Monday, February 27, 2006

To rinse or not to rinse: that is the question

Alanna Kellogg from Kitchen Parade just asked me a great question about rinsing fish.
Hi Helen,

Do you know why do recipes sometimes (but not always) suggest rinsing filets?

Seems so basic -- I'm guessing it's for health/bacteria reasons but if that's the case, yuck, who wants to eat fish in the first place (is the reaction I have and I'm guessing others as well)?

And if it IS for health/bacteria reasons, then why don't recipes
suggest the same thing for chicken, pork, etc???

Many thanks --

Thanks for a great question, Alanna!

You don't need to rinse fish, chicken, pork, or any other meat before cooking. Not only does it not get rid of bacteria, it spreads bacteria (if water splashes from the sink in the process of rinsing). What kills bacteria much more effectively is cooking.

So why do so many cooks rinse their fish and chickens? Because their mothers used to ;)

Here is a quote from Cook's Illustrated on the subject:
Not only is there no scientific evidence to support your mother's practice, science is actually against you on this one. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as food agencies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, advises against washing poultry. Rinsing chicken will not remove or kill much bacteria, and the splashing of water around the sink can spread the bacteria found in raw chicken. (Cooking poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit effectively destroys the most common culprits behind food-borne illness.)
Fish is not fundamentally different from chicken, so you don't have to rinse it.



Alanna said...

Thanks, Helen, it was great to have a trusted 'go to guy' for this question. Just fyi, mostly, food bloggers know me from A Veggie Venture.

Jennifer said...

I knew it! My mother and I have been arguing about this for years. Thanks for clearing up our disagreement (I can't wait to tell her!)

Erin Eats said...

It makes sense that simply cooking the fish/meat would kill bacteria far more efficiently than rinsing it, yet I've been rinsing it for years. Here's my kick in the pants to pay attention to logic :)

Helen said...

Don't worry guys, you are not alone. I've been rinsing fish and meat religiously until I started working in a restaurant and realized that they don't rinse anything.

If you are looking for an intuitive explanation of why you don't need to rinse, think about this -- you don't rinse ground meat, right? It probably never even occured to you to rinse ground beef, pork, or chicken because the water would get into it, and it'd be impossible to dry properly. So you see, you've been eating unrinsed meat and poultry your whole life. Since you are still here, we'll assume it is safe :)


Miriam said...

Hi Helen,

Just discovered your blog today, and I love it!

I have a further question: many recipes call for salting fish (filets, steaks, whole, the works!) and then rinsing, before cooking. Most of the recipes I get by word-of-mouth also include this step. Important? Relevant? Or just as useless as plain old rinsing?


Helen said...

Hi Miriam,

Hmm, the only recipe I know of that calls for salting then rinsing is gravlax where the salmon is cured in a huge amount of salt. Though I wouldn't rinse even that and just pat it dry with paper towels. Generally, salting and then rinsing is not a good idea. You should definitely salt fish, meat, chicken, etc before cooking, but don't rinse the salt off or it defeats the purpose of salting.


Warrior said...

I don't know where you buy your meat and fish, but if it's wrapped in celophane, both meat and fish develop a gelantinous coating which makes it hard to handle in preparing. Rinsing while rubbing gently gets rid of this coating. Thats why our mothers did it. Sometimes a meat can have a odur that comes from this coating, but once washed off is no longer present.

Helen said...

Hi Warrior,

I don't often buy prepackaged meat, fish, and poultry, but when I do, I just wipe that gelatinous coating off with paper towels.


Anonymous said...

One thing to consider is that chops tend to have a fine coating of tiny bone fragments that I guess could be rinsed off, but I tend to scrape the surface with a knife held at an angle to the meat. Sometimes there is also an errant scale or whatever on fish as well.

Sudesna said...

this is a great blog. Thanks for all your suggestions -very practical and profound. I am a huge fan of fish and poultry (do not eat beef, pork, etc). I found your fish market suggestions very helpful- where do you buy fresh poultry in Boston? Pls let us know- my husband and me- we both miss the simple and fresh poultry we used to eat back home (India)!

Helen said...

