Steak Doneness: How Pink Can We Go?
When we might be drawing close to too rare.
Steaks with a increasingly pink or even red center are all the craze. Chefs recommend it; steak aficionados swear by it. The unofficial steak police (nosy next-door neighbour) insists that the only "proper" steak doneness is medium-rare or below. We have the impression that most chefs would be horrified at a request for "well-done" steak. "Good steak should be eaten medium-rare" seemed to have always been a universal truth, but is it? You might take a step back and wonder, have we humans always had a taste for rarer steak?
Eating steak that is increasingly closer to rare has become the yardstick for claiming the title of steak connoisseur, but most of us are unaware that temperatures for steak doneness have not always been what they are today. Yes, even the temperature for medium-rare has changed drastically over time. What we know of as "medium-rare" today was once considered "too alive to eat" just a couple of decades ago.
In the early 20th century, a "medium-rare" steak should be cooked until 140 °F to 158 °F. The margin for error was decreased when meat thermometers became a staple in American kitchens. In the 1960s, cookbooks and thermometers labeled beef as "medium-rare" at 140 °F to 145 °F, "slightly pink at the center with a firm texture." In the 1980s, the internal temperature of beef for "medium-rare" was widely concurred to be 135 °F to 140 °F. This significant drop in doneness temperature was attributed to Oriental and French nouvelle influences in a 1982 New York Times article called "Cooking: A Trend Toward 'Less Well Done.'" published in 1982.
The standard internal temperature for beef continued to drop as the decades go by, and nowadays, medium-rare is often defined as a steak cooked to an internal temperature of 125 °F to 135 °F, with a dark-pink center that is warm on the tongue, and a small ring of pink around the edge.
What's the Craze, Anyway?
As it turns out, there are scientific reasons for the growing preference for undercooking steaks. The two main myofibrillar proteins found in beef are myosin and actin. The two proteins denature, or break down, at different temperatures, affecting the firmness, fiber cohesivity, bite-off force needed, and juiciness of the meat. Through countless experiments, it is determined that when the internal temperature of steak is heated to modern standards of "medium-rare," it reaches the zone of perfect balance between all factors when perceived by the human senses. It does not prove that all humans are predisposed to medium-rare steak, only that a good majority will likely find it most palatable.
USDA's recommended safe minimum internal temperature for beef is 145 °F, and it requires you to allow the steak to rest for at least 3 minutes as it continues cooking on the inside. This standard is not about the taste but about the science behind ensuring all harmful bacteria are killed. So why don't we follow the safety recommendation?
Beef is safer than other meats when not thoroughly cooked because beef has denser muscles that bacteria cannot penetrate, so as long as the surface of the meat is seared at a high temperature without puncturing the muscle, the inside of beef is safe to consume.
One type of beef you should always thoroughly cook is ground beef. If harmful bacteria such as E. coli were present on the surface when the meat is grounded, it would be mixed throughout the meat. To destroy these harmful bacteria, USDA recommends ground beef be cooked until the minimum temperature of 160 °F. This minimum safety temperature also applies to ground beef products such as meatloaf, meatballs, and hamburgers.
The absolute best way to check your steak's doneness on the grill or while cooking is using a reliable meat thermometer. We use MEATER®. The thermometer should be instant-reading to ensure that you're not overcooking the meat while you wait for it to read the temperature. Every second counts! You'll need to insert the thermometer at an angle, so the tip reaches the thickest part of the steak, where the coolest part of the steak is. If even the lowest temperature in your steak reach your desired doneness, there will be no surprise too-pink spots when you slice it up.
The Fist Test
For experienced steak grillers, a quick touch test can also help you identify how well-done your steak is. While it might take some getting used to, you can reference the steak level of doneness to the firmness of your hand! Make a relaxed fist, thumb uncovered. Using your free hand, press down on your palm pad between your thumb and forefinger. It should feel soft with little resistance, similar to how pressing down on the center of a rare steak feels. Now, clench your fist tighter. The firmer feeling closely replicates a medium-rare steak! This testing method is perfected through many trials.
Checking the Time
Even without the above methods for checking temperature, you won't have to entirely rely on instincts alone if you count your cooking time. Certified Piedmontese beef is leaner than most conventional breeds, requiring a shorter cooking time to reach the desired temperature. The cooking time should be different for thicker or thinner cuts of meat, but the guideline below is based on cooking on high heat with Certified Piedmontese's boneless steaks that are around 1-inch thick.
Rare: Cook for 1 minute and 30 seconds on each side.
Medium-Rare: Cook for 2 minutes on each side.
Medium: Cook for 3 minutes on each side.
Medium-Well: Cook for 4 minutes and 15 seconds on each side.
Well-Done: Cook for 5 minutes on each side.
Each Steak to Its Own
The chef-recommended temperature will likely be medium-rare for steak choices in your typical restaurant. The filet mignon might be prepared somewhere between rare and medium-rare as it is a leaner cut. You would find that many other cuts of beef might be suited to different internal temperatures. Different steak cuts may require different temperatures and preparation methods to unlock their best potential.
There are multiple reasons for preferring medium-rare to rare steaks. The taste, the texture, it's about the overall eating experience. Science tells us that rarer meat is juicier and more tender, while cooking meat will break down its proteins and thus result in tougher meat. But the preferences of the human tongue are varied. Steak purists may complain that cooking a high-quality steak till "well-done" is sacrilege, and "What's the point of paying a high price for animals raised to be the highest quality only to ruin it on the grill?"
This outlook misses an important point: Food should be enjoyed! If someone is perfectly pleased with well-done steaks, they shouldn't be pressured to choose otherwise.
As the pendulum swings, we never know which new (or old) direction steak enthusiasts would seek in pursuit of the perfect steak. How well-done your steak should be is a highly personal question. In the end, nobody likes someone else sticking their nose where it doesn't belong.
We at Certified Piedmontese say, with beef this good, simply prepare your steak how you like it and enjoy it to the fullest!