Best Way to Tell if Food is Cooked

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If I’ve heard this tip once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “Use the touch test to conserve a steak’s juices by not slicing into meat to check color—‘cause it’s what pro chefs do.” But it’s only part of the story.

  • Rare: The outside consistency of beef with a cool red center should be about that of the spot between your thumb and forefinger on a relaxed hand.
  • Medium:  To gauge if steak is just pink inside, compare how it feels to the density of the center of your palm when you hold your hand flat.
  • Well-done:  Meat that’s cooked all the way through should be firm but with a slight 
give, similar to the texture of the tip of your nose.”

So thumb or thermometer? Which do you trust? I know that some people – and you may be one of them – swear by the method above. I do not.

For a few reasons…

Best Way to Tell if Food is cooked

The key words in the above statement are “pro chefs,” and to my thinking that is someone who cooks lots and lots and lots of steaks. Professional chefs and/or line cooks prepare hundreds of steaks each week and most likely thousands each year.  These are usually the same quality (choice or prime) cut and thickness….and the cook develops a sixth-sense and a muscle memory in their hand that works for this technique. BUT if you are a skinny person or a fat person — and don’t repeatedly cook the same exact cut of meat that is the same thickness and the same USDA grade — it most likely ain’t gonna work. For most people – you may be the exception! Each cut of meat is gonna be different for the home cook – if you always cook 2 inch thick 8 ounce sirloins that are USDA Choice – the consistency of the meat will be within a similar range and you may get to know the degree of doneness by this method after a few dozen steaks cooked within a week. BUT change the menu to a 1 inch-thick tenderloin or 3/4 inch ribeye and the “touch” system goes haywire. Add to this list the fact that temperature is the all encompassing tool of all cooking – especially outdoor cooking – and a trustworthy thermometer is the best way to measure temperature.

These are the temperatures to be aware of when grilling a steak on your outdoor grill:

  1. The internal temperature of the meat just before you place it on the grill. If it’s thin and very cold, say nearly 32°F – you may find that you can sear the outside but the inside will still be rare BUT if the meat is very warm, say it’s been brought up to room temperature of about 65°F you may find the steak cooks on the outside in the same time BUT will definitely cook faster on the inside.  Knowing the internal temperature of the steak (any meat for that matter) prior to beginning to cook it will help you understand what needs to happen to get it to the desired end finished temperature.
  2. The outside air temperature. That’s right – the weather will affect the way your cooker operates so being aware of the outside weather conditions – wind/breeze/temperature and even humidity – will help you to understand what you need to do to finish the meat to the desired amount of doneness.
  3. The temperature of the grates upon which you will cook the steak (the material they are made of is also important to understand because different metals conduct heat in different ways) because the sear marks and outdoor cooked flavors you desire are developed by the contact the meat has with hot grates. Under 350°F and the meat will not brown very well – or it will take a long, long time. I recommend about 500°F or hotter for searing beef steaks on the grill.
  4. The desired temperature for the finished steak – after it has cooked and rested.

Best way to tell if food is cooked

Tips for grilling steaks on an infrared grill:

When roasting or grilling meat on a Char-Broil® TRU-Infrared to USDA temperature standards, the finished product has 30%-50% more moisture due to the way IR (infrared) cooks without hot, dry air. The result is that folks who have traditionally cooked meat to a less than 145°F internal temperature in order for it to remain juicy, now find that meat cooked to a more “done” higher temperature is actually more moist than prepared on traditional gas or charcoal grills and, indeed I suspect they may find it has a less chewy and better “mouth feel” and “tooth” to each bite. That said, the flavor of raw or undercooked meat is a desired taste for many.

When cooking a larger size piece of meat, depending upon the mass (size) and density (muscle, texture, fat, etc.) the meat may continue to cook for 10 or 15+ minutes after removing from the oven, cooker, roaster or fryer.  This “carry over” heat is used by experienced cooks to bring the meat to a final presentation temperature during the resting period after exposure to the heat of the cooking appliance.  During this resting time the muscles which have twisted and tightened during the cook (think of a wash cloth being wrung out) have expressed the moisture contained in their cells.  When the meat rests, stops cooking and begins to cool a bit – the muscles untwist and re-absorb much of the moisture squeezed out during the heating.  That’s why you are always advised to let meat rest after cooking – sometimes referred to as “allowing the juices to re-distribute” but really it’s the muscles untwisting and re-absorbing.  You’ve undoubtedly cut a roast or steak right after cooking and had juices spill out onto the cutting board or plate. Give that same meat a 15 minute rest and not as much juice will drain away.

Learn Cuts of Meat
Various cuts of beef from www.Hereford.org

 

My recommendation? Get a good thermometer.

The ONLY way to know the temperature of the meat, which is the best gauge of done for anything cooked on the grill, is by using a good instant-read thermometer inserted into the muscle from the side of the steak, possibly through the fat cap, and into the center.  Yes, you can get a sense of how it is based upon time on the grill and the color of the sear marks, but time is generally not a measure of “doneness” on the grill. A visual reference on the outside can tell you when the outside is done — and time to remove from direct heat — but the only sure-fired way to know when the meat is done to perfection the way you like it is by measuring the internal temperature.

2 thoughts on “Best Way to Tell if Food is Cooked

  1. Can you recommend a good grilling thermometer? I prefer the remote kind that you can leave in because I don’t like repeatedly poking holes in the meat. I’ve had bad luck with several where the probe stopped working after a few months.

    1. Bill – We offer a digital thermometer that you can use for pretty much anything. You can find it here: http://www.charbroil.com/digital-meat-thermometer.html

      Beyond that, if you are looking to spend a little extra money and get (in my opinion) one of the best thermometers out there that gives you an accurate reading instantly every time, check out the Thermapen (http://www.thermoworks.com/products/thermapen/splashproof_thermapen.html)

      Hope this helps!
      -Michael

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