Steak Mastery: Navigating the Different Levels of Cooking

Want to cook the perfect steak? While there are several ways to prepare a steak - grilling, pan searing, etc. - and different ingredients you can use to add flavor, the most important part of the cooking process is reaching the right internal temperature. Achieving your desired level of doneness is harder than you might think. In fact, some might consider it a rare culinary art. Use this detailed guide to cook your steak to perfection every time.

Steak Temperatures by Doneness Level

There is very little variation from one level of steak doneness to the next. The temperature might be only a few degrees different, and the color only slightly changed. But those small increments have a major impact when it comes to the flavor, texture and juiciness of the final result. To learn more, see the following guide to the five steak doneness levels.

Rare steak has an internal temperature of 120°F to 130°F. The center color of the steak is red, and there is a minimal sear on the exterior. The center of the steak may be a bit cool to the touch.

Medium-rare steak has an internal temperature of 130°F to 135°F. The center color of the steak is pink with brown stripes on top and bottom. There is a nice sear on the outside, and the interior of the steak is room temperature.

Medium steak has an internal temperature of 135°F to 145°F. The steak has some pink in the center surrounded by brown and a consistently seared exterior. The inside of the steak has a lukewarm temperature.

Medium-well steak has an internal temperature of 145°F to 155°F. The center of the steak is warm and has only a sliver of pink surrounded by brown. The sear on the outside is usually a bit on the darker side.

Well-done steak has an internal temperature of 155°F to 165°F. The center color of the steak is mostly brown. It's warm throughout and is dark in color both inside and out.

According to the USDA, the safe internal temperature for steak is 145°F and above. However, it's not uncommon for steak to be served slightly below this temperature. The most popular doneness level for steak is medium rare, which shouldn't have an internal temperature exceeding 135°F.

Factors Affecting How a Steak Cooks

The quality of the steak is one of the biggest factors in how it will cook. That's because the marbling of the fat in the steak has a direct impact on how quickly it reaches the desired doneness level. For example, an authentic Japanese Wagyu steak will have very thin marbling consistent throughout the steak, which means the marbling begins to melt at lower temperatures and the steak is incredibly tender and buttery. This means the cooking process for a Wagyu steak should be quick to avoid losing the luscious texture.

The type of cut you have will also impact how your steak cooks. A very fine cut, such as a filet mignon, has tender steak that tends to cook relatively quickly with very little prep required beforehand. A flank steak, on the other hand, is a tougher cut. Therefore, it's best to prep it by pounding it with a mallet, marinating it for at least a few hours, and then cooking it for a longer period to help achieve a tender texture.

Of course, the cooking method will also affect how your steak cooks. You may have different cooking times to achieve the same doneness level depending on whether you're cooking on the grill, stovetop or in the oven.

Don't forget to take the thickness of the cut into account as well. A thicker steak will take longer to achieve the right level of doneness, so be sure to factor that in when estimating your cooking time.

How to Monitor Steak Temperature

When talking about steak temperature, it's important to remember that this refers to what temperature the steak should be at the center. If you're using a meat thermometer to monitor how done your steak is, you need to be sure it's placed right at the center in the thickest part of the steak. Placing it closer to an edge can have a huge impact on the result and even lead to taking the steak off the heat when the center is not heated enough for safe consumption.

The best tool for monitoring steak temperature is an instant-read digital meat thermometer. Insert it at a slight angle toward the center. Give it a few seconds for the temperature to stabilize before deciding whether it's time to come off the heat.

If you prefer to cook your steak without a thermometer, try the touch test to estimate the doneness. To do the test, press down on the top with your finger and then compare it to the firmness of your palm while your thumb is touched to a certain finger. Each combination of thumb and finger corresponds to a doneness level. Just press the area of your palm right under your thumb to get an idea of how firm the steak should be for a specific temperature:

  • Thumb to index finger: Rare
  • Thumb to middle finger: Medium rare
  • Thumb to ring finger: Medium
  • Thumb to pinky finger: Well done

When to Take Steak Off the Heat

The best time to stop cooking steak is actually before it reaches the desired internal temperature. Ideally, you'll remove the steak from the heat when it's about 5°F away from where you want it. If you're aiming for a medium rare steak at 130°F to 135°F, for example, you should remove the steak from the heat when it's at 125°F to 130°F.