Are you planning on washing that raw turkey before roasting it? You might want to think again.

By Carl Hanson

According to a recent study by the food safety experts at the USDA, washing or rinsing raw turkey can put you at risk of foodborne illness. There's only one time you should wash a raw turkey. And that's after you've brined the bird.

Photo by Meredith

In fact, this advice holds true for most raw meats and poultry. Research shows that when you rinse raw meat and poultry, you're not simply washing bacteria safely down the drain, you're actually spreading bacteria around the kitchen.

There's the splash factor, of course. No matter how careful you are, water can splash bacteria "up to 3 feet surrounding your sink," according to Marianne Gravely of the Food Safety Education Staff of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. But even if you've been vigilant about washing your hands after touching the turkey, you can still spread bacteria by accidentally touching, say, a cross-contaminated countertop and then touching the refrigerator door handle, dishes, utensils, towels, table tops, other food, your cell phone, etc.

What to Do Instead of Washing

Just take the turkey directly from package to roasting pan. This way, you limit the mess, and the heat of the oven will kill the bacteria.

Brining the bird in a bag | Photo by Meredith

Which brings us to the exception that proves the rule. When you're brining the bird, you'll want to rinse off the brine before you roast the turkey. Check out How to Brine Turkey and also How to Dry Brine a Turkey.

Safety Tips for Rinsing a Brined Turkey

If you're washing your brined bird, there are a few precautions you can take to reduce the risk of cross contamination and illness.

Save the birds for last. By preparing foods that will not be cooked first, such as vegetables and salads, you decrease your risk of illness. According to a USDA study, 26 percent of people who washed raw poultry transferred that bacteria to their salad lettuce.

Do the dishes. There should be no dishes in the sink or on the counters around the sink. Then clean the sink with hot soapy water and rinse it well. You want to start with a clean workspace.

Clear the decks. Don't have knife blocks, dish towels, sponges, vases holding spatulas, or anything else on the counter, except the roasting pan.

Lay down a bed of paper towels around the sink.

Keep the roasting pan close so you're not dripping water unnecessarily.

Use cold water for rinsing. The USDA recommends filling the sink with a few inches of cold water. Place the bird in the sink, and gently run cold (not warm) water to clean out the cavity. That's the key: rinsing out the cavity. Let the water flow through the cavity.

Hold the bird up to drain thoroughly from the cavity into the sink. And place it carefully on the roasting rack.

Clean up the mess. Toss the paper towels in the trash and before you do anything else wash the sink and countertop with hot soapy water, and follow up with a sanitizer.

Wash you hands. After handling raw meat and poultry, the USDA recommends scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.

Check out our collection of Roast Turkey Recipes.

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