Chicken Phobic
March 26, 2013 1:47 PM   Subscribe

I have taken the fear of salmonella to new levels. Explain to me how to cook and store chicken please!

I'm trying to cook more and lose a little weight. Lean chicken is a good option for this of course, but I have a somewhat irrational fear of salmonella and spoilage. I am crazy ocd about cleaning all the surfaces that touch the chicken if I cook it and I have no clue about how to freeze uncooked chicken for later use. Once it's in the freezer, I don't know how to properly defrost it and safely cook and eat it (once defrosted, how long can it be in the fridge prior to cooking, etc). I mostly cook chicken breasts.

At this point, I've realized I avoid cooking chicken because I perceive it to be insanely time consuming to prep (thanks to having to hose down my kitchen in case I touched a button after touching the chicken or something ridiculous) or throwing away chicken I don't cook fast enough and had to freeze for fear of spoilage.

posted by amycup to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
People are going to come in here with a dozen comments that say you're gonna be totally fine and are way overthinking it, so here's what I do, from one chicken-(semi)phobe to another:

-wash hands
-set aside a few rectangles of saran wrap, somewhere away from the immediate area
-take chicken out of plastic pallet thing
-rinse the chicken you're going to cook under cool water
-place rinsed chicken on a a square of paper towels
-take chicken you're not going to cook and place it on the saran wrap
-wash hands
-wrap up extra chicken, put it in a dated ziplock, toss in freezer
-pat the rinsed chicken dry
-wash hands
-sprinkle seasoning onto chicken and prep cooking pan
-rub seasoning onto chicken, place in pan to cook
-clear up workspace, throw away plastic pallet, paper towels, etc
-clorox wipe the countertop
-wash hands
-proceed with cooking chicken

This may be overkill, I don't know. I don't really care. It's just my system. I kind of hate chicken, though, so I don't really cook it much. Fish and land mammals are way less gross to me, so the prep for them isn't nearly as obnoxious.

For frozen chicken, I just decide I want to eat it a day or two before and pull a saran-wrapped breast or two out of the freezer (from that ziplock I mentioned earlier) and put them on a plate in my fridge to thaw. Once they're thaw, proceed as above.
posted by phunniemee at 1:59 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

When you buy chicken at the store, it will have a use by date. Use it or freeze it by that date.

If you're freezing, I recommend wrapping in two sheets of plastic wrap, then a sheet of tinfoil. The less air that contacts the meat, the less freezer burn. I find it easiest to put out a few clean sheets of plastic wrap, carefully deposit the chicken breasts in each one (one each, that is), and then wash my hands. It's easy to wrap the first sheet without re-contaminating, and then I do the second sheet and tinfoil. To thaw, I just put it in the fridge overnight.

Once thawed, you should theoretically have the remaining "use by" time before you froze the chicken. I.e., if you bought on day 1, package said use by day 4, you freeze on day 2--you should have 2 days in the fridge once you thaw. Personally, I tend to use it the day I thaw it, but just because it's easy.

I have a plastic cutting board just for meat that I wash particularly thoroughly, and periodically bleach.

At the end of the day, though, it really all just comes down (for me) to: wash your hands and work surfaces with soap after contaminating. It takes 30 seconds, and should not be something you obsess over.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:59 PM on March 26, 2013

I feel I should add here that I've never had self-inflicted food poisoning.
posted by phunniemee at 1:59 PM on March 26, 2013

I'm with you. Chicken is gross. However, my son eats it. So I buy 3-lb. or 5-lb. bags of frozen boneless chicken parts at big-box stores. The pieces are individually frozen so I don't have to house it in my fridge until the day I'm cooking it, and then I only take out 2 pieces. Just put it in a glass dish with some sauce on it and let it defrost in the fridge for a day. Minimum handling because eww.

