Do you know which foods you should leave unwashed when you serve them? If you’ve read a number of my food safety posts, you might be surprised that I think you should leave any foods unwashed. But I do.
Many stores and other public places have hand sanitizer freely available for members of the public who enter their buildings. That’s a good thing; it’s smart to avoid spreading germs and illness.
Practicing good hygiene in the kitchen is also smart – keeping hands, kitchen equipment, and preparation areas clean when preparing foods. But did you know that it’s better not to wash or rinse certain foods?
This subject can raise hackles – just check out this post from Michael Ruhlman on whether or not you should rinse chicken. I’m not trying to start a comment war, nor am I claiming that in every instance if you rinse one of these foods, you will make yourself or anyone else sick. I’m simply passing along food safety advice (in most cases, from the agency responsible for it) and the rationale for the advice.
Follow it or don’t. In either event, hopefully you and everyone you cook for will lead a long and healthy life. Like the advice cited in my post on how long you can leave cooked rice unrefrigerated or the one on whether you should refrigerate baked pies, the food safety gurus are simply saying that not following their guidance increases the chances of foodborne illness. Plenty of people don’t follow their recommendations and do just fine.
In fact, when it comes to rinsing poultry, Slate Magazine compiled a list of venerable chefs and food writers who include washing in their cookbook or blogpost instructions and they even cite one of my own gurus, food chemist/expert Harold McGee. The cookbook authors who rinse chicken include everyone from Julia Child to Alton Brown and Marcus Samuelsson.
Some of us are risk takers by nature, when it comes to this and many other topics. Others rinse these foods because that’s the way they have always done it. Still others have rationales for rinsing that make sense, although they may not know the relative risks of rinsing vs. not rinsing. As for me, I’m in the no-rinsing camp. Of course, we can all point to situations in which the experts in one time period are later proved wrong.
The 5 Foods You Should Leave Unwashed (Before Cooking)
- Poultry – fresh or frozen
- Meat (including all types, e.g. beef, lamb, veal, etc.) – fresh or frozen
- Seafood and Fish – fresh or frozen
- Pre-Washed Salads or Other Vegetables
The Rationale for Leaving Them Unwashed
According to the USDA and the FDA, washing poultry, all types of meat, eggs, seafood, and fish is more likely to spread bacteria to your kitchen surfaces (and implements) than it is to help eliminate any bacteria on that food. (Note: The USDA is responsible for poultry, meat and eggs, while the FDA oversees seafood and fish safety. That division of responsibility doesn’t make sense to me, but there it is. The FDA link doesn’t speak precisely to this point about rinsing or washing food. I called the Food and Cosmetic Information Center in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the agency confirmed by telephone that the advice for seafood and fish is the same as that for poultry, meat, and eggs.)
The advice on pre-washed and bagged salads or other vegetables is more mixed. In 2007 a panel from California published an article saying that the risk of cross contamination from re-washing the pre-washed produce outweighed the benefit. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is more circumspect, advising that if you do re-wash the produce, you should take measures to avoid cross contamination. Why is the USDA on the fence about pre-washed produce (when it’s the same issue – cross-contamination) when that agency is so definitive on poultry, meat, and eggs? (It has no jurisdiction over seafood and fish.) – I have no idea and would be interested in hearing from anyone who knows why or has a theory.
Which camp are you in – rinse or not? And why?