How To: Water, Lemon Juice, Vinegar, or Nothing: Should You Even Bother Rinsing Chicken?

Water, Lemon Juice, Vinegar, or Nothing: Should You Even Bother Rinsing Chicken?

Water, Lemon Juice, Vinegar, or Nothing: Should You Even Bother Rinsing Chicken?

There's an ongoing debate about whether or not it's safe or even desirable to rinse meat before you cook it. Many fall into the anti-rinsing camp, saying that it's not effective at dislodging bacteria, especially on poultry, as we've discussed before. Meanwhile, some argue that rinsing certain meats, like bacon, could be beneficial since it possibly prevents it from shrinking.

Washing Meat with a Gentle Acid: A Time-Honored Technique

However, in the West Indies/Caribbean, there's a common practice of rinsing off chicken and fish with a mild acid like lemon or lime juice or vinegar prior to cooking.

Chicken legs soaking for a few minutes in a vinegar/water bath. Image via Dominican Flavor

Before everyone owned a refrigerator, cooks would apply an acidic solution because they believed it killed any bacteria on the bird and to impart a little extra flavor. Currently, many folks use this same technique to get rid of any odors, specifically the chilly, overly refrigerated or chlorinated aroma some chickens accrue after being shipped from the farm to the market in air-conditioned trucks.

Haitian stewed chicken (poule en sauce) calls for the chicken to be washed with sour orange juice or vinegar before cooking. Image via Haitian Cooking

Over at Chowhound, users point out that rinsing your bird in vinegar or lemon juice can be a test to see if the meat is still good. If the chicken smells "off" even after its vinegar or lemon juice bath, chances are it's not okay to cook.

Carlos Cuisine describes this technique as a common one in Haitian cooking with a few advantages: it tenderizes meat, cuts down on cooking time, and lets you store chicken for a little longer in the fridge if you end up not cooking it the day you prep it.

However, keep in mind that leaving an acid on the surface of the meat will actually lightly cook it and make it tough, so you want to rinse off your acid solution before storing your poultry for any length of time.

The FDA & Food Safety Experts Beg to Differ

And while the FDA currently does recommend against rinsing chicken, a user at Reddit points out that they used to recommend the exact opposite. In fact, most of my cookbooks (especially the ones that were published pre-1980), almost always recommend rinsing and drying meat before cooking it. CNN has a fun history of chicken-washing in famous cookbooks if you want to learn even more.

Washing chicken started to fall out of fashion fairly recently, but many venerated cookbooks used to call for it. Image by Molly Balint/Baby Center

NPR interviewed food safety researcher Jennifer Quinlan of Drexel University, who says that the practice of rinsing chickens in vinegar or lemon juice doesn't kill pathogens on the bird. She also points out that if your chicken has a chlorinated smell, it's time to get your chickens from somewhere else (that chlorine indicates the birds were dunked in a solution to make them last longer).

Most cooking and food safety experts currently agree that cooking your meat to certain internal temperatures is the best way to ensure all harmful bacteria and pathogens are killed. And while to vinegar rinse or not vinegar rinse your meat remains up for debate, it most definitely has a positive effect on washing your produce properly.

What's your opinion? To rinse or not to rinse?

Cover image via Sandra Soffitto

7 Comments

As a West Indian, I must wash my chicken with lemon (or vinegar or flour as a last resort) it makes a huge difference in how the chicken taste.

Flour? You give it a light coating to neutralize any odors?

I'm Trinidadian and my father always taught me to clean up my chicken because it's important. I usually take off any film, skin (depending on the recipe), any vertebrae guts, etc. Then I cut a lime in half a squeeze it over the chicken then scrub it with the fleshy part of the lime, THEN I soak it in vinegar and water. Mostly because the vinegar helps disintegrate fat off of the meat! There's nothing worse than fatty chicken thighs.

Well first of all, fresh clean chicken should have relatively no "smell or odor" so I always start by giving it a good run by the old nose first after a visual inspection. If there was any "gas" or bubbling to the package...nix it..not fit for consumption.

To count on citrus fruit or vinegar rinses to kill OBVIOUS pathogens just isn't smart because the pathogen has more than likely penetrated deeper into the flesh of your meat, fish or chicken. But that said, I do make a great citrus marinade that contains raw apple cider vinegar, garlic, onions, shallots, lemon juice, orange juice, pineapple juice, lime juice, several types and forms of chili and other spices, herbs and peppers...I let it soak a few hours while IN THE REFRIGERATOR... then grill it up...ummm..delicious! Never had the chicken "cook" due to the acid content of the citrus or any other ingredient I used.

I would never count on bathing or marinades to destroy an obviously contaminated chicken, fish or meat...just asking for a lot of trouble.

I always soak my chicken breast, legs, thighs whatever in a vinegar and lemon juice bath with water, it's 1/3 vinegar, 1/3 lemon juice, 1/3 water for at least 15 but's 30 minutes is recommended for maximum flavor and cleaner chicken. Yes it does make a difference, the chicken feels cleaner once they are rinsed off and the knife cuts through the flesh like butter because the vinegar, lemon juice, water bath has tenderized the chicken as well as cleaning it, it's just good to put your chicken in a bath like this for 30 minutes.

I have a friend that takes at least 10 minutes to clean one piece of chicken. She pulls off every piece of fat and even separates the the skin from the flesh to get anything under the skin. I maintain that this is overkill. The chicken doesn't fry well and lacks taste. is this my imagination?

I know I'm not the only one! I'm from the deep south "soul food" I was taught and yes this and others opinions are subjective to this topic we use quarter cup salt and two FL ounce of Apple cider vinegar two quarts filled with ice water ,we soak our chickens pull all the fat makes it cleaner 30 mins then rinse with cold water Pat dry and add herb and spice mix marinade dry rub chill in fridge 12 to 24 hrs really moist and tender

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