Nailing the right level of doneness is an amateur chef’s biggest challenge. Some poke, some slice and others prod their steak with a thermometer. Which way is best? Grilling expert Ted Reader, author of eight cookbooks including “King of the Q’s Blue Plate BBQ,” weighs the pros and cons of three popular methods.
#1 THE SLICE
This common method sends most chefs running in horror, but for those petrified of serving undercooked beef, it’s the surest way to confirm whether your steak’s cooked. Although Reader says it should be verboten, slicing into the thick center of a steak isn’t necessarily bad form if you prefer it well done. After all, you don’t have to worry about losing juice if you like steaks leathery. Pros: There’s no skill involved, and it gives you a perfectly clear look at the color and texture of the meat and the consistency of the steak’s juice. Cons: “It’s the worst thing you can do,” says Reader. “When you cut into a steak, you’re cutting into flesh and releasing all those juices, which gives you flavor, moisture and adds to the succulence of the steak.”
#2 THE THERMOMETER
Since we have the portable technology to tell us the exact temperature of our steak, we’d be crazy not to use it, right? Not exactly. The thermometer is the most exact way of indicating a steak’s doneness (if you know the desired temps for each level), but there are arguable consequences for puncturing the meat. If you decide to employ a thermometer, Reader’s tip is not to spend a fortune: “I use the cheap ones, and I never buy just one because they don’t always stay calibrated.” Pros: If you know the desired internal temperature, a thermometer tells you exactly when to yank the steak from the fire. Cons: “You’re piercing the meat and drawing out the precious moisture,” says Reader. “You want to sear in those juices, but when you poke a hole, you lose that juice. But, it’s just a small hole, and you’ll only poke it once or twice.”
#3 THE HAND TEST
No thermometer? No problem. Relax one hand, and with the other, touch the soft flesh at the base of the thumb; that’s the same firmness as a rare steak. Now touch the same spot, but with your thumb and index finger together in an “OK” gesture; that’s medium rare. Connect your thumb with your middle finger for the feel of medium, with your ring finger for medium-well, and with your pinky for well-done. Match this with the feel of your steak’s center and you should nail its doneness every time. Pros: By far the least intrusive way to gauge whether your steak’s done.“The hand touch is what every chef does,” says Reader. “Eventually, it just becomes a sense, and you don’t even have to go back to your hand.”
Cons: Since you’re not relying on sight or technology, the hand test may take a while to master.
DONENESS: FROM MOOING TO LEATHER
Rare: Red fleshy center with red juices; desired temperature from 130 to 140 degrees.
Medium-Rare: Pinkish-red center that’s juicy; desired temperature from 140 to 145 degrees.
Medium: Pink center with surrounding gray flesh; desired temperature 145 to 150 degrees.
Medium-well: Hints of pink but mostly gray and firm; desired temperature 150 to 160 degrees.
Well-done: Dark gray to brown coloring, firm with little to no clear juice; desired temperature 160 to 170 degrees.