Also I have a set of three cast-iron pans. The mid-sized one is for meat. Everyone in the house knows it: medium=meat. No dead animals allowed in my other pans, and if I'm cooking more meat than fits, it gets cooked in shifts. The cast iron works in the oven too. Minimum handling again, and gross things get murdered by the heat so I have less of an issue cleaning up after the cooked stuff than the raw stuff.
posted by headnsouth at 2:00 PM on March 26, 2013

That's not OCD in the slightest; treat any surface that comes into contact with raw meat as the biological hazard it is. I keep a separate cutting board for meats and wash hands with hot soapy water after every contact, keeping a constant eye out for cross-contamination. Having a cleaner and paper towels in reach at all times is key. Never gotten sick from following this strict regime.

I've bought vacuum packed breasts from Costco with good results. I put the sealed packet in a bowl of cool water in the sink a couple hours before cooking. If you do this, you'll need to change the water once or twice before its fully defrosted. Avoid hot water for thawing as that can trigger bacterial growth.
posted by dr_dank at 2:01 PM on March 26, 2013

Best answer: gloves. gloves gloves gloves. Will solve a lot of this. Also if your trash can does not have an open top or is hidden in a cabinet, you also want to use a trash bowl, where you can stick the discarded packaging until you can throw it away.

Get a big bowl, fill it with hot-as-you-can-get-it water and a little bit of soap. Buy a plastic cutting board. Get a plate.

Put on gloves,
take a knife and open the chicken package.
Prep your chicken using that same knife and your cutting board. Cut it up however you want.
Move chicken from cutting board to plate.
Once finished prepping chicken, put knife in the bowl of hot soapy water.
Put the cutting board in the sink.
Remove and toss gloves in trash.
Spray cutting board with hot water. Let hot water run for 30 seconds or so so sink isn't contaminated
Cook the chicken as you desire.

Gloves, ziplock bags, cups or bowls that the ziplocks will fit into, knife, bowl of hot soapy water.

Open all your ziplock bags.
Put each bag in a cup/bowl and fold the zipper edge around the sides of vessel.
Put on gloves
Open chicken package with knife.
Prep chicken if so desired, divide into ziplock bags.
Put knife in bowl
Dispose of gloves
Close up the ziplock bags, squeeze as much air out as possible.
Put in freezer

Meal is Today
about an hour before your meal:
Get a big bowl, fill with cold water.
Put ziplocked chicken in bowl.
15-30 minutes later, should be thawed
cook immediately. Discard if you can't cook it immediately.

Dinner is within the next 24-72 hours
Take ziplocked chicken
Put in Refrigerator on a plate.
Cook within 3-4 days of thawing
posted by royalsong at 2:01 PM on March 26, 2013

From the CDC: Salmonella live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, including birds. Salmonella are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces. Contaminated foods usually look and smell normal. Contaminated foods are often of animal origin, such as beef, poultry, milk, or eggs, but any food, including vegetables, may become contaminated. Thorough cooking kills Salmonella. Food may also become contaminated by the hands of an infected food handler who did not wash hands with soap after using the bathroom.

So, if it's just chicken that freaks you out...well, it shouldn't be. As a result of working in kitchens off and on over the years, I have the habit of cleaning as I go and doing my best to prevent any cross-contamination, but I don't go to the level you do. Hosing down your kitchen in case you might have touched something that touched raw chicken seems over the top to me.

For thawing, the USDA says: FSIS recommends three ways to thaw chicken: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Never thaw chicken on the counter or in other locations. It's best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Boneless chicken breasts, bone-in parts, and whole chickens may take 1 to 2 days or longer to thaw. Once the raw chicken thaws, it can be kept in the refrigerator an additional day or two before cooking. During this time, if chicken thawed in the refrigerator is not used, it can safely be refrozen without cooking it first. (lots more at the link)
posted by rtha at 2:01 PM on March 26, 2013

For chicken specifically see the USDA factsheet here.

I personally think the FDA is a little too paranoid about this stuff but that caution should help allay your anxiety. Check out and this handy FDA guide (opens as pdf).

Quick takeaways:
1. Use a separate cutting board for meat, so that even if you aren't sure you've 100% sanitized it you don't worry about raw food like veggies getting bacteria on them.
2. Use a food thermometer to be sure food has reached a safe internal temp.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:02 PM on March 26, 2013

Man, if you're this paranoid about chicken I'd buy the individually packed frozen breasts. Costco has them, probably other big box stores. You can take one out the night before and put it in the fridge to defrost, or if you need it quicker I often take the plastic wrapped breast, put it in a ziplock freezer bag and fill with water. You can let the bag sit in the sink while the chicken defrosts. Lukewarm (as in, neither cool nor hot) will defrost a breast in under an hour, I find. I'd also buy a seperate cutting board for meat.

