How to Tell When Your Steak Is Perfectly Done.

About: Tall, dark and not so handsome ;-) I was born and raised in the Peace River region on farms. On March 8, 1997 I married the best girl in the world and a little over a year later we were sealed for all time (...
News Flash: Rookie Cookie ruins good steak.
One of the most common rookie mistakes when grilling or cooking steak is cutting into the meat to see if it has reached level of completion you want (IE: 'Med-Rare'). The problem with doing this is that it can ruin what would have been a great steak. It makes the meat tough and dry, especially when you still have to cook for awhile after making your exploratory cut. In the next paragraph I will explain in great and boring detail why this happens, if you don't care about the why just skip the next paragraph.

Warning: Pseudo Science Content (boring part)
This is why cutting into meat while cooking ruins the steak. With the outside of the steak effectively sealed by the searing process the moisture content in the steak exceeds the boiling point without turning to steam because the water can't escape readily, kind of like what happens in a pressure cooker. Both heat and pressure help to break down the collagen that holds the meat fibers together thereby tenderizing the meat further. If the pressure is suddenly released by cutting into the steak while still cooking in the pan two things happen.
1) Moisture will now exit the meat quickly as steam now that the pressure forcing it to remain liquid has been released, so in a matter of seconds a significant portion of the liquid is lost to the air drying out the meat substantially.
2) The sudden release of pressure and juice from the steak cause the fibers of the meat thicken and stiffen in seconds.
Viola, your steak just ruined your day.

Shhh! ... Don't tell anyone how this works and achieve grill "GodHood".
This technique is actually pretty easy once you know how. The secret to knowing when your steak is done is the firmness of the meat. A good reference for interpreting what each level of firmness translates to what stage of completion you have reached is found in the palm of your hand. Hold your hand in front of you, with palm up. If you follow with your eye from the flat part of the ball of the thumb down to the muscle pad at the base of your thumb which points towards the side of your hand. The firmness of this muscle pad felt when you gently poke this spot with the finger of your other hand, will pretty closely approximate the stage of completion known as 'Med-Rare'. The muscle pad next to the last one on the side toward the index finger represents 'Rare' to 'Blue-Rare'. The muscle pad on the other side of 'Med-Rare' will match 'Well-Done'. With a little practice you will soon be a 'Steak Master'. Keep in mind that different cuts of meat will react differently to the cooking process and you will have to adjust this technique appropriately. Don't be afraid to practice and experiment. Don't forget to let your steak rest on a plate for a few minutes, about 5 minutes per inch of thickness. This will allow the meat fibers to relax and the juices to stabilize and rehydrate entire steak so that it will be fork tender, juicy and full of flavor.

Where to go from here.
Now for some of you out there who feel somewhat overwhelmed at the idea of the entire process of choosing and cooking a great steak, take heart. I will be posting an instructible soon covering everything, from the trip to the butcher shop or meat counter at the grocery store, to knowing what cuts are the best for a given circumstance and every step along the way to becoming the hero of your block, the 'go to' gourmet when it comes to cooking the best steaks you've ever had.

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    5 Discussions


    8 years ago on Introduction

    "Pseudo science" is correct.

    Von Liebig first proposed the "sear it to seal it" theory around 1850, and it became popular, and is still advocated today, despite being shown to be conclusively wrong by a series of experiments in the 1930s. Searing meat does not seal it, at all, and moisture loss is proportional to meat temperature. Searing DOES enhance meat flavor due to browning reactions, however, so it is still a desirable cooking method.

    See "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee, 2004, pg. 161.

    2 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Wow, that is amazing. All these years and I have been working under this false "fact" and sometimes going to allot of trouble to make sure I seared the edges as well as the top and bottom. Looks like I still have some editing to do. Thank you for taking the time to pass along this information. Regards, Fuzzee Dee.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I was taught the same thing as you years ago, and I still sear meat, as it develops good flavors. I highly recommend the McGee book; it is my go-to reference for food related questions.


    From a food safety standpoint color is not an accurate representative of doneness.

    Older meats can brown faster than fresher meats, and with whole cut meats like steaks, roasts, the bacteria is on the outside of the flesh and not on the inside. Ground beef on the other hand is mixed up from several animals and fat throughout several processes and has bacteria throughout the patty, therefor one would need to cook to an internal temp of 160F to make it safe. Its easily measurable with a cheap $2 thermometer.

    1 reply

    This method has less to do with color than it does with firmness and typically 'Med-Rare' or better requires the kind of temps you refer to. Having said that however, you do make a good point. I will do some editing and warn readers about the dangers and what they can do about it. I appreciate you taking the time to help me and my readers avoid a potential trouble spot. Regards, Fuzzee Dee.