If holiday meal prep were a recipe, it might call for equal parts "happy anticipation of family gathered to enjoy delicious food" and "mild-to-severe anxiety at the thought of getting everything prepped, cooked, and on the table."
There's no doubt that a to-do list of holiday-entertaining magnitude can be daunting: There's confirming the headcount, assigning who's making what, multiple trips to the grocery store—and we haven't even broached actual food prep yet. (If you need help with your whole planning game, we've got you covered with our Thanksgiving Two-Week Timetable .)
For those of us wondering how we'll ever get it all done, here's a teeny-tiny bit of help: You can strike "wash the turkey" from your to-do list. (We did say "teeny-tiny!")
If rinsing your turkey has been a family tradition as time-honored as meemaw's secret gravy recipe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you cease and desist. If this poultry practice is commonplace in your home, you are not alone. Even the CDC acknowledges that it's hard to make changes: "Federal food safety advice has recommended against washing turkey or chicken since 2005, but some habits are hard to break."
And a recent survey found that 78% of respondents still wash their turkeys (2020 Porter Novelli Consumer Styles Survey). That's a lot of unnecessary bird baths.
Here's why you should just-about-never wash your bird, and the one-and-only circumstance when you should. And here is everything you need to know beyond rinsing, when it comes to selecting, thawing , and cooking your turkey .
Should You Wash a Raw Turkey?
You should never wash a raw turkey, unless you have brined it and are rinsing it of brine before cooking. Otherwise it's a no-no.
"Old recipes and family cooking traditions may tempt you to keep this practice going, but it can make you and your family sick," according to the CDC. "Poultry juices can spread in the kitchen and contaminate other foods, utensils, and countertops."
Some cooks may mistakenly think that rinsing poultry can help rid it of bacteria and make it safe for cooking and consumption. This is unnecessary and can actually increase the chances of your family getting sick if other food comes in contact with moisture from the raw turkey.
If a turkey has gone "bad," rinsing it will not make it edible, says Chef Fred Tiess, master instructor in the college of Food Innovation and Technology at Johnson and Wales University 's Charlotte campus. If the bird smells off, it likely means there was a packaging issue or it was thawed improperly, and it should be discarded.
Here is how Tiess transfers raw turkey from wrapper to roasting pan to minimize cross contamination:
- Clean your sink well and wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.
- Remove the turkey from its wrapper in the sink. This keeps any liquid from the turkey contained in the sink versus transferring bacteria to the countertop or a cutting board, which could come in contact with other food later.
- Remove giblets and the neck from the turkey cavity and set aside. (Tiess recommends roasting them separately with mirepoix and adding to a stock or dressing.)
- If the turkey is moist, dab the exterior and inside the cavity with clean paper towels to remove excess moisture.
- Place the turkey in a large roasting pan.
- Thoroughly clean your sink.
Is There EVER a Time You Should Wash a Raw Turkey?
The only time you should rinse your turkey is after brining and before cooking. Tiess recommends bringing your turkey in a bringing bag, like these from Amazon . Here is our guide to brining a turkey , and below are Tiess's steps to rinse your bird post-brine:
- Clean your sink well and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
- Place the bag with turkey and brine in the sink, and cut a hole in the bottom corner of the bag. This will allow the brining liquid to slowly drain from the turkey without splashing out of the sink.
- Fill a 12-quart stockpot halfway with water and transfer the turkey (still in the drained bag) to the 12-quart stockpot and fill with more water until the turkey is submerged. Remove the bag while the turkey is submerged.
- Carefully drain the water from the stock pot by slowly pouring it into the sink.
- Remove the turkey from the pot and pat it dry with paper towels.
- If you are roasting the turkey, apply any fat and flavoring. If you are frying, ensure the turkey is as dry as possible (failing to do so may cause an explosion; we've all seen the YouTube videos!) and do not season further, as it will simply burn off during the frying process.
- Disinfect your sink and wash your hands.
What Should I Do if I Need to Put My Raw Turkey on the Counter?
You should be able to prep your bird in the sink versus putting it on the counter or a cutting board, but if you must, follow these guidelines from the CDC:
- Use a separate cutting board for raw turkey.
- Never place cooked food or fresh produce on a plate, cutting board, or other surface that held raw turkey.
- Wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing raw turkey and before you prepare the next item.