Cooking raw chicken isn’t for the faint of heart. Poultry recalls are a common occurrence these days, as chicken can carry bacteria like salmonella and campylobacter that can play some nasty tricks on our digestive systems (or worse, kill us). Cooking chicken also presents the unpleasant reality of dealing with a dead bird. A pale, slimy, dismembered bird.
And yet, Americans ate an estimated record 93 pounds of chicken per person in 2018.
Since so many home cooks turn to chicken as a weeknight staple, let’s ease the fears we have about handling raw chicken. We gathered some of the most-asked questions and sought answers from a trusted expert: the United States Department of Agriculture. We talked to Adam Ghering, a public affairs specialist at the USDA. While he now works in consumer education, he began his career in a chicken slaughter facility, so he knows a thing or two about handling poultry.
Let’s get to your questions!
1. I need to know about cutting boards that I’ve used for raw chicken. How do experts say I’m supposed to clean them vs. what’s the realistic way I will ACTUALLY be most likely to clean them in real life?
It’s a simple, two-step process. “Clean and then sanitize,” Ghering advised. “When you clean it, the soap sticks to the bacteria and you can physically remove it. But if you can’t get all of it, sanitizing will destroy any of the remaining bacteria or microbes.”
To clean your cutting board, give it a good scrub with basic kitchen soap and water. Next, sanitize the board, typically by wiping it with a cloth that’s been soaked in a mixture of one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water. (You can also use sanitizing products such as wipes, but make sure to read the instructions ― you’ll often need to rinse with water afterward.) Restaurant kitchens keep a small bucket of sanitizing solution handy for wiping down counters, and it’s a practice that works well in home kitchens, too.
2. What kind of material should the cutting board be made of?
If you clean and sanitize your board using the methods above, Ghering said all materials are safe for raw chicken. The choice really comes down to personal preference and how much effort you’re willing to spend cleaning the surface.
“Basically it boils down to this: If I were a little microbe, is there somewhere that I can live on that cutting board?” Ghering explained. “Think about whether there’s a way to physically remove that with a scrubbing brush or put it in the dishwasher with water that’s hot enough to destroy it.”
A wood cutting board, for example, is porous and will take more elbow grease to scrub down than a ceramic one.
3. If I put raw chicken on a plastic cutting board, can I then clean it in the dishwasher?
Yes. “A lot of dishwashers have a sanitize setting, to where the water is almost to the point of boiling, hitting the dishes for a long enough time that you’re destroying the bacteria,” Ghering said.
4. Is it worth having a separate chicken cutting board? Does it make a difference?
You don’t need one, but “I personally do like it, yes,” Ghering said. “If you have the money and the space in your kitchen, it’s recommended. It doesn’t necessarily make a difference in sanitation if you’re properly cleaning and sanitizing it, but it helps with time if you’re chopping vegetables and meat in one meal. You can chop your chicken and then without having to immediately clean the cutting board, you can use another board to cut your cucumbers.”
5. Let’s say you open a pack of raw chicken but don’t cook it all. What’s the best way to store it in the fridge? And then can you keep reusing that zip-seal bag every time you get a new pack of chicken?
“A zip-seal bag is fine for your refrigerator, or even a Tupperware container,” Ghering said. “If you put raw chicken in the freezer, it’s important to actually use a freezer bag to make sure no air penetrates the bag. Butcher paper also works really well for meat in the freezer, if you can wrap it tightly.”
But do NOT re-use zip-seal bags that have contained raw chicken! “That bag is contaminated after two days, and you’ll have bacteria growth,” Ghering said. “You really don’t want that in the refrigerator any longer than two days.”
6. How long can you store raw chicken in the refrigerator?
For optimal safety and quality, keep raw chicken in the refrigerator no longer than two days. (While the meat might still be safe up to five days in the fridge, the quality will decrease and it won’t taste as good.)
However, it’s common to go to the grocery store on July 15 and see a “sell by” date of July 19. Why does raw chicken last four days in the grocery store and only two at home? “That’s because in grocery stores, coolers are set close to 32 degrees Fahrenheit (home refrigerators are around 40 degrees), so it keeps the meat fresher longer,” Ghering said.
7. If I’m handling raw chicken with both hands and need to turn on the faucet to wash my hands, what do I do?
Essentially, Ghering said not to worry. “If you’re washing your hands after handling raw chicken, that’s the most important thing to do and make sure you’re not contaminating anything else. If you can limit that contamination to your sink handle and sink, that’s ideal. If you just wash your faucet handle with soap and water, you’ll be fine.”
