How do you like your steak? Whether you prefer succulent and tender rare meat, medium or the charred edges of a well-done steak, this guide delves into the art and science of steak doneness, and is packed with tips on how to cook your steak just the way you like it.
Want to cook the perfect ribeye steak? Check out this pan-seared ribeye steak recipe.
Steak Doneness Levels
There are 5 main levels of steak doneness:
- Rare: Is seared on the outside with a deep red centre that's usually still cool. Extra rare steak is known as blue steak and is seared for less than a minute before serving. The inside is red, raw and still cold.
- Medium rare: Is charred on the outside, with a red centre that fades to pink.
- Medium: Is a little pink in the centre but with no red or cool parts.
- Medium well: Is light pink in the centre of the meat and has a charred exterior.
- Well-done: Is cooked until the steak is brown in the middle.
Perfect steak doneness
The best doneness for steak ultimately depends on your personal preference. Some people prefer the tender juiciness of rare or medium-rare, while others prefer the well-cooked and well-developed flavours of medium-well or well-done.
Here's how the type of steak can impact doneness:
- Fat Marbling: Well-marbled cuts tend to be juicier and more flavourful. The fat in the meat melts during cooking, providing moisture and enhancing the taste. As a result, well-marbled steaks, such as ribeye or New York strip, can still be tender and delicious at medium or medium-well doneness.
- Muscle fibres: Different muscles in the animal have varying textures and levels of tenderness. For example, muscles that get more exercise, like those found in the shoulder or leg, may require longer cooking times to become tender and are better suited for slow-cooking methods. On the other hand, tenderloin cuts, which come from less-used muscles, are naturally tender and are often cooked to medium-rare or medium to preserve their tenderness and delicate flavour.
- Connective Tissues: Some cuts contain more connective tissues, which can become tough when undercooked. These cuts benefit from longer cooking methods, such as braising or slow roasting, to break down the collagen and achieve the desired tenderness.
Factors Affecting Doneness
Several factors can affect the doneness of a steak during the cooking process.
- Cooking Time and Temperature: Higher cooking temperatures and longer cooking times will result in a more well-done steak, while lower temperatures and shorter cooking times will yield a rarer steak.
- Steak Thickness and Size: Thick steak will take longer to cook evenly compared to thinner ones.
- Cooking Method: Grilling, pan-searing, broiling, roasting, and sous vide cooking all have different heat transfer mechanisms that can influence the final doneness.
- Meat Type and Cut: Different types of meat and steak cuts have varying muscle fibres, fat content, and collagen distribution that impact how the steak cooks and how tender it becomes. For instance, tender cuts like fillet steak, top sirloin and ribeye will cook faster and remain more tender, while tougher cuts like rump steak and chuck require longer cooking times to break down collagen and become tender.
- Starting temperature: Allowing the steak to come to room temperature before cooking will enable it to cook more evenly than cooking it from chilled.
- Resting Period: Allowing the steak to rest after cooking is essential for the redistribution of juices. Note that the internal temperature of the steak may rise a few degrees during this resting period due to residual heat, affecting the final doneness.
Visual Signs of Doneness
Checking the doneness of a steak just by looking at it can be challenging. However, there are some visual cues:
- Colour: Rare steaks have a bright red centre, medium-rare steaks have a warm pink or rosy centre, medium steaks have a more pronounced pink centre, and medium-well to well-done steaks have little to no pink, with a tan or greyish centre.
- Juiciness: Observe the surface of the steak for any signs of juices. Rare and medium-rare steaks are generally juicier, with some moisture present on the surface. As the steak cooks to medium and beyond, the juiciness will decrease, and the surface may become drier.
- Sear and Crust: A well-done steak will have a darker brown crust, while rarer steaks will have a lighter sear with less browning.
The Finger Test
The finger test, also known as touch test, hand test or finger method, is a technique used to gauge the doneness of a steak without using a meat thermometer. It involves comparing the firmness of the meat to different parts of your hand, which mimics the feel of the steak at various doneness levels. While it can be helpful, especially for those who are not able to use a meat thermometer, it is not as accurate because people's hands and perceptions of firmness may differ.
Here's how the finger test for cooking steak works:
- Rare: Touch the fleshy area at the base of your thumb with your other hand's index finger. The resistance and softness you feel should be similar to how a rare steak feels when pressed lightly with your finger.
- Medium Rare: Touch the fleshy area at the base of your thumb with your middle finger. The texture you feel there is akin to the firmness of a medium-rare steak when gently pressed.
- Medium: Use your ring finger to touch the same area. The slight resistance and firmness you sense there are comparable to a medium steak's texture.
- Medium Well: Use your pinkie finger to touch the base of your thumb. The resistance and firmness you feel there are similar to a medium-well steak when pressed.
Using a Meat Thermometer for Precision
Using an instant-read thermometer is the best way to ensure your steak reaches the perfect level of doneness. It allows you to monitor the internal steak temperature, ensuring that it reaches the desired level without overcooking.
Here's how to check the doneness of a steak using a meat thermometer:
- Insert the thermometer: Insert the probe of the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the steak, making sure you avoid contact with bones or fat, as they can give inaccurate readings.
