But there's a fine line between a beautifully grilled dinner and something that is dry and tough on the inside.
We are going to examine three principle topics here
- Definition of a Steak's Doneness Level
- How to cook a steak to your desired doneness
- The Chemistry of Cooking a steak
Part of the problem, while we all have heard of the terms like medium steak for newer grillmasters, and aspiring home chefs there is a vast amount of conflicting advice on how to tell if your meat is done just as you wanted it.
Here are some of the ways that are commonly referred to when grilling steak
- the finger test?
- the salt test
- the palm test
- the face test
- a meat thermometer
- the stopwatch
- cutting the steak open
So first here are the food industry and restaurant descriptions that are used universally and while we might know the difference between the terms well done and rare- what about the difference between medium-rare and medium.
When you are learning to cook steak then you simply must use a timer and a thermometer so you know exactly the steak temperature and get each steak perfect - at least until you have cooked a few hundred rumps, t-bones, or porterhouses.
While Gordon Ramsey, of Wolfgang Puck or other famous chefs, can tell the doneness from a touch test - remember they have probably cooked over 10,000 steaks or more in their lifetime - and they cook them every day almost so, of course, they can do this - Can you do it when you cook a steak only a few times a week or month. No, you just do not have the experience - the only safe way is to use a meat thermometer - more on that later.
How many steak done levels are there?
There are a total of six established levels of steak doneness used in America, Europe and other countries which you can request or ask for when ordering your perfect steak.
First make sure your grill or pan is up to hot temperature.
Grill Times and Temperature for Steak Doneness
Take the steak off after the inside reaches 5°F before the temperatures listed below. The cooking times are a guide for steak cuts of approximately 1 inch thick and are for a hot grill or pan to start with.
How To Cook A Blue Rare Steak
- Inside Temperature (115°F - 46°C)
- Grill Time for Blue Rare Steak 1-2 minutes per side.
- A blue rare doneness level is seared on the outside, to brown the beef without any significant cooking of the inside. The meat inside at this blue steak level has undergone almost zero protein breakdown that occurs in the other doneness levels. As a result, it has a semi-raw texture and can be a little chewy, so using a more tender cut for this level is desired.
How To Cook A Rare Steak
- Inside Temperature (120°F - 48.8°C)
- Grill Time for Rare Steak 3 minutes per side.
- A rare steak should have a bright red center, browned outside and the meat should be soft and springy similar to raw meat. A rare steak is a connoisseur's choice often - and is well suited for leaner cuts, like tenderloins, as the cooking process is so fast and the interior temperature it reaches doesn't melt all the fat.
How To Cook A Medium Rare Steak
- Inside Temperature (130°F - 54.5°C)
- Grill Time for Rare Steak 4 minutes per side.
- This is the most common level of doneness, and most people will enjoy this steak doneness marker. These steaks are nicely browned with a crust on the outside and can suit steaks like t-bone. The center will be warm and be pink with some red still showing in the middle. Medium rare is a great choice for slightly fattier steaks like the sirloin (Scotch Fillet) because the longer cooking time and higher temperature render’s the fat and this contributes to the flavor and results in a buttery smooth texture.
How To Cook A Medium Steak
- Inside Temperature (140°F - 60°C)
- Grill Time for Medium Steak 4-5 minutes per side.
- A medium steak should be pink and firm all the way through the red hue should be gone - but the pink color of the medium doneness level should be clearly visible. Because it takes longer to heat the middle to this temperature some of the water content of the steak is lost - so it will not be quite as juicy and not quite as tender in texture - hence the most popular degree of doneness is Medium Rare Steaks.
How To Cook A Medium Well Steak
- Inside Temperature (150°F - 65.5°C)
- Grill Time for a Medium Well Steak 5-6 minutes per side.
- A medium-well steak almost all of the pink color should have gone, if there is any it should be no more than a hint. At this level, most of the water has evaporated and the fat has turned to liquid and may even leak out. This is certainly a level that is too dry for most steak lovers. The only cut that may survive is very fatty ones, but even they will have largely lost their juiciness.
How To Cook A Well Done Steak
- Inside Temperature (160°F. - 71°C)
- Grill Time for Well Done Steak 8-10 minutes per side.
- The well-done steak may be refused by many restaurants - especially in Europe. At this level of cooking even after resting at room temperature all the water, and pretty all of the fat has evaporated. The result is dry meat and too tough or chewy for many people. To prepare a well-done steak needs a slightly different method. To avoid over burning the outside, cook a well-done steak slowly and low for about the first 10 minutes per side, before finally searing the outside.
