Here's How Professional Chefs Tell When Steak Is a Perfect Medium Rare
You don't need a thermometer to nail your next ribeye. Use the gadget-free method that chefs use to tell when steak is perfectly cooked.
Pamela is a freelance food and travel writer based in Astoria, Queens. While she writes about most things edible and potable (and accessories dedicated to those topics,) her real areas of expertise are cheese, chocolate, cooking and wine. She's a culinary school grad, certified sommelier, former bartender and fine dining captain with 10 years in the industry. When not sitting at the keys, she leads in-home cheese classes, wine tastings and cocktail demonstrations.
A good steak deserves to be cooked exactly how you like it. Whether you like it bloody rare, well done or (hopefully) somewhere in between, nailing the internal temperature of your ribeye or strip steak is the most critical factor in that piece of beef turning out delicious. "Doneness is such a preference and everyone has their own," says Joe Flamm, chef-partner and culinary director of Chicago's BLVD Steakhouse. "For something as simple as steak, prepared with just salt and fire, you want it exactly how you want it."
Getting it exactly how you want it is half the battle then. Everyone might have different parameters in mind when it comes to rare, medium rare, medium, medium well or (please order the chicken) well done. In a restaurant setting, you can often send a steak back to have it taken a step further if undercooked, or to start over if it's been negligently overcooked, but you can't do that as easily when preparing steak at home. Here we unpack a simple trick for testing doneness in steak -- no gadgets required -- to nail it every time in your own kitchen.
Doneness in steak is frequently associated with color, as the steak goes from bright red when rare, through various stages of pink, until it becomes well done and has the pink cooked completely out of it. (RIP, ribeye.) It's difficult to gauge color without cutting into the steak, which you don't want to do until it comes off of the heat and has a moment to rest. Otherwise, the juices spill out of it, making for a drier, tougher outcome, especially if you're going to put it back on the fire for additional cooking. It's even more important not to do this prematurely if your preference leans toward medium well or well done; you want as much juice left in the meat as possible.
Doneness is also associated with temperature, with the internal temperature of the inside of the meat typically graduating between 120 degrees Fahrenheit and 160 degrees Fahrenheit as you move between rare and well done. This can be accomplished with a meat thermometer, but there is another method frequently applied by chefs that doesn't require any gadgets.
With bigger cuts, such as a whole prime rib roast that will be sliced after cooking, "a thermometer is super helpful for consistency and accuracy," says Flamm, but "for smaller cuts and for speed, many chefs can check it by feel," he says. "If you're cooking 100 filets a night, every night, it begins to fall into place."
Understanding doneness in steak and why overcooking is bad
What's a home cook to do who isn't in the habit of cooking dozens of steaks on repeat, many times a week? Before we get to the shortcut trick to help you learn this, it's important to understand the transformation your steak undergoes as it cooks to higher and higher temperatures.
In basic terms, the longer a steak cooks, the firmer the meat becomes, which has to do with the scientific process the meat is undergoing. "Whenever you cook a steak for a longer period there's a breaking point where fat and muscle are done breaking down," explains Flamm, "and you're just drying out the steak and losing moisture, which gives the steak a tougher texture." This increasingly firmer or tougher texture is key to being able to check the doneness of steak without relying on a thermometer.
Learning to check for doneness by feel doesn't necessarily require hundreds of dollars of raw materials to get the requisite practice. Neither does it rely on any particular gadget. It's not exactly a one-handed method, but the method only involves the use of your hands.
Whether or not you have the means and/or mentality to quit your job and go to culinary school, here's a culinary school trick to understand doneness in meat, using the fleshy base of your thumb as a point of comparison in the resistance of the steak when poked.
Here it is: with one hand, gently touch your thumb and forefinger together, keeping the rest of your fingers relaxed, in a half-assed "A-OK" signal. You don't want to press your thumb and forefinger together -- simply make light contact between them. With the forefinger of your opposite hand gently poke the fleshy base of your thumb.
You're not pressing down here, just giving it a quick jab. This is approximately the level of resistance you should feel for a medium rare steak when similarly jabbed in the center of the meat. (Quick aside here about clean and/or gloved hands. Also, the steak will be hot on the outside, yes, but again, a brief jab is all that's in order.)
Subsequently, as you move your thumb to lightly touch your middle finger, the tension in the base of your thumb increases, and this represents how a medium-cooked steak should feel. As you stretch your thumb to reach the ring finger, now you've got medium well, and the tension in the thumb when touched with the pinkie finger reveals well done.
Regardless of how you like your steak cooked, and how you'd personally define it, now you have a consistent point of comparison available to you at all times with which to practice, whether you're cooking steak once a week or once a year.
What's the best way to cook steak?
So, what's the best way to cook a steak? Opinions abound regarding direct heat versus indirect heat, hard searing and reverse searing, and even cooking steak in an air fryer. Flamm recommends a time-honored method: "For me, it's searing the steak hard, and then using indirect heat to slowly let it render and come up in temp to the place where you want it to be," he says, finishing your seared steak in the oven.
You can consult various recipes for time and temperature recommendations with the indirect heat method, just be sure to factor in that your steak will continue to cook while resting, and to take your steak out and give it a good jab every so often.