America’s favorite bird can trip you up in the kitchen.
It almost goes without saying: Americans love chicken. Each year, the average American eats more than 90 pounds of the bird.
Simple-to-prepare cuts like boneless, skinless chicken breasts and pre-sliced cutlets and tenders reign supreme in popularity. Less expensive poultry picks like chicken thighs and drumsticks still cluck along in favorite dishes, from fried chicken to baked casseroles.
However, many home cooks may not realize the simple—but potentially dangerous—mistakes they’re making with raw chicken. If not handled correctly, you may set yourself and your family up for some seriously sad tummy troubles.
Here, 10 mistakes even experienced home cooks make with raw chicken.
Storing chicken improperly
The tiny drawing of a turkey on your refrigerator shelf may seem like a helpful hint for picking where you should store your cellophane-wrapped packages of poultry. That’s not always the best indicator, however.
Chicken juices tend to leak and drip from packages, which means if it’s stored on a shelf above ready-to-eat foods like fruits and vegetables, you could contaminate a great deal of the food in your fridge.
Solution: Place chicken packages on a plate or in a casserole dish, and store them on the bottom shelf or in the bottom drawer of your fridge. The plate will capture any juices that leak, protecting everything else you have stored.
We don’t mean to go all food safety police here, but this is one of the most dangerous—and most common—mistakes you can make with your raw chicken. At room temperature, the bacteria in these birds can quickly multiple. Salmonella is especially prolific at these warmer temps. If you leave chicken out too long—such as you might when you’re thawing it for tonight’s dinner—you could set up camp for bacteria that will result in foodborne illness (i.e. food poisoning).
Solution: Don’t put frozen chicken on the counter or in the sink to thaw. While the center of the chicken is ice cold, the outer portions will be too warm to stop bacterial growth. Instead, thaw the chicken in your fridge up to two days ahead of when you plan to cook with it. That will give the chicken’s thickest parts plenty of time to de-ice while keeping the outside portions chilled—and more importantly, safe.
Not letting chicken warm up a bit
After the last raw chicken mistake, this may seem counterintuitive, but hear us out: You don’t want to leave chicken out too long (remember, food poisoning), but you also don’t want to cook it straight from the fridge.
A 15-minute sit at room temperature will make the chicken cook more evenly, helping you avoid a brown outside with a raw, undercooked inside.
Solution: When you’re gathering all of the ingredients for dinner, go ahead and take the chicken (in the plate or dish where it’s stored) out of the fridge. Let it sit for no more than 15 minutes.
Rinsing chicken before you cook it
If you give your birds a bath before you bake them, it’s time to stop. Raw chicken doesn’t need to be—and should not be—rinsed before cooking. You may think you’re rinsing away bacteria—salmonella is a big concern with chicken—but you may actually just be spreading it. In fact, research suggests you may splash bacteria as far as three feet from your sink when you rinse poultry.
Solution: Skip the bath. Cook chicken directly from the package, and you’ll cut down on possible contamination around your kitchen.
Not drying your chicken
Didn’t we just tell you not to wash chicken? We did. But you should definitely dry your chicken before you cook it.
That’s because fluids from processing and packaging—chicken is often washed in a saline solution to keep it looking moist when on the shelf—can make your chicken soggy when you put it right into the pan. A dry bird gets more beautiful browning and a wonderfully crisp sear.
Solution: Before you put the chicken in the pan or on the grill, give it a quick dab with paper towels. Better yet, let the chicken air-dry in the refrigerator for a few hours. To do this, you’ll place the chicken on a tray or platter and leave it, uncovered, in your fridge. The air will wick away moisture from the skin of the chicken, leaving it nice and dry for crisp searing. (Dry brining is a popular technique for getting really crispy turkey skin at Thanksgiving.)
WATCH: How to Make Skillet Chicken With Roasted Potatoes
Marinating your chicken the wrong way
Marinating is a great technique for adding flavor with minimal effort. You need only combine your chicken pieces with your homemade (or, OK, store-bought) marinade and let it rest for several hours before it’s time to cook it.
However, you’re making a big mistake if you leave your chicken on the counter to marinade while you prepare all the other components for your meal. You could set yourself up for a foodborne illness.
Solution: Once you have your marinade, pour it into a zip-top bag or container that closes. (A lidded container is fine as long as the lid won’t fly off.) Then, add your chicken. Toss gently to coat the chicken in the marinade, and immediately put it back into the fridge. Toss or flip the chicken a few more times to get all pieces of chicken evenly coated.
When you’re finished with the marinade, throw the bag right into the trash or empty it from the container down the sink. Marinade that has come into contact with raw chicken is not reusable, even if you boil it. It’s just too risky. Instead, save some of your marinade before you combine it with the chicken, and use it for a last-second brushing before serving.
Raw chicken comes into contact with other foods
If space is at a premium in your petite kitchen, you may be tempted to reuse surfaces (i.e. cutting boards) to keep from dirtying up extra dishes. Don’t do it.
Chop raw chicken on a separate prep board from other ingredients you might be slicing or mincing for your meal. If you chop kale on the same board you sliced chicken, you could cross-contaminate the leafy greens with juices from the bird. That’s possible even if you wipe the board down with a sanitizing towel. Bacteria are just too difficult to eliminate without a high-temperature wash, like that of a dishwasher.
Reusing kitchen tools without washing
If you use the same tongs to flip raw chicken as you do to toss the side salad you’ve prepared, you may be cross contaminating your raw ingredients with the bacteria from your raw chicken. This increases your risk for foodborne illnesses and food poisoning.
Solution: You need to set aside all utensils that come into contact with raw meat, and don’t use them for other foods. Then, you should wash them thoroughly after each use so as to prevent the spread of poultry juices.
Not washing your hands after handling raw chicken
Your hands are the most useful tool you have in your kitchen. They’re also the most likely to spread bacteria.
Indeed, you may easily cross-contaminate your entire kitchen if you use your dirty hands to handle chicken, turn on a sink, grab a fork from the drawer, and open the refrigerator. Each surface you come into contact with may now habor potentially deadly bacteria.
Solution: Take extra care to notice what and where you touch after handling raw chicken. Better yet, “save” one hand for non-chicken related tasks. As soon as you’ve flipped the chicken or put it in the bag for marinating, use your non-chicken hand to turn on the faucet at the sink and pump some soap. Wash your hands thoroughly, and dry with a clean towel. Don’t use a towel you’ve used to wipe down surfaces around your kitchen, or you could pick up any bacteria the towel is hiding.
Ripping skin off the meat with your hands
If you’ve tried tugging chicken skin off breasts, thighs, or drumsticks before cooking them, you know how slippery those pieces can be. One stuck-on piece of sinew, and your main course may be sent flying into the floor.
It’s also smart to leave skin on cuts like thighs and drumsticks because the fat can infuse the meat with flavor during the cooking process. You can just remove the skin before serving.
Solution: Give your grippers a rest and use a paring knife instead. The short knives are easy to grip and quickly cut away at the tough tissue. They can also be easier to handle, which reduces the risk of losing any precious meat during the trimming process.