As you begin preparing your Thanksgiving dinner, a word of advice: don't wash your turkey. Not only is giving your bird a rinse in the sink unnecessary, experts say it's also dangerous and could make you sick.
If you're unfamiliar, no, "washing your turkey" is not a euphemism for anything. In fact, millions of Americans rinse off their raw chickens and turkeys in the sink before cooking them, according to Jennifer Quinlan, a professor in the Nutrition Sciences department at Drexel University.
I was pretty stunned to learn this, as I've never heard of anyone performing this ritual. Quinlan explained that that was likely due to my age.
"Traditionally, it wouldn't have been as clean as it is today, due to the fact that poultry processing has changed a great deal over the last 20 years," Quinlan explained. "Fifty years ago you might have had to wash stuff off your chicken. It would have been a little more bloodier, fat pieces, things like that."
In fact, even Julia Child recommended rinsing raw poultry because, she said, "I just think it's the safer thing to do." But Child actually got it backwards: experts like Quinlan, and the United States Department of Agriculture, advise not to rinse poultry, because it could spread harmful bacteria throughout your kitchen.
When the water from the tap hits the turkey skin, some of it bounces off, and those water droplets can bring bacteria such as salmonella or Campylobacter along for the ride. Though you might take the precaution to disinfect the area right around your sink, Quinlan told me the droplets can fly as far as three feet away, contaminating surfaces you might not think to wipe down. If you then prepare other food there, you could contaminate it and get sick—both salmonella and Campylobacter can cause food-borne illnesses.
It doesn't matter how gently you wash your turkey, either, Quinlan said.
"You might not think it's spraying, but it's such minor particles that the bacteria can travel in, that you might have it going outside of the sink," Quinlan said.
And if your rinsing ritual is intended to clean the bacteria off your turkey, it's a futile effort: along with spreading bacteria around your kitchen, research has shown rinsing doesn't even remove the bacteria on the turkey anyway—even after 40 rinses.
So what should you do instead? Quinlan recommends placing the turkey directly into the roasting pan from the package. Cooking it thoroughly—the USDA recommends cooking the bird to an internal temperature of at least 165 F—will kill off any bacteria much more effectively than rinsing, anyway.
If you like to brine your bird, you can still do that, but be very cautious, Quinlan said. Treat the brine as if it's contaminated as soon as the turkey goes in, and dispose of the brine very carefully directly down the drain when you're done, making sure to disinfect your sink and the pot afterwards.
"Brining does, a little bit, increase your risk because now you've got a big pot of water potentially contaminated," Quinlan said. "It's a lot of work so to me it's just a good reason not to go through all the work."
Quinlan told me even with this information, some people still like to wash their turkeys, but she and other food safety experts just want to make sure you're informed. Ultimately, it's your choice of course, but skipping the sink does reduce your risk of spreading bacteria. Or you could always just opt for the tofurkey.