Summer’s finally here, and if you stand in your backyard and listen closely, you’ll hear the beautiful sound of millions of grills being lit across the country.
There is – of course – no better food to grill than a richly marbled, perfectly aged cut of USDA Prime steak. But before you finish tying up the strings on your “Kiss The Chef” apron, it’s best to be sure you have the basics of steak doneness down.
With this guide to Steak doneness, we’ll show you what happens when you cook your steak, what the different levels of doneness are (and what they mean for your steak’s tenderness and flavor), and how you can be sure that you’ve cooked your steak to the perfect level of doneness.
What Cooking Does To Your Steak
There are two parts to grilling a gorgeous ribeye or strip. The first is making sure that the steak reaches a consistent internal temperature. It’s this internal temperature that’s used to determine a steak’s doneness.
When you cook meat, you’re doing three things:
- You’re breaking down it’s proteins: Muscle proteins, which are usually tightly balled, begin to unwind. This is why rawer steaks are chewier than more cooked ones.
- You’re evaporating water: Roughly ¾ of a steak’s muscle fibers are made of water. As you cook a steak, that water evaporates. Hence why a well done steak has less mass and less juiciness than a rare steak.
- You’re melting fat: As you cook your steak, the small streaks and pockets of fat inside start melting. When the fat melts, it gets absorbed into the muscle. This gives your steak a better taste (fat contains the chemicals that gives beef its flavor) and a smoother, more tender and buttery texture.
The second part of grilling is searing. Searing a steak involves exposing its surface to extremely hot temperatures (meaning 500°or hotter) for short periods. This results in what’s called the Maillard effect, and it gives your steak the crunchy, brown flavorful exterior that steak lovers prize.
Steak Doneness Levels
All great steaks require searing (for flavor, texture, and killing surface bacteria). But it’s the internal temperature that determines your steak’s doneness. There are six main levels of doneness you can cook a steak to.
NOTE: You should always pull your steak off the grill when it’s 5° below the temperature you want it to reach. This is because your steak retains heat and will continue to cook and heat up for a short time after you pull it off the grill.
Blue Rare (115°): Also known as Very Rare, Blood Rare, Black & Blue, Pittsburgh Rare, or Bloody As Hell. Blue Rare steaks are only seared on the outside, meaning the inside remains almost completely uncooked and raw. Blue Rare steaks are often still cool on the inside, and may be placed in an oven at a low temperature to warm.
Rare (120°): Rare steaks have a warm but very red center. This means the surface has the tasty flavor and texture of the Maillard effect, but also means that the steak’s fats have not had a chance to properly melt. Because of this, Rare is a great choice for low-fat steaks, such as tenderloins, but should be avoided for well-marbled cuts such as rib-eyes, strips, and porterhouses.
Medium Rare (130°): The gold-standard of steak doneness. Ask almost any chef or steak aficionado: Medium Rare means the best tasting, most tender steak you can grill. At this temperature, the steak’s fat has had a chance to melt, distributing butteriness and flavor, but not a lot of moisture has evaporated yet, meaning a supremely tender, juicy, and plump steak. A medium-rare steak is red at the center, with a ring of pinkness between the center and the crust.
Medium (140°): A medium steak no longer contains a red center, but is pink throughout most of the steak. Medium steaks retain the buttery, flavorful taste of Medium-Rare steaks, but have slightly less juiciness and tenderness, due to moisture loss.
Medium Well (150°): Medium Well steaks still retain a little bit of pinkness and tenderness, but have begun to lose enough moisture that they will be drier and less tender than most steak lovers would care for.
Well Done (160°): Most chefs and grillmasters would say this level of doneness is poorly named – “Over-Done” would be a better fit. By this point, enough moisture (and fat) has either evaporated or leaked from the steak that it you’ll find your meat much drier and tougher than you’d probably like it.
The best way to make sure your steak has reached the temperature and level of doneness you’re looking for is to use a meat thermometer. Find a quality thermometer that gives accurate readings and slide it into the side of your steak, towards the center.
Some people will tell you not to do this, as poking a steak will let the juices leak out. Ignore them – it’s nonsense. A small amount of juices will leak, but not enough that anyone will notice.
Similarly, ignore those who tell you to check a steak’s doneness through the finger test. Different breeds of beef, cuts of meat, and steak thicknesses can cause big variations in how a cooked steak feels to the touch – the method is unreliable, and is a great way to ruin a good Wagyu or Kobe-style steak.
Now that you know the perfect doneness and temperature to grill your ribeye to (hint hint: Medium Rare, Medium Rare, Medium Rare), it’s time to fire up the grill.
If you’re looking for more tips on how to get the perfect steak, why not check out a few of Steak U’s videos, and let some of Chicago’s top steakhouse chefs and steak lovers show you how it’s done.