Fact Check: Do You Need to Wash Salmon Before Cooking?

For many years, there’s been a debate in the kitchens of many families (myself included). First, it was the long-held belief that you should wash chicken before cooking. That myth was debunked by many professional chefs and even government food safety officials. But another question still lingers: Do you need to wash salmon before cooking?

Unless you’re fishing for the salmon yourself or purchasing it from a fishmonger, you're likely picking up a package from your local grocery store. Some salmon is vacuum sealed, but most fillets are sold on those styrofoam trays in the meat department. After all of the stages of food handling, it makes sense to want to “clean” it up, right?

There are certainly long-standing cultural beliefs about washing meat and fish, but for the average cook preparing a meal, is it really necessary? We’re here to separate fact from fiction. And to do just that, we reached out to a food safety expert from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to guide you on what to do before you cook up your favorite salmon recipe.

Related: How to Make the Best-Ever Baked Salmon, According to Chef Jacques Pépin

Raw salmon<p>iStock</p>
Raw salmon


So, Should You Wash Salmon Before Cooking?

The answer is no. And by washing, we mean rinsing under water. I’ve seen social media videos of individuals washing raw meat with dish soap and water. Definitely don’t do that.

According to Meredith Carothers, MPH, Public Affairs Specialist of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, “the safest way to avoid foodborne illness from washing salmon is to avoid washing it all together. However, if you do choose to wash your salmon before cooking, you need to ensure you fully clean and sanitize the sink and surrounding areas after.” Even so, you risk spreading germs.

A 2019 Food Safety Consumer Research Project report from the USDA revealed that “among poultry washers, 60% had bacteria in their sink after washing or rinsing. Even more concerning, 14% still had bacteria in their sinks after they attempted to clean or sanitize the sink. Since cleaning and sanitizing can be difficult, and there’s no way to reasonably confirm that the bacteria has been removed (since foodborne illness bacteria can’t be seen), it’s safest not to wash at all.”

Related: Jane Fonda's Salmon With Sweet Corn Relish Is the Ultimate Simple Summer Dinner

What Are the Potential Risks of Washing Salmon Before Cooking?

As noted, washing salmon (just like chicken) can contaminate your sink, nearby dishes and yourself. I don’t think you want to drink from a cup splashed with salmon juice, right? And cross-contamination can really get you and your family sick.

Carothers further explains that “in order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness after washing raw meat, poultry, or fish, it’s necessary to fully clean and sanitize those surfaces. Unfortunately, cleaning and sanitizing might not always be successful in fully removing the bacteria, which is why washing is overall a risky practice.”

Related: The Secret Ingredient for Making Salmon That Tastes Like It Came From a Restaurant



How Should Raw Salmon Be Handled?

As with any raw meat, start by washing your hands with soap and water. Don’t forget to remove the dirt underneath your fingernails. You could also use food-safe gloves, but washing your hands is just another step to kill germs. Then, set up your cooking preparation area away from other food to avoid cross-contamination.

If you need to know how to tell if your salmon is cooked properly, a foolproof way is to invest in a food thermometer. Fully cooked salmon reaches a minimum internal temperature of 145°F.

Related: Should You Wash Chicken? Food Experts Settle the Age-Old Debate

Is There a Cooking Preparation Method That Would Require Salmon to be Washed?

Regarding any specific types of preparation or cooking methods for salmon that would require washing beforehand, Carothers states that there are no “safety reasons” why it’s necessary.

The only prep she suggests is patting the surface of raw salmon dry if you want to remove any of the moisture on top of the fish.

Why Do Some Cultures Wash Proteins?

Several cultures believe in the practice of washing proteins because it's associated with cleanliness and purity. For instance, many Caribbean households rinse their meat and fish with an acid like vinegar, lime or lemon to remove any excess debris and to tenderize the meat. Another reason is that the idea is passed down. Grandma washed her chicken, so certainly we should, too, right? Sorry Nana.

Historically, washing meat was necessary to remove any visible dirt or blood, but our country’s food safety guidelines have come a long way. Regardless, we would never tell anyone to push aside their cultural beliefs. But from a food safety standpoint, the experts have made this topic very clear—don’t wash your proteins.


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