Can you tell when steak is medium-rare from a rare one? What about a medium-well from one that’s well done? If steak is one of your favorite foods, you may want to brush up your steak doneness knowledge by reading this full guide on steak cooking.
After you read this guide, you will get e deep understanding of the different levels of doneness and how to determine it with just a few simple techniques.
You will know what cooking and heat does to your meat, what are the different doneness levels, how to determine each doneness level with a simple technique and a lot of other frequently asked questions that people have when it comes to cooking steak.
Selecting Steak Quality
If you occasionally like to cook on your garden with the meat sizzling on your built in garden grill while enjoying a cold beer, just like me, then you should know that the beef grade and its type, have a huge impact on the taste of your final cooked steak.
The USDA (U. S. Department of Agriculture) classifies the Beef into three major grades: Prime Beef, Choice Beef and Select Beef. These three major grades are widely used among the beef and cooking industry, making it easier for customers and farmers to choose the best cut for their purpose.
Beef is graded based on two characteristics: The first one is the quality based on Tenderness, juiciness and Flavor and the second one being the yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass.
If you are looking for the highest quality steak, then the U.S. Prime is the one. It currently makes about 2.9% of carcasses and is the type of steak that most fancy and upper-end restaurants use on their menu.
It is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle and has abundant marbling. This grade of steak is excellent for dry-heat cooking like grilling, roasting or broiling.
As you may already guess, this grade of steak it isn’t cheap and you probably won’t pay that price for a home cooked meal.
Next, we have the Choice Grade. It is a high quality steak but has a lower level of fat marbling when compared to Prime grade. It makes about 53.7% of the fed cattle in total and is the most used grade on foodservice industry and markets.
Most of the cuts from this grade, such as roasts, steaks from the loin, rib etc. are very tender, juicy and can be used for dry-heat cooking on a gas grill if you make sure that you don’t overcook them.
The last beef quality category is the Select grade. It is very uniform in quality and has less marbling than the two upper-mentioned grades. The steak from this grade are leaner and may lack juiciness and flavor.
Just like most people, I go for the Choice grade. It is the perfect proportion of quality and price, with steaks being juicy, tender and very good quality for their price point.
What cooking does to steak? (Different Cooking Methods)
In order for you to easily determine the doneness level of your steak with just your hand or other simple techniques, you first have to learn what cooking and heat do to the meat, in our case steak.
The cooking process for a steak is divided into two parts: Grilling and Searing.
The first part, grilling, is used to cook the meat and make sure it reaches a consistent internal temperature. Actually, the internal temperature of the meat is the indicator to determine the doneness of the steak.
Overall, when exposing the meat to the heat, you are doing three things:
Here its a quick and simple graphic explaining what heat does to meat and how the water evaporates when meat is cooked:
That’s all the first cooking process does to your meat. As for the second part of cooking, which is searing, is kind-of a finishing step you do to your meat.
Searing involves exposing the steak to an extremely hot temperature for a short period of time. This gives the steak its crunchy, brown flavor exterior that a lot of people love. This is also called the Maillard Effect. You can read more about it here.
Steak Doneness Graphs, Charts and Temperature Tables
When it comes to steak cooking, it is the internal temperature the indicator that tells you the real steak doneness level. In total, there is decided to be six main doneness levels for a steak, all based on different temperature levels.
As I said, there are in total six different doneness levels based on internal cooking temperature. Here are the temperature level for each one and their characteristics:
Blue Rare (110°F-115°F)
Blue rare is also widely known as Very Rare or Blood Rare. To reach this level of doneness you have to cook steak at an internal temperature of 115°F, which can be easily reached just by searing the steak on outside. The inside of the meat stays red and almost completely raw. Blue rare steaks are usually cold on the inside and some people put them in the oven at a low temperature to warm them up.
Rare - (125°F-130°F)
Rare steaks are usually at 120°F internal temperature. They are more used than Blue rare in the upper mention section.
Rare steak have a warm but very red center, with tasty surface and texture caused by the Maillard effect. The Maillard effect means that the steak’s fats are not completely melt and because of this, most low-fat steaks like tenderloins are preferred to be cooked on the Rare level.
Medium Rare - (130°F-140°F)
Probably the best steak doneness level out there. Widely used and recommended by a lot of chefs and grill masters.
Medium rare is reached at 130° internal temperature, making the steak’s fat to melt and cause a butter and great flavor effect, with a lot of moisture and very juicy texture. So, this doneness level will make your steak very tender, juicy and plumpy.
A medium-rare steak is red at the very center, following by a pink ring around the center and then comes a brown crust on the outside.
Medium Well - (150°F-156°F)
Medium well doneness level is reached at 150°F internal temperature. When your steak reaches this level, it will retain just a little bit of pink color inside and will still be tender but not as much as other lower temperature levels. This temperature level will make the steak become drier and less tender than most people like.