- Avoid the grill or pan: If you're cooking the steak on a grill or a pan, avoid leaving the thermometer in the meat while it's on the heat source. High temperatures can damage most meat thermometers. Instead, quickly insert the thermometer to take a reading, then remove it.
- Reading the temperature: Wait for a few seconds until the temperature reading stabilizes. Different doneness levels correspond to specific internal temperatures:
- Rare: 120°F to 125°F (49°C to 52°C)
- Medium Rare: 130°F to 135°F (54°C to 57°C)
- Medium: 140°F to 145°F (60°C to 63°C)
- Medium Well: 150°F to 155°F (65°C to 68°C)
- Well-Done: 160°F and above (71°C and above)
- Check multiple spots: For larger steaks, it's a good idea to check the temperature in a few different spots to ensure even cooking throughout the meat.
- Remove from heat at lower temperature: Keep in mind that the internal temperature of the steak will continue to rise slightly even after you remove it from the heat source. This is known as carryover cooking. It's best to remove the steak from the heat when it is a few degrees below your desired final temperature to allow the residual heat to bring it to the perfect doneness as it rests.
Allow the steak to come to room temperature: Take the steak out of the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before cooking. This ensures even cooking throughout the steak.
Pat the steak dry: Use paper towels to gently pat the steak dry. Moisture on the surface of the steak can hinder the browning process. Dry steak will develop a better crust.
Season the steak with salt: To enhance its flavour and texture. The salt draws out moisture, creating a drier surface that promotes browning and contributes to the maillard reaction.
Preheat the cooking surface: Whether you're using a grill, cast-iron skillet, or grill pan, make sure it is preheated to a high temperature. A hot surface helps to sear the steak and lock in juices.
Cooking Techniques for Desired Doneness
Each doneness level requires specific cooking methods to ensure the meat reaches the right internal temperature while maintaining its texture, juiciness, and flavour. Here's a guide on cooking techniques for achieving rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, and well-done steaks:
- Cooking technique: For rare steaks, quick and high-heat methods work best to sear the outside while leaving the centre rare. Grilling, pan-searing, or broiling are ideal techniques.
- Cooking time: Cook the steak for a short period, approximately 2-3 minutes per side on high heat, depending on the thickness of the steak. The internal temperature should reach around 120°F to 125°F (49°C to 52°C).
- Cooking technique: Similar to rare, use high-heat cooking methods like grilling, pan-searing, or broiling, but extend the cooking time slightly to achieve a warmer pink centre.
- Cooking time: Cook the steak for about 3-4 minutes per side on high heat to reach an internal temperature of 130°F to 135°F (54°C to 57°C).
- Cooking technique: A combination of high-heat and moderate-heat methods works well for medium doneness. Sart with high heat to sear the outside, then finish with moderate heat to cook the centre.
- Cooking time: Cook the steak for approximately 4-5 minutes per side on high heat, then reduce the heat and continue cooking until the internal temperature reaches 140°F to 145°F (60°C to 63°C).
- Cooking technique: Medium-well doneness requires longer cooking times at moderate heat to ensure the centre cooks thoroughly.
- Cooking time: Cook the steak for about 5-6 minutes per side on moderate heat until the internal temperature reaches 150°F to 155°F (65°C to 68°C).
- Cooking technique: Slow and gentle cooking methods are best to ensure the meat cooks all the way through without drying it out.
- Cooking time: Cook the steak for around 6-7 minutes per side on low to moderate heat until the internal temperature reaches 160°F and above (71°C and above).
Keep in mind that these cooking times are approximate and can vary based on the thickness of the steak, the cooking equipment, and individual preferences. To achieve the desired doneness accurately, use a meat thermometer.
Undercooked steak can pose health risks due to the potential presence of harmful bacteria, such as E. coli or Salmonella, which can cause foodborne illnesses. Consuming raw meat increases the likelihood of experiencing symptoms like nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea.
Young children, pregnant women, older adults, and individuals with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable. It is essential to cook your steak to the recommended minimum internal temperature, typically 145°F (63°C), to safeguard against foodborne illnesses.
Serving and enjoying a perfectly cooked steak is a delightful experience. Here's a guide on how to serve and enjoy your steak to its fullest:
- Slicing and Presentation: When ready to serve, slice the steak against the grain to enhance its tenderness. Arrange the slices on a warmed serving platter or individual plates.
- Accompaniments: Classic side dishes like creamy mashed potatoes, Red Skin Potato Salad, roasted vegetables, or a fresh Arugula Salad to complement the steak's richness. You can also add herb butter or a drizzle of homemade sauce, such as chimichurri or mushroom sauce.
- Wine Pairing: Red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Malbec go well with red meat.
- Dessert: Follow the steak with a delicious dessert like warm gooey Chocolate Fondant Cake, Strawberries and Cream, No Bake Condensed Milk Cheesecake, and Biscoff Cheesecake.
- Leftovers: If there are leftovers, store them properly in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The next day, you can use the steak in sandwiches, salads, or make Beef Ramen Noodle Soup.