Hi Sudesna,

I don't eat much chicken, but when I do, I get it at Russo's and either buy Bell Evans or D'artagnan. both of these brands are available at many butchers (Savenor's, John Dewars, etc).

By the way, thanks for your input on fresh vs. frozen fish debate. It's always great understand the science behind it :)


Anonymous said...

I rinse fish to get the slime off. Surely you don't mean to suggest that rinsing fish is unnecessary. My fish is very high quality and fresh (I live in Alaska) but it still needs a rinse.

Helen said...

Actually, I do mean that you don't need to rinse fish. I only rinse whole fish to get the blood out of the cavity, but I hear even that's not necessary. It's just a cultural preference. In US, we like to rinse proteins, in France they don't (they would never let water touch the fish). Whether you rinse or not, the most important thing is to dry it very thoroughly on paper towels (this will also get rid of the slime :) Cooking a damp fish (or any protein) doesn't work.

ChichaJo said...

You have liberated me! :) Come to think of it, I don't even know if my mother washed her I actually have no idea why I do!

Colored Heart said...

my husband said so too. :)
hi, i really appreciate your site!

fluffernutter said...

I'm a cookbook editor, and we were all having this very discussion some time back. I'm no sanitation freak, but I rinse previously frozen fish and chicken because I assume the packing companies freeze them with liquid that isn't pure H2O but includes other chemicals. I don't know this for sure, and probably wouldn't get a straight answer if I asked, but it seems like a safe assumption.

Anna said...

Actually, I always rinse chicken because that allows me to get rid of extra fat, the slimy film, pieces of bone that are left from butchering, and feathers that might still be left in the skin. (I like leaving the skin on while cooking because I think it keeps chicken moist and delicious, but usually remove it afterward.)
I also rinse fish because there are always scales on the meat side.
Using a paper towel spreads just as much bacteria as a potential water droplet, unless you're careful. So I use the paper towels to dry the meats and use a bleach-based kitchen cleaner to get rid of bacteria.

Coralie said...

Goodness gracious.... I hope to high heaven Anna means she uses a bleach-based cleaners to remove bacteria from her surrounding (potentially 'splashed') work areas!?

Kat said...

I live on a tight budget and therefore tend to buy frozen fish and poultry. I haven't noticed with my fish (the packaging states to cook from frozen in the oven, but I'm going to try something else because it keeps turning out as white mush) When I defrost chicken breasts I always rinse to get rid of the layer of slime which is thicker than with fresh chicken. I find using paper towels to wipe the chicken clean leaves bits of the towel behind so I end up rinsing it anyways!

Roger said...

So glad you are warning not to rinse meat and fish (particularly chicken though) as this really does spread the risk of bacterial contamination.
So many people do this from habit and it is a bad practice.
Just found the blog and find it very interesting and informative.
Thanks you.

Anonymous said...

I do always wash scallops to get rid of grains of sand that they seem to always have.

tightlines said...

I am guessing that this originates from the days when the fish was caught by the household cooking it, and the fillets were washed to remove and blood or dirt. As some one who usually catches my own fish I do always rinse the freshly cut fillets for this reason.

International Student said...

When I clean my chicken, I do wash it with water mixed with lemon or something, so it takes away the chicken smell

Stephen Blevins said...

Hello, I'm probably coming late to the game here but I had a question about cold smoked salmon. Should we rinse it before eating even though it's already cold smoked? It comes out of the air sealed package very oily but I'm not sure if this is OK to eat directly or not. Maybe you recommend to again use a paper towel to get the excess off?

Helen Rennie said...

I wouldn't rinse. The juice around smokes salmon is perfectly safe to eat, but if it's unpleasant, use a paper towel.

pal ashford said...