Some chefs if they cook this may sear the outside with a blow torch! Another way is to consider a reverse searing technique to ensure some of the juiciness remains.
Your personal taste will determine the right level, but as we said the most popular is medium doneness.
Lastly, in some countries, raw beef dishes are considered to be delicacies, but let's not go there.
How to Use a Meat Thermometer To Cook Steak
When you are learning the best way to check when a steak is cooked to your doneness is by checking the internal temperature of the meat. It is important that you use an instant read thermometer because sometimes you may be only half a minute away from ready so you need the number of degrees fast. Also if you have leaner steaks the cooking time can be different - so again using the cooking temperature method is best. Same of course if you have a thicker steak, the internal temperature is still the best method. So independent of the beef cut I would use temperature. (You can also use this on pork)
To test for the correct temperature, push in the thermometer probe in the thickest area, keep it away from bone as you will not get a true temperature reading and also not near fat, or gristle.
It's important to be aware that the meat will continue cooking after it's removed from the heat often up to as much as 5 degrees. (residual heat or cooking is what the professional chefs call this)
Let's say you are aiming for a final internal temperature of 150 F, remove the cut of meat from the heat at about 145 F and then allow the steak to rest.
Why Rest Your Steak
It's important that you let the steak rest for at least three to four minutes after you take it off the heat. Do not cut into it immediately.
When you cook a steak the muscle fibers will contract and so toughen when cooking resulting in the moisture being pushed towards the surface. (You know the sizzling sound of steak when it cooks - that is the juices are being released.)
Now if you do not let the steak rest, the juices that have been moved out can not redistribute back through the meat and it will be tough - letting the steak rest lets it reach its maximum tenderness and juiciness.
Is it bad to eat a bloody steak!
It is fine to eat “bloody steak” because the red stuff you see oozing out of your steak isn't blood at all.
This is one of the most common mistakes that causes people to request a longer cooked or overcooked steak.
The red liquid you see coming from a cooked steak is a protein called Myoglobin - and is not blood - which is more than 99 percent removed when the animals are processed. The Protein Myoglobin is responsible for carrying oxygen through the muscle and contains a red pigment, but it is not blood.
Worth noting also the higher temperature the steak is cooked at the myoglobin naturally darkens which is why well done steak has a gray color rather than red or pink.
You can still order your steak "bloody" but now you know it is just a term as the blood has already long gone.
What about the USDA recommendation for meat doneness or rare steak
In food safety we are taught that the safe internal temperature is 145F for beef - and that is what the USDA Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart recommends.
As you can see from the doneness review or guide above, that is a recipe for medium well and above.
Why is this - it is because the USDA is concerned with bacteria, not flavor and less than 145°F is not sufficiently high enough temperature to ensure a piece of meat is bacteria-free.
Here is where food handling and storage becomes very very important.
Is rare or blue steak unsafe?
Firstly - if the steak has been handled and stored correctly there are no bacteria on the steak - so if your restaurant is high quality and keeps all its food safety records to confirm food safety then you are ok. I would also add that the meat needs to be mistreated for bacteria to grow on the inside. In the chance some bacteria got on the steak it will be on the outside and since you are searing that at the high temperature you will remove any outside bacteria.
So to summarize normally: bacteria are on the meat surfaces, not inside."
How to cook a steak to your desired doneness
Let’s look at the two key steps that cause the meat to cook to a perfect steak with the correct doneness - understanding the cooking chemical changes and reactions will also give to the knowledge to cook any type of steak just right.
This means that you will not be afraid of a big porterhouse or a small skirt steak - you can make it correctly and deliver a full-flavored steak.
What happens to your steak while it's cooking?
While it is a complex chemical process when you grill or fry a steak - basically there are two key steps
The first part is the actual cooking of the meat, this is raising your steak up to a desired internal temperature - cooking. When you do this three main things happen:
- Protein is a macromolecule (RCH(NH2)COOH) and begins to break down - The heating of the meat causes the usually tightly wound muscle proteins to change. The name of this process is called denaturing. As these tightly bonded molecules (proteins) are broken down the meat becomes tender so this is why a medium-rare steak is more tender than a blue rare as the proteins are not binding as strongly - yet the steak still has its moisture content - let's talk about fluids next
- Water (H20) - You have all heard that Mammals are mostly water, so 75% of your steak's muscle fibers are made up of this. As you heat or cook, water evaporates. This causes the meat to shrink and results in drying. So you can see why using a thermometer and controlling the process is very important and once the water has gone from the meat you can not get it back.
