Look, we get it. Slimy, raw meat can be off putting and it’s understandable to think washing off some of the excess “slime” might actually make the cooking process safer. However, according to experts, the exact opposite is more likely to happen.
According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, washing your meat before cooking actually increases your risk of contamination. Think about it: you’re touching the meat, you’re touching your faucet, water droplets are running off your meat and into your sink — potentially even splashing onto your counters or clothes — and now, suddenly, instead of just having the bacteria on your hands from touching the meat…it’s all over your kitchen. Since the bacteria isn’t visible, you could be unknowingly contaminating yourself or your loved ones.
Further, washing your meat is a completely unnecessary step in the cooking process. Just ask any chef! In fact, washing meat may actually reduce the quality of your final cooked product since excess moisture can inhibit searing and affect the texture.
So, what should you do instead?
In many cases, the answer is nothing! You can remove meat from the packaging and place it directly in your cooking vessel — whether a pan, pot or slow cooker. Then simply dispose of the packaging and thoroughly wash your hands, as well as any surfaces the meat touched, like cutting boards or counter tops.
However, there are some chefs who advocate for patting meat dry with a paper towel prior to cooking. This can be a helpful step to improve browning if your chicken or steaks are holding some extra moisture. Just make sure you immediately dispose of the paper towels and (again) wash your hands. While this step may optimize your cooking process, it isn’t necessary to achieve good results. As long as your meat is fresh, the natural moisture level shouldn’t be a hinder to cooking.
Of course, regardless of what you do with meat before you begin cooking, it’s important to be extra careful. Cross contamination is no joke — and bacterial diseases from raw meat are nothing to take lightly. Raw chicken is often contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria or Salmonella, both of which can cause serious food poisoning and illnesses. To ensure your kitchen stays safe and clean, take extra precautions when handling raw meat and use a meat thermometer to ensure the inside of your meat reaches a safe temperature. Pro tip: purchase a cutting board exclusively for raw meat — ideally a plastic or silicon one so it can be properly sanitized.
So, if you’ve been guilty of washing meat before, it’s time to break the habit. Here’s the good news though: with fewer steps in the cooking process, you’ll get dinner on the table sooner.