You drain the ziplock in the sink, unwrap the chicken, throw out the ziplock and the wrapping, put the chicken directly on your meat board, and when you're done you put the meat board in the sink. Raw chicken only ever touches one surface, you only have to wash your hands once, maybe twice.
posted by Diablevert at 2:18 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think that you need to chill out about disinfecting your kitchen, big-time. Touching raw chicken and then touching a knob on the stove, or anything, is unlikely to spread germs. That is not the way that germs work most of the time.

Don't bother with freezing, and if you're new to cooking, here's a general tip: Buy what you need to cook that day, or maybe tomorrow. I work sixty-hours a week and yet I still manage to go grocery shopping once or twice a week. Food spoilage is real, and you can avoid it by buying meat/chicken/whatever and cooking it right away. Your food will also taste better.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:24 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing I've started to do recently, which cuts down on the gross factor quite a bit, is to pan-fry or poach a lot of chicken all at once, then freeze the cooked chicken pieces for later. This would consolidate the gross, germy part into one big chunk of time - then when it comes to making individual meals later, you're just working with cooked chicken without the health risk stress, and you can focus on the recipe/yummy food itself. You can easily poach chicken directly from frozen, so this would be simple to do with a big bag of frozen chicken straight from the grocery.

Another nice part of this method is that you can chop, shred, etc. the chicken right after cooking, then have ready-to go chicken for soups, chili, salads and whatnot right there and very easy to use right out of the freezer.
posted by augustimagination at 2:29 PM on March 26, 2013

Before anything else, I like to put some liquid hand soap in a small bowl. I often wash my hands multiple times during prep for roast chicken, and I can just dip fingers in the soap instead of repeatedly touching the pump/bottle with contaminated fingers.

I also usually prep chicken on something like a rimmed cookie sheet that can just go straight in the dishwasher.

Lastly, I sometimes skip the rinsing step and just plop the chicken in the roaster. Heard that tip from Molly Stevens, who claimed rinsing didn't do much more than spread germs around the sink. YMMV, seems to work for me. Hope you can overcome your fear. Food poisoning is nothing to laugh at, but a few basic steps like people are sharing here will reduce the chances by multiple orders of magnitude. And a good roast chicken is a thing of beauty.
posted by sapere aude at 2:30 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

People have given you good advice. It's worth figuring out if other concerns (spending extra money, spoilage) are also issues. If you're really concerned about this, I'd agree with Diablevert, spend a little extra cash and get something like the Purdue singles. They're individually wrapped, you can defrost them overnight in the fridge (which won't get your chicken into the temperature danger zone) and unwrap them & rinse in the sink, send straight to pan. Once chicken is cooked (and I am a fan of the "cook a whole ton of it and eat it forever" plan) it's a lot more hearty and a lot less problematic if you are concerned. I have a small cutting board that is only for meat and I also only use one knife for meat when I'm preparing a meal with meat and vegetables. You may also want to make sure you have paper towels handy or you use a dishrag that you then wash afterwards if you're washing your hands frequently during prep time.

The other thing I didn't see mentioned is consider the source of your meats. Most of the big food-problem outbreaks have been the result of bad conditions at industrial-sized farms, so you may find yourself calmer about the food in your kitchen if you know where it's come from and how it was processed.
posted by jessamyn at 2:51 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cook dark meat chicken. Its optimum cooking temperature is higher. You can kill the bad stuff for certain without drying your chicken out. Boneless skinless chicken thighs are absolutely delicious, better than breasts for a lot of dishes.
posted by scose at 3:19 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am crazy ocd about cleaning all the surfaces that touch the chicken

As someone with OCD, I deeply dislike it when people refer to their reasonably normal cleaning and organizing quirks as "so OCD" or worse, "crazy OCD".