8. If some raw chicken falls into the sink, do I really need to clean the sink too?
“Yes!” Ghering said. “We’ve done some research at the USDA that we’re still finalizing, but we’re seeing a lot of people getting the sink contaminated. It’s an area that’s still part of the kitchen prep area, and a lot of utensils and dishes go in the sink. A lot of people don’t think about it as a food prep area, but it is. Any time you contaminate it, you want to clean and then sanitize it.”
9. When you wash a dish that’s touched raw chicken, is your sponge then contaminated? Do you need to do anything special to the sponge or get a new one?
“No, you don’t have to throw it away,” Ghering said. “If you clean the sponge with soap and let it dry completely, you’re doing well to keep bacteria from growing. And then you can microwave the sponge and destroy any of the bacteria microbes that are on the sponge.”
10. What’s the deal with rinsing raw chicken? Are we supposed to do it or not?
“No. We don’t recommend that,” Ghering said.
Why are people still doing it? “I think a lot stems from people not understanding what raw chicken is, and what people see as ‘goo’ on it,” he said. “They think washing it will make it get up to the standard they expect, but it’s important to remember that just like humans, 70% of the chicken is made of water and they’ll have a good amount of residual fluid.”
In fact, washing raw chicken isn’t a safe choice, Ghering said, because “any time you handle that raw chicken, you have a higher chance of cross-contaminating your sink because the bacteria will spray all over the sink. As soon as you wash the chicken, you’ll have to clean and sanitize your sink.”
If there is some “goo” or bone dust (which you’ll sometimes find after saws cut through the chicken’s bones), simply dab it off with a damp paper towel and immediately throw the towel in the trash.
11. What’s the best way to clean knives and tools that have touched raw chicken?
Just like the cutting board, you should clean and sanitize those knives.
“If you’re worried about dulling knife blades, stay away from hard scrubbers or abrasive products,” Ghering said. “You can use a washcloth with soap on it and then dip it into a sanitizer. In some beef slaughtering facilities, they dip their knives into boiling water for about 10 seconds.”
12. If I’m cooking chicken in a skillet and using a tool to move it around in the pan, does that utensil need to be ditched at some point in the cooking process? If so, at what point should that happen?
Ghering said that realistically, “As long as you’ve cooked the surface of the chicken, even if it’s uncooked internally, you won’t necessarily have excess bacteria on the surface.”
So once the outside of the chicken is cooked, you can give your utensil a quick wash with soap and water and keep using it to handle the meat.
13. How many days can cooked chicken be kept in the fridge?
Three to four days.
14. How long can you freeze raw and cooked chicken?
Chicken is safe essentially forever in the freezer, but to maintain the best quality, freeze raw chicken for up to nine months and cooked chicken for two to three months.
15. Let’s say I wait five days to cook my raw chicken. Does that mean my cooked leftovers won’t last as long in the freezer?
No. “As soon as you cook it, you restart your timeline,” Ghering said.
16. Can I refreeze raw chicken after it’s already been thawed?
It depends on how you thawed it! Ghering said that if you thaw chicken in the microwave or under running water, you should never refreeze it. But if you thawed it in the refrigerator, you’re free to refreeze.
17. Sometimes the chicken I get in restaurants still looks slightly pink and I freak out. How do I know if it’s undercooked?
In general, the USDA recommends poultry be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, “but even then you still might have a little pink, or the juices might not run clear. And that’s especially true with larger whole chickens,” Ghering said. His advice is to ask the waitstaff what temperature the chicken was cooked to. If they don’t know the answer, then you should worry.
18. Am I really going to die if I’m not especially careful about any of this? What are the true risks?
Ghering said you shouldn’t necessarily be worried, but that “it’s good for people to be aware of the risks. There are a lot of risks to certain individuals ― children under 5, pregnant women, people with diabetes and cancer, adults over 65. You never want to be the individual who gets other people sick.”
Most of the issues you’ll experience due to foodborne illness from raw chicken (usually related to salmonella or campylobacter) are gastrointestinal, he said. Think diarrhea, vomiting and so on.
“For a lot of healthy adults, it’s not necessarily going to be life-threatening, but for most people, it’s a very unpleasant couple of hours,” Ghering said. “It’s a deadly risk to some folks, but it’s preventable.”