Well Done - (160°F-210°F)
And the last steak doneness level is Well Done which is reached at 160°F. Most grill masters and chefs think that this level is a bit over-done or over-cooked because at this point, the moisture and the fat has evaporated and leaked from the steak, causing the meat to become drier and a bit tougher to chew.
These are the six steak’s doneness levels. If you are in a hurry and are looking for a short and precise information, here it is a summary table for each doneness level and the target internal temperature:
How to Determine Steak Temperature?
While you may look the steak from the outside brown and crunchy, it is actually the internal temperature that determines its doneness level.
But, how can you determine the internal temperature? The easiest way to do so is to use an instant-read thermometer.
How to Determine Internal Temperature using an Instant-read Thermometer
Instant read thermometer allows you to check the internal temperature quickly, without you having to cut the meat and let the juices out.
They are pretty cheap to buy and can actually be used on any kind of food, not just meat. You can use it to measure temperatures of cooked meat, poultry, seafood, bread, baked goods etc. to make sure that they have reached the minimum temperature level and are safe to consume.
You can always pick a smoker or a grill that come with a built-in thermometer but a dedicated instant-read thermometer is easier and more accurate to use for testing a steak doneness level.
They can be used by everyone and you just have to put it inside the meat or food and wait for a couple of seconds before the temperature shows on the display.
Quick Kitchen Tip: When putting the thermometer into the center of the meat, make sure it doesn’t touch the pan/grill and avoid putting it into fat parts of the meat. The real temperature is only in the center of the meat.
After you measure the temperature with the instant read thermometer, always make sure to remove the steak 5 degrees below the desired doneness level. The steak will continue to cook even after it is removed from the heat and the resting process is very important to reach the desired doneness.
Just remove it from the heat 5° below the desired level, place it on a warm plate and cover it with aluminum foil. Make sure to not tightly wrap the foil around steak and leave it like that for about 3-5 minutes, depending on the size of the steak.
How to Determine the Temperature/Doneness by Touching the Meat
If you don’t have an instant read thermometer at the moment and are looking for a quick and simple way to measure the temperature, then there are three basic touch tests which can help you determine the doneness level: Touching the palm of your hand, your fist and your face.
Note: The touch test is subjective which means that is not 100% accurate but once you get used to the doneness levels and steak texture, you will improve and start to determine easily with the touch tests.
Using the Palm of Your Hand
The first method is using the palm of your hand. Palm up the hand and poke the base if your hand by the base of the thumb. This is what raw meat feels like.
Now, make the ‘OK’ sign using your forefinger and thumb together. Feel the base of your hand again and now it is a little firmer. This is how rare doneness level feels like.
Now, continuously move to other fingers and as you do, you will notice the pad of your hand gets progressively firmer.
Middle finger and the tip of your thumb should feel like a medium-rare steak, ring finger and your thumb should feel like a medium-well steak and the pinky finger with the thumb should make the base of your hand feel like a well-done steak.
Using your Fist
The second touch method is by using your fist.
Start by making a relaxed fist. The fleshy area of your hand, between your thumb and forefinger is soft which feels almost the same as a rare steak.
If you slightly clench your fist, it gets a little firmer, feeling like a medium done steak.
If you clench your fist tightly, the area will feel just like a well-done steak.
Using your Face
The third touch test is by using your face. It is basically the same idea as the two upper mentioned methods but this time you use your face.
Relax your face without smiling and touch your cheek with your finger. That’s how soft a rare steak should feel like.
Next, touch your chin and you will notice it is fleshy with some resistance. This is the medium doneness level.
If you like your steak medium with pink center, then it will feel almost the same as the end of your nose.
And if well-done is your preferred doneness level, then touch your forehead and you will notice it is firmer, just like well-done steak.
That’s all for the touch tests. If you don’t feel ready to do a touch test, then use a thermometer and take the traditional route.
What is the best steak doneness?
Steak doneness is usually based on your preferences and what someone like may not taste good for the other. Also, the final results may vary based on your steak grade.
Overall, for maximum flavor and juiciness, cook the steak at medium doneness and is preferred to be a prime or choice grade beef.
Is it safe to eat medium steak?
Well, in order to determine if the meat is safe to eat, then you should measure its internal temperature.
As for the medium doneness level, it means that the steak has an internal temperature of 150-160°F which is safe to consume. So, the short answer is Yes, medium done steak is safe to eat.
Anything below should be consumed with caution and you should consider a couple of things before doing so, especially for the rare doneness level.
How do You Check the Doneness of a Steak?
In order to determine the doneness of a steak, you can use an instant read thermometer, touch test (using your hand, fist or face for comparison) or by checking its color.
The best way to check the doneness of steak is by using an instant read thermometer and measure its internal temperature.
The color checking test is considered the most efficient method and is hardly accurate while the touch tests using your hand for comparison requires a bit of practice and experience in order to properly determine.