I know I'm late to this post but the reason I rinse my fish, poultry, lamb, etc. (obviously not ground beef as it's virtually impossible to rinse) or ANY food that I have handled, is to wash off the fat that I've cut off it or the bones I've had to remove, in case I missed some lying on top. When I buy chicken thighs, which I love (breasts are way too dry) there's lots of fat on it that needs to be trimmed and its a mess once its done and needs to be rinsed. The same for other foods that one is "cleaning", meaning trimming off fat, etc. Once rinsed, yes, you have to pat it dry, especially if you're searing a salmon, water it the enemy to a good seae, but I have to disagree about not rinsing after trimming meat, any meat. Especially when you're removing loose scales from a salmon with skin or removing worms from COD, there must be a rinsing off from the debris that's created from the prep you've performed. BTW I just discovered your blog and love it as it's been very helpful with me eating more fish now due to being on the Mediterranean diet. I'm trying to lower my BP and cholesterol naturally so I can get off these annoying meds they put me on. Thanks for all you do, Helen.

Laurie said...

I just read (in an other blog) that you should SOAK salmon in saltwater to get rid of the slime. The blog did not specify how long the salmon should be soaked, but I assume that patting dry with papertowels would still apply. In your opinion is soaking the same as rinsing? Laurie

Helen Rennie said...

Soaking in salt water is called brining. If some blog told you that you do it to get rid of slime, that's wrong. You brine salmon for 2 reasons: even seasoning and preventing the white foam from leaching out of it during cooking. That white foam is the albumin protein (the same as in the egg whites and it looks the same too -- white opaque stuff). Brining will not completely eliminate albumin coagulation, but it will reduce it. After brining anything you dry it off thoroughly on paper towels. If it's wet, it will stick and won't brown. Brining has some benefits. Rinsing has none.

If you are brining, keep in mind that the exact salt content and duration matter. For salmon, try 6% salt to water ratio by weight and keep salmon in that solution for 30 minutes.

Salting ahead (at least 1 and up to 24 hours) will accomplish similar results as brining. When salting ahead, dry your protein off before cooking.

Mr anderson said...

I rinse fish, chicken,,pork not because of bacteria but for the excess goop from the slaughtering n food handling process.

There's nothing wrong with rinsing it then drying it thoroughly than not washing it. Why would you want a layer of junk before putting on some rub or spices.

Plus who knows what's on the piece of meat or fish that will rinse off with a good wash. It only takes a minute so what's the big deal anyways?

Helen Rennie said...

There is no big deal :) If you dry it thoroughly, washing is fine. But the reason it's covered in goop is not a butchering process, but vacuum sealing and chilling poultry in water. The birds I buy are air chilled, so they are not covered in goop. The only thing I wanted people to understand from this post is that washing proteins doesn't make them any safer to eat.

Anonymous said...

Lol I've been rinsing my ground beef and drying it

Anonymous said...

I use salt and lime

Anonymous said...

My understanding was that the purpose of rinsing or washing fish before cooking was to remove smell.

Having recently been told that "they" (that is, I suppose, people who know a lot more and do a lot better at cooking than do I) say it's bad to rinse fish, I thought I would look in to the matter. However, it seems that my understanding was correct and is based on sound chemistry:

Of course, it's clear that if one doesn't mind the smell, then there's no reason to try to get rid of it.

Anonymous said...

If you buy chicken from mass producers, I would recommend washing and drying it. It is adamant in removing the chemical taste. While I would prefer to purchase it free range organic, budget does not usually allow this. From experience, the formaldehyde-like taste is removed from washing. Fish doesn't require this.

NeonAera said...

Don't you remove the health benefits of the blood and slime, if you wash though?

Heh, I'm having a debate with my mom right now; she's like "You have to wash fish, meat, etc before cooking!" I'm like, what's the point? Since I'm gonna boil the meats up or cook it on the pan with medium high heat, it's gonna kill the pathogens anyways and the beneficial nutrients from the natural slime will remain intact and cooked..

Our ways of cooking are sometimes getting in the way of each other sometimes.. frequently leads into arguments.. -_-

Anonymous said...

Hi guys and girls, I'm against rinsing meats especially fish, but someone will ask a question and says, chicken from the slaughter house, transporting to butchers and dealing with them with their hands , some of them they go to the washroom and even they don't wash their hands plus the come I don't wash my whole chicken before I cook it and then I clean my sink with a hot water and soap? Cooking will kill all the bacteria , but the dirt is dirt.

Julijana Ratkovic said...

LOL. I did that the first time I cooked it as well and my mum couldn't stop laughing at me 😆