Did you hear me? Don’t listen to your grandmother and her grandmother and all the grandmothers who tell you to rinse your poultry. DO NOT RINSE YOUR POULTRY. I’ve got science on my side on this one, Grandma!
Rinsing your poultry – any bird, not just chicken – can actually cause bacteria to aerosolize (how’s that for an image?) and spread around your kitchen up to three feet. Three feet! Within three feet of my sink, I have my spice rack, cooking utensils, coffee pot and my baby’s bottles sitting on a drying rack. What is within three feet of your sink? Yeah…gross, huh?
Plus, it is completely unnecessary. Rinsing poultry does nothing to get rid of most bacteria – the bacteria that it does eliminate are now splashing around your kitchen. What does eliminate bacteria? Proper cooking, which we’ll get to later.
We aren’t the only ones who will tell you this. Our friend, the USDA, agrees. And, from a cook’s perspective, you really want a dry skin on your poultry so it can get it nice and crispy.
2. Avoid cross contamination.
When you handle your chicken, make sure nothing else is around. You don’t want any of those raw chicken juices getting on anything that you can’t immediately clean. If the chicken needs to be trimmed, use a separate cutting board and knife than you plan to use for your veggies. Cross contamination can happen to the best of us, but we should do everything we can to prevent it.
3. Wash your hands.
Wash your hands. Wash your hands. What was that? Wash your hands. You cannot wash your hands too much while handling raw meat. Think about everything you touch while preparing food – utensils, towels, the countertop, your clothes, your body (why does my nose always itch when I’m cutting up chicken?), even the soap dispenser. Washing your hands properly will help keep all that bacteria from making its way onto every item in your kitchen. And if it does get on another surface, wash it.
4. Don’t thaw your chickensicle on the counter.
The raw poultry needs to be kept at 40 degrees. If you thaw it on the counter, the outside (the part that is defrosting the fastest) will likely get warmer than 40 degrees and therefore become more susceptible to bacteria.
Thaw your chicken either in the fridge or in cold water. Another good tip: Put your chicken in a dish while it sits in the fridge. You would hate to find out about that tiny hole in the plastic while it is defrosting… a flood of raw chicken juices in your fridge is not so pretty. Er, so I’ve heard.
5. Cook your chicken to a safe temperature.
This also means getting a good meat thermometer. All poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees. It is that simple, folks. Pay no attention to those popper things that come in some chickens and turkeys. Check the temperature yourself. Unlike with your kids, you actually want your poultry to have a fever of 165.
Remember the two goals I mentioned at the beginning – making delicious food and not making people sick? They can both happen at the same time by following some simple rules. When it comes to safe food handling, it is all about awareness. Be aware of cross contamination, what you touch, and the internal temperature of your food. Follow these rules and your kids will be thankful that they didn’t learn the word “campylobacter” for the first time while at your house.