- Fat - As your steak cooks away, the fat pockets or marbling in the meat become runny and are so absorbed into the meat. They are sweet in taste and really give flavor to a steak. This is the reason that marbling is so sought after in a steak is because of the true flavor it delivers during the cooking process.
Now, this step in the process is very important - searing the meat. The definition of searing is exposing the outside of your steak to extremely high temperatures. Do this only for a short period of time. This sudden exposure to heat causes a chemical reaction that is commonly called the Maillard reaction.
The Maillard reaction begins at 300°F and occurs all the way up to 500°F. When the outside of the meat becomes much hotter than the inside a reaction (Maillard) occurs. Protein molecules in the meat are bonded in a coil-like fashion and when the heat is applied, those bonds begin to break and the coils will unwind. Next, a high percentage of the water content in the muscle fibers then leaks out. Also, carbonyl clusters of the sugars react with the nucleophilic amino acids, which produce glycosylamine and water. There are a number of complex chemical reactions that happen in the process that I will not go into here - however, the result of cooking at a surface temperature between 300 and 500°F the sugars turn brown and give you that amazing flavor.
How Do I Know When My Steak Is Done
Measuring the internal temperature is the best way to cook the perfect steak. The most important tool a pitmaster can have is an instant-read thermometer because the difference between levels of steak doneness is only between 5 and 10°F.
You can not sense these small variations in temperature with your fingers.
This is why top Michelin-starred restaurants use a thermometer to cook the perfect steak. I was recently watching an episode of “Masterchef - the professionals” and the contestants went to a 2-star Michelin restaurant and the steak had to be cooked to perfection - each and every time - and the way they achieved that was with a thermometer!
How long do you pan fry a 12 inch steak? - the answer is - use a temperature probe and you will get a prefect 12 inch steak each time.
Can I tell doneness by the color of the meat?
No, you can not - many variables can affect the color of cooked meat, from the breed cow to the cut of your steak through to what light bulbs you use in your kitchen. So you cannot tell if a steak is done by its color.
Can I use my finger test to check steak doneness?
Perhaps if you had cooked 10,000 steaks - had a timer and always used the same pan etc you could get it pretty good - but if you want it perfect and the same or repeatable quality - use a thermometer - see my comment about on how the world's top restaurants cook the perfect steak every single time.
Test your level of steak doneness by comparing it to your hand or face, is one of those stubborn food myths that just will not go away. Is your hand the same as you partners NO- we are all different - this makes it a terrible way to measure just about anything.
As I said, cooking a lot of steak will let you definitely develop a good sense for when it's cooked, but using a finger or hand is not accurate enough to tell the difference between rare and medium rare with any real reliability.
Chef Tip - Take your steak off the heat early to avoid overcooking it
So we have hammered using a thermometer to cook the perfect steak - also remember that your steak does not stop cooking the moment you take it off the grill - it continues to cook and the internal temperature will rise - it can rise by up to five degrees Fahrenheit.
Take your steak off the heat when it is around 5°F/ 2°C below your doneness target temperature.
You then let your steak rest for a few minutes and the internal temperature reach the target temperature and you will have cooked the perfect steak be it flank steak, strip steak - here we do not include steak tartare or raw steak.
Of course, there are other ways to cook a steak and the French have pioneered the sous vide method and there also is the reverse searing method. Also while ground beef is similar - it is slightly different and if cooking rare inherently more dangerous because the outside of the meat is mixed with the inside in the making of the hamburger patty process.
What is the best steak doneness?
The most common is medium doneness - but of course, it is a personal preference. See our survey of the top 10 towns in each American state to see a town by town doneness rating and statistics.
Do you cook steak in butter and does it affect steak doneness?
Cooking, or basting a steak with butter is a good way to get a rich butter nutty flavor that with the caramelization of the out layer of the steak will take your steak to the next level.
The naming of the Maillard reaction comes from the French scientist Louis-Camille Maillard in the early twentieth century when he was trying to figure out how amino acids formed proteins. (It would be French!!)
He observed that when he heated sugars together, the mixture would slowly turn brown. But it was not until later in the 1940s that people made between the Maillard reaction and flavor.
The Complexity of the Maillard Reaction is significant so we will not go into that here.
We wish you well in your perfect steak journey.