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Friday Tip|When Is It Done?

Did you miss me last week?  I love my new job, but it is whooping my backside!

Enough with my excuses for laming out on you.  Today let’s deal with the question that plagues all chefs (or at least everyone in this household), “when is it done?”

This applies to all things that you can cook or bake, from chicken to cake, but for this post I’m just going to deal with steak, for two reasons: 1. it’s a pretty straightforward example of how to figure out when something is done (without butchering it a second time) and 2. it’s a real shame to overcook a steak.

There are two ways to figure out when a steak is done without cutting into it:

Method One – Temperature

So the nice thing about this method is that it applies to many different things; you can take the internal temperature of a steak, a beef roast, a roasted chicken, a fish…I’m sure you could do this with a cake too (although I’ve never seen a recipe for cake list an internal temperature before).  Almost anything can be tested for doneness with a thermometer.  You will need one of these:

This is the instant read thermometer that I have and I like it a lot.  You can also get a meat thermometer specifically for checking meat, but they don’t go up to a very high temp, so you’ll need a different thermometer if you want to gauge how hot anything over 200F is (like frying oil or candy).  The digital aspect of this one is nice because you can get a really precise reading.

There are all kinds of sites that list temperatures for “done” on different things.  And there are raging debates on how hot something should be when it is “done.”  In the US, we tend toward overdone on many things because we are very* concerned with food safety.  General rule of thumb: the hotter something is cooked to, the tougher (or mushier) it’s going to be.  So if you can risk it, less is generally more (and if you get a decent piece of steak, food-borne illness really shouldn’t be a problem).  Here is the range of temperatures I use when I cook steak:

Super rare – 120 – this one is for beef-o-philes and my stepmother only.  It’s almost alive at this point.
Rare – 125 – serious beef lovers will like this, mostly red and pink.
Medium-rare – 130 – this is what I like, pink in the center but not red.  It’s still a nice tender steak, but it gives me the feeling of the food being cooked!
Medium – 140 – now your steak isn’t really pink anymore, or maybe just slightly.  It’s starting to get very cooked.
Medium-well – 150 – zero pink and pretty much zero softness.  Sometimes people insist on this, but it makes lovers of rare steak very sad.
Well-done – 160 – a “well done” steak is actually it’s opposite.  I generally don’t like to tell people what to do with food, but this is just overcooked.  I would be very disappointed indeed to spend $$$ on a lovely piece of beef and have to cook it this way.  You really might as well have liver.

Very important tip!
Steak (and all meat) keeps cooking when you take it off heat!  So undershoot a little.  You’ll probably need to experiment a bit.  If you want medium-rare, cook it to rare, let is stand for a few minutes and then take the temperature.  If it’s not quite where you want it, cook it a bit more (but not much, it’s really close!)

Once you get the hang of cooking steak using temperature as a gauge for doneness, you might want to venture into the super-impressive touch technique that most chefs use.  Yes, this does involve sticking your fingers in your food, but it’s how the pros do it, and I think it’s a great way of really learning what a cooked steak is.**  Plus you don’t need a thermometer!

Method Two – Touch

As the steaks cook, they start to change physically.  In color, of course, but also in the way they feel.  Much like a cake batter, they go from very squishy (or liquid in the case of cake) to firm outside, soft inside, to springy and solid, to brick-like.  And you can use this feel as a way to figure out if you steaks are done.  Here’s a guide for doing it this way:

Very rare – squishy.  Poke the steak when it’s raw.  If you’ve seared it a bit on both sides and poke it again, it’ll feel almost the same.  That’s how not cooked “very rare” is!
Rare – will feel like your earlobe.  Still pretty squishy, but firmer than very rare.
Medium – feels like the tip of the your nose.  Definitely not squishy.
Well done – essentially feels like your forehead.

This is how the steak will feel at the point when you should stop cooking in order to get the amount of doneness that you want.  A rare steak should be 125 when it’s done, so it should feel like an earlobe when it’s at around 115 or 120.  Make sense?

One great thing to do in order to teach yourself how to do it by feel is to use the thermometer and poke.  This will give you a great sense of how the meat feels at precisely the right temperature.  After a while, you’ll get the sense of when it feels done.

I also found this great guide that uses the fleshy part of the hand to gauge what different levels of doneness should feel like.  I haven’t used this cooking before, but going through it right now, it seems pretty spot-on and I think it would work.

Hope that’s helpful!


* In my opinion, overly concerned.  I have eaten a lot, and so far, I have yet to get food poisoning.  I realize that is a very unpleasant experience, but it is a risk I am willing to take in order to eat the foods I love prepared the way I like them.
**I am still learning to test for doneness this way, but I really believe it’s worth the effort.  You don’t have to rely on a thermometer and paying attention to your food (rather than relying on time or temperature) is absolutely the best way to learn about cooking.

One Comment

  1. David says:

    I’ve gotten food poisoning a couple of times (through no fault of my own). It is exceptionally unpleasant, but still not unpleasant enough to convince me to, say, not eat rare steak or cookie dough with raw eggs.

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