Steak-Savvy: How to Tell If Grilled Steak Is Done

A steak is done when it isn’t rare. Now that we’ve established this, let’s get a little more practical.

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An overcooked steak is a mis-steak that can’t be fixed.

The damage, if you catch my drift, is already well done! This makes getting the desired doneness level one of the most—if not the most—important aspects of grilling a steak.

Have you ever seen a professional chef tell if steak is done just by touching it? Getting there takes a lot of practice, no doubt about it. And yet, by the time you’re done reading this post, that’s one of the things you’ll be able to do.

We will guide you through grilling the perfect steak for you, the spouse, and the uncle and aunt sitting there at the table—whether you have a meat thermometer or not—so stick around.

Telling If a Steak Is Done

With a Meat Thermometer

Cutting open a steak to check if it’s done isn’t a good idea; it will drain all the juices from the meat, and, if it isn’t there just yet, you probably won’t be able to cook it to the desired level.

This is where a meat thermometer comes into play. So let’s talk about the things you need to do to grill that steak to perfection for when you have a meat thermometer that you can pull out.

For starters, remove the steak from the fridge 20 minutes before cooking it and rest it on the counter. This will bring the protein to room temperature so that it grills quickly and evenly.

Second, raw meat—including beef—may contain harmful bacteria that can give you food-borne illness unless you kill it with heat, so it’s important to keep to the safe minimum internal temperature according to the USDA.

Third, if that meat thermometer of yours is new or you haven’t used it in a while, you probably need to calibrate it before you use it. Just place it in an ice-cold bucket. If it reads 32°F—the freeze temperature of water—then it’s ready to be used.

Follow these instructions to check your steak’s temperature while cooking it:

  1. Insert the thermometer probe into the middle of the thickest part of the meat, away from fatty parts or thick bones.
  2. Keep the thermometer in the meat for at least 2-3 seconds to get an accurate read.
  3. Check the read of the thermometer to determine if your steak is done.
  4. Keep cooking and repeat if the steak isn’t done.

Keep in mind that the steak will keep cooking itself after it’s been removed from the source of heat for about 5 to 10 degrees F. This is called carryover cooking.

For example, if the desired temperature is 150°F, remove the steak from the heat source at 145°F and let the steak rest for at least 3 minutes, and it’ll continue to cook itself before cutting it.

The Degrees of Doneness

After measuring the temperature, you can determine your steak doneness according to the following reads:

  • Rare: 120°F to 130°F
  • Medium-Rare: 130°F to 135°F
  • Medium: 140°F to 150°F
  • Medium-Well:‌ 155°F to 165°F
  • Well-Done: 170°F

Telling If Steak Is Done Without a Thermometer

Not everyone has a meat thermometer in the home. Of those who do, not everyone is inclined to use them!

You can approximate the steak’s doneness using a simple poke test. There are certain places on your face or your palm that can resemble a similar touch to every doneness level.

To put it simply, you poke the steak—then you compare its firmness or tenderness with the feeling of poking a part of your body.

There are two common ways to do it: the face test and the finger test.

The Finger Test

You can tell the steak’s doneness by touching or poking the palm of your hand right below your thumb, that fleshy oval part. 

Normally, poking this area in a relaxed palm should feel like poking a piece of raw meat. As simple as it sounds, it’s a relatively good approximation of the level of doneness. I know many a pitmaster who uses this method.

If you bring together the tip of your thumb with the tip of your index finger until they touch, and poke the same fleshy area under your thumb, if it feels the same way as your steak, it means your steak is rare.

In the same way, now, pressing the tip of your middle finger with the tip of your thumb, the area below your thumb will give you the feeling of a medium-rare steak.

Move your thumb to your ring finger; you’ll start feeling it getting more firm to the touch, this resembles a medium steak.

Finally, a well-done steak is resembled by bringing together your pinky and your thumb.

The Face Test

This technique depends on poking parts of your face that have the same feeling of different levels of doneness:

  • Poking your cheeks has the same feeling as poking a rare steak
  • Poking your chin has the same feeling as a medium steak
  • Poking your forehead has the same feeling as a medium-well steak.

Many recommend this method for any beginner over the finger test. The reason is that you get to feel the steak with one hand and touch your face for reference with the other.

It’s easier to tell the difference this way. Just make sure your face is relaxed and your hands are clean when you use this technique.

A fair warning to y’all: Only—and I repeat, only—touch your face if you’ve washed your hands after touching the raw meat. In “Wash Your Hands After Handling Raw Meat,” the Barbehow team and I explain why.

Telling If Steak Is Done After Cutting It

The moment of truth is when you cut open that steak to see if you’ve hit the desired doneness.

Every level of doneness has a certain look and texture. You can tell if your steak is done right according to the following list:

  • A rare steak should be red, soft, and juicy on the inside, a little charred and brown on the outside.
  • Medium-rare steak should look pink on the inside, with a small red circle in the middle.
  • Medium steak should look light pink in the middle, with low to none red raw-looking parts and more brownish cooked edges.
  • Medium-well has a faint or pale pink color in the middle but mostly gray brownish color of cooked meat all around.
  • Well-done steak has no pink middle. It’s completely cooked with a brownish-gray color and a charred crust outside.

Letting the Steak Rest Before Serving

When a steak gets cooked, the juices in the meat are released from the fibers of the muscles. Cutting the steak immediately will release those juices onto the plate and you won’t get to enjoy them!

However, if you let your steak rest for at least 3 minutes, the juices will redistribute themselves around the steak again and you’ll get to enjoy the juiciness in every bite.

In Conclusion

You can tell if a grilled steak is done by simply using a meat thermometer. It’s accurate and requires no experience, but you’ll have a hole in your steak that leaks the juices you love.

We recommend using the finger or the face technique. Once you get a good handle on them, cooking a steak with the perfect level of doneness will be a piece of cake!

By Sammy Steen

Sammy, Barbehow's editor, is a die-hard carnivore, barbecue whisperer, and self-proclaimed master of the grill.

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