Ask Chef Emily: Washing Produce and Meat

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What are the suggested guidelines for washing produce and meat? – Evan in Huntington Station

The short answer? If its dirty, wash it.

But that’s too easy, right?! And I have a lot to say on this topic.

Let’s talk about “dirty” as a concept. Ideally, the food we eat (with the exception of hydroponically grown things) comes from the earth, which is covered in a thin layer of dirt from which we pull carrots, coax peas, savor strawberries and all the other wonderful things beckoning from my pile of seed catalogues. Is that dirt “dirty?” Well, that depends. The microbes and bacteria that provide nitrogen and carbon and all the vital nutrients we humans need to survive are certainly in there. And if the word “bacteria” is what makes you cringe, keep reading.

True dirt is most certainly unpleasant in your salad or your pesto. So if upon opening your packages from the farmers market, grocery store, or after harvesting your own after a rainfall you see (and feel) actual honest to goodness dirt (or sand) by all means wash it off! Here’s how:

How to wash produce:

  1. Put produce into a vessel large enough for it to float when filled with water. I like Cambros for this job.
  2. Fill with water and use your hand to swish. Let sit for a few minutes. This will allow gravity to pull the offending grit to the bottom.
  3. Lift the produce out of the water into a salad spinner or colander.
  4. Dump out the water.
  5. Repeat until there is no grit left in the water after you lift the produce out.

Don’t dump the produce, water and all through the colander as the offending dirt will just get dumped back on top of your greens. Other than grit, there isn’t really a good reason to wash produce and there are good reasons not to wash meat.

Process this news carefully: there is nothing on your food that can hurt you that will be rendered harmless with a rinse in cold water.

Process this news carefully: there is nothing on your food that can hurt you that will be rendered harmless with a rinse in cold water. I’m going to let that sink in.

There is nothing on your food that can hurt you that you can fix with a quick rinse. It’s all in your head. If it’s “clean” and you can therefore proceed eating your pear, skin-and-all, calmed by the idea that you “washed” is a psychological sleight of hand we play with ourselves if we fear all of the microscopic creepy crawlies that Purell’s marketing campaign has convinced us are harmful, when in fact, the opposite is true.

Consider wine, beer and other naturally fermented treats like kimchi and sauerkraut. These things exist only because of the microbial (primarily yeast) activity happening below our sight lines and these are considered superfoods! (Well, maybe not beer, but man is it delicious.)

The human body is an amazingly resilient organism highly evolved to deal with daily exposure to the seen and unseen forces in the world around us and an imbalance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in our bodies is far more ominous than naturally occurring yeasts on pear skin. Just google thrush. Actually don’t.

Do I advise licking the subway pole? Of course not. But I do hope grabbing the reigns on a fear of the unseen will let you exhale a little in the kitchen, and ease up on the control, and manage what you can.

To that end: don’t wash meat, especially not chicken, prior to cooking. Each microscopic droplet of water that bounces unseen off the carcass is now loaded up with potential pathogens and headed for your countertop.

Take that baby out of the package, blot with single-use paper towels if you must, season to your heart’s content and proceed with cooking, secure in the idea that your biome is taking care of you so you can focus on more import things. Like side dishes.

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