On the other hand, your chicken worries are out there. Especially if you're serious about having to "hose down my kitchen in case I touched a button after touching the chicken". You don't need to do any of that. You can safely perform any of the chicken prep variations posted in this thread, and it'll be fine, really.

I don't eat chicken myself, but I had to prepare it many a time when I worked in grocery store delis. The store food handling protocol was strict for chicken, but not nearly as strict as you're worried your procedure should be. Cross-contamination is bad, and yes, some food handling practices are better than others. But you don't have to nuke your kitchen from space every time you eat chicken.

I cope with a lot of my food poisoning fears by doing what ablazingsaddle says -- only getting enough food to last a day or two. And Wretch729 mentioned -- I have actually called these people before, and I've used their online chat. They are helpful and friendly, as a rule. And, I have not found them to be reactionary. I've spoken with them a few times with some paranoid food question, and they've responded, "Oh, no, that should be just fine to eat."

It's not good to deal with this by just disavowing chicken. If you like chicken, you need to learn to live with preparing it. It's not toxic waste. Salmonella is a bad thing, but you won't fully eliminate your risk of salmonella even if you perfectly manage your chicken prep/consumption. However, if you follow pretty basic food safety measures, you'll make your risk negligible. And if you need to get individually wrapped chicken breasts, or other minor accommodations, then so be it.
posted by Coatlicue at 4:03 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Would you consider the already-cooked frozen chicken breasts that most grocery stores carry? I buy bags of these to save time but they should help you too. I toss those into whatever I'm making that calls for chicken during the week.
posted by lyssabee at 4:55 PM on March 26, 2013

I keep the contamination concerns super super simple and get great chicken from this recipe.

I make it even simpler and completely contamination-free by pounding the chicken through the wrapper it came in, and not dredging it in flour.

Just pound it, unwrap, plop in the pan, season from above, and follow the rest of the process. Perfect chicken every time. The only thing exposed to raw chicken is the wrapper it was in and your hot, oiled pan.

It's so weird I've suggested this recipe three times on ask.mefi. I swear I'm not a shill for
posted by MonsieurBon at 6:14 PM on March 26, 2013

Go to the local food service supply store and buy a couple McDonald's style serving trays. Use these as cutting boards. If you can get different colors, even better. Red is meat, green is vegetables.

Plan your work such that you really only have to wash your hands once. Gather your cutting board, your plate that the prepped food will go onto and everything else ahead of time. Once you cut into the package, do all your work without touching anything else. Finish, throw the knives, tongs and cutting boards that you used into the sink and wash your hands. Done.

One way to reframe your mind about handling the chicken (or any food) is to think about it the other way around. Instead of worrying about the food contaminating the kitchen, think about you contaminating the food. Practice not touching anything while you are hands-on with the food, using tools as much as possible and not cross contaminating anything.

When you store stuff in your refrigerator, the most likely to cross contaminate foods (chicken, fish, etc.) go on the bottom. The least likely to cross contaminate (sealed packages, bread) go on top. If your bread drips on the chicken, no harm done. If the chicken drips on the bread, yucky.

And for the love of god, don't use sponges to clean up unless they are freshly laundered. The grossest thing in most people's kitchens are the sponge and the dishrag. Which people then use to spread a nice even layer of funk all over everything. There are two "layers" of cleaning: remove the dirt, and then sanitize. You can't do both at once. Most things will get plenty sanitary if they are thoroughly washed, rinsed and left to air dry. If you must sanitize, just use bleach water. It's effective, cheap and leaves no residue.
posted by gjc at 8:23 PM on March 26, 2013

I will often cook the chicken first and then cut it up. For example, if I want chicken on a salad, I will buy a pack of 2 chicken breasts, heat up some chicken stock in a pot, put a disposable bag on the counter, open the packet over the bag ,put the chicken in the pot to lightly simmer, put all the packaging in the bag, wash my hands, throw bag away, wash hands again and clean the counter, sink and tap . Then, when the chicken's cooked through, I take it out and slice it on the chopping board. This way there's no boards or knives contaminated and exposure to counter and sink is minimised and can be cleaned quickly enough. A similar approach works for roasting or even pan frying chicken pieces.
posted by mosessis at 8:43 PM on March 26, 2013

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