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What Is Steak Doneness?
Steak doneness refers to how thoroughly a piece of meat is cooked, based on its internal temperature, texture, color, and juiciness. Doneness usually refers to beef, which is served at a variety of internal temperatures, from rare to well done. As meat cooks, muscle fibers contract, changing texture from squishy to firm and becoming easier to chew. When these fibers contract, the meat changes color and releases juices, eventually turning from bright red to dry and brown, and providing visual cues to the internal temperature.
Why Is Steak Doneness Important?
As it cooks, steak becomes firmer and easier to chew; cooked too long, it becomes tough and dry, drawing comparisons to shoe leather. The challenge is that steak doneness happens rapidly: A 1-inch-thick steak can have a rate of temperature increase at the center of more than 10°F per minute. But donenes isn’t just about flavor—if food safety is your priority, you’ll need to cook steak all the way to 160°F to prevent any chance of foodborne illness
7 Degrees of Steak Doneness: Raw and Rare to Well-Done
Steak can safely be served at any degree of doneness from raw to well-done, given proper preparation:
Some dishes, such as steak tartare and beef carpaccio, are served fully raw; the meat is not heated at all. Steak used in raw preparations usually comes from the most tender cuts and must be carefully trimmed before serving.
Steak that has been quickly seared on each side, but remains cool, red, and raw on the inside is called bleu.
- Internal temperature: 110°F
- Texture: soft to the touch, like the muscle between the thumb and index finger when it’s fully relaxed
- Juice: little to no colored juice
- Internal color: red center
Meat starts to become firm and opaque at around 120°F, when myosin, one of two contracting filaments in muscle, starts to coagulate, or clump together. When the myosin coagulates, it squeezes out juices. (Although rare steak is often referred to as “bloody,” these juices are protein-bound water, not blood.)
- Internal temperature: 120-130°F
- Texture: becoming firmer and more resilient when poked with a finger. Feels like the muscle between the thumb and the index finger when the two fingers are spread apart
- Juice: red juice appears at the surface. This is the juiciest stage of cooking
- Internal Color: warm red center becoming more opaque
One of the most popular levels of doneness, medium rare refers to steak which is still juicy, but firmer than rare steak.
- Internal temperature: 130-135°F
- Texture: resilient to touch, less slick and more fibrous than rare
- Juice: releases juice when cut
- Internal color: opaque, lighter red
Around 140°F, more proteins coagulate and the meat becomes firmer and more moist. Between 140-150°F, collagen in the meat cells denatures and shrinks, releasing lots of fluid. The meat itself shrinks by about one-sixth and becomes chewier and drier, a level of doneness most cooks consider medium, but which the USDA categorizes as “rare.” Most microbes are killed in this temperature range.
- Internal temperature: 135-145°F
- Texture: firm to the touch, like the muscle between the thumb and the index finger when the two fingers are squeezed together
- Juice: exudes droplets of red juice
- Interior color: red fades to pink
As the meat continues to shrink, it starts to take on a gray-brown hue, edging towards what most cooks call well done, but what the USDA identifies as “medium rare.”
- Internal temperature: 145-155°F
- Texture: firmer, becoming more stiff
- Juice: Less free juice
- Interior color: pale pink fades to gray-brown
At an internal temperature above 155°F (USDA “medium”), meat continues to shrink and nearly all proteins are denatured. At 160°F, all microbes are killed and collagen begins to turn into gelatin. (USDA “well” is 170°F.)
- Internal temperature: 155°F and above
- Texture: stiff
- Juice: dry, with little free juice; any juice is tan or gray
- Internal color: gray-brown
Does the Cut of Steak Affect Doneness?
Although heat causes all types of meat to change in the same way, the cut of meat will affect both cooking times and which flavor features you’ll want to highlight. There are two main features that can affect cook time:
- Fat content. Fatty beef cuts cook more slowly than lean cuts, because fat is less conductive than muscle.
- Bones. If a steak is cut to include a bone, the meat closest to the bone will cook more slowly than the rest of the steak, since bones’ honeycomb structure slows the transfer of heat.
When it comes to highlighting flavor, tender cuts benefit from hot, quick cooking—just until their juices are in full flow—which showcases their soft texture. Tougher and fattier cuts of meat can usually stand a bit more time on the grill.
What Do You Need to Cook Steak to Proper Temperature?
With all these specific cooking temperatures, it might seem like a good time to take out the meat thermometer. A traditional meat thermometer, however, is best for larger cuts such as a roast since it measures internal temperature along an inch span, not just the tip of the thermometer. Since most steaks are about ¾ of an inch thick, a traditional meat thermometer won’t accurately measure the internal temperature of a steak. For a more accurate temperature gauge, you can use a precise digital instant-read thermometer.
But it’s okay if you don’t have one: Your best tools are actually your hands and eyes. Press into the top of a steak with your finger and see how the steak responds. Cut into the meat, and check the color, observing if any juices flow out. Chef Thomas Keller tests for doneness in meat by comparing its feel to the feel of the pad of your thumb. (Watch him demonstrate how here.) Try practicing this method until you’re comfortable using your sense of touch to check whether meat is rare, medium-rare, or well-done.
The less you cook a steak, the rarer it’ll be, but cook time itself is not a universal or effective measure of doneness: Cook time can be affected by the cut of the steak, the thickness of the steak, the way the steak was stored before cooking, and different cooking techniques.
3 Different Cooking Methods and How They Affect Steak Doneness
- Grilling and frying, which involve rapid cooking on a very heat surface, are ideal cooking methods for rare and medium rare steak because they sear the meat on the outside quickly while keeping the internal temperature low.
- Sous vide is a method for cooking steak that takes the guesswork out of determining internal temperature. It relies on an immersion circulator—a tool that precisely regulates water temperature—in a large water bath. The steak is placed in a plastic bath inside the water bath and cooked for a longer amount of time (about an hour for a one-inch steak), so that the entire steak will be heated to the desired internal temperature. You can then quickly sear the outside of your perfect steak to add a caramelized crust.
- Unlike oven-roasting at a high temperature, which results in meat of various degrees of doneness across the cut, slow-roasting produces meat that is evenly cooked from edge to edge. You’ll need a meat thermometer to ensure that the roast reaches an internal temperature of 128°F. The pinkness of the meat may lead you to believe that it is undercooked. It’s not. It will be beautifully medium-rare and tender, as you’ll discover when you take your first bite (find Chef Thomas Keller’s recipe for blowtorch prime rib roast here).
3 Tips for Cooking the Perfect Steak
- Touch the raw meat before you cook it so you’ll better understand how it changes when heated.
- Remove steak from heat before it’s fully done to allow the residual heat to continue cooking the meat gradually.
- Try dividing up the cooking: First brown the steak on a high-temperature surface such as a cast iron pan, which heats up slowly but stays very hot. Once the surface has browned, switch to a low-temperature cooking method, such as a warm oven, which allows for slower cooking and a smaller difference between center and surface temperatures of the meat.