When it comes to holiday cooking, there are a few debates that sometimes arise. Should the sweet potato casserole be topped with marshmallows or pecans? Is it called stuffing or dressing? Which is better—sweet potato pie or pumpkin pie? But one question that should not be up for debate is how to prep the turkey. And we're not talking which brine recipe or seasoning blend to use. Should you clean a turkey before you cook it or not?

Every family has those old passed-down recipes you make year after year for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but if your family's favorite roasted turkey recipe begins by thoroughly cleaning the bird, it's time to take a second look. It turns out, giving your turkey a pre-oven bath can do far more harm than good. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it's impossible to remove all the bacteria from a raw turkey by rinsing it, and trying to do so can splash and spread harmful bacteria all across your kitchen! There's only one time that you should ever rinse your bird. Read on to find out when.

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how to clean a turkey
Danielle Daly

How do you clean a turkey before cooking it?

Well... you don't! Just like with other meat, the USDA recommends skipping washing your turkey before you cook it. It doesn't matter if you're roasting, frying, or smoking your turkey, there's no need to give it a rinse unless you've brined it (more on that below). Cooking the turkey kills any bacteria, but washing a turkey before you cook it opens the door to dangerous cross contamination. Instead, take your turkey straight from the package to the roaster. The only "cleaning" you need to worry about is removing the neck and giblets from the cavity (to save for giblet gravy, of course!) and patting the turkey dry with a paper towel to achieve crispy skin.

When should you rinse a turkey?

The only (and we mean ONLY!) time you should ever rinse your bird is if you've brined it first. This is to remove some of the salt from the turkey. You'll want to do a little prep first, though, to minimize the spread of bacteria. "When rinsing brine off of a turkey, be sure to remove all other food or objects from the sink, layer the area with paper towels, and allow a slow stream of water to avoid splashing," the USDA recommends. Be sure to rinse the outside and the inside cavity of the bird with cool water and hold the bird up to drain the water from the cavity before transferring it to a roasting pan. Then, toss the paper towels in the trashcan and thoroughly disinfect your sink and surrounding countertop. Finally wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap.

Do you wash the inside of a turkey before cooking it?

Nope! All you need to worry about is removing the neck and giblets from the cavity. Now, if you're working with a brined bird, you'll need to rinse the inside, but otherwise, make your life easier and skip that step!

What happens if you don't clean a turkey?

There's no harm in skipping cleaning your turkey before you prepare it since cooking the bird removes far more bacteria than washing ever could. By not cleaning your turkey, you'll cut down the risk of spreading harmful bacteria all around your kitchen!