The Rare Art: Achieving Steak Perfection with Temperature

When cooking a steak dinner at home, you want it to taste just as good as - if not better than - how it tastes when you're out to eat at a restaurant. That's especially true if you plan to cook a particularly high-quality type of beef, like an authentic Japanese Wagyu steak. You don't want to waste such a beautiful cut of meat, which is why it's so important to achieve the perfect temperature.

But what is the best temperature to cook steak to? And how do you make sure your temperature is smack dab where you want it to be? The following guide will provide all the details to get your steak to the ideal temperature.

The Perfect Steak Temperature

The best steak temperature is medium rare. While personal preferences can obviously vary, most chefs and culinary experts agree that achieving a perfect medium rare is the ultimate goal when cooking steak.

Before going into more detail, here's a quick review of how medium-rare compares to other doneness levels for steaks:

  • Rare: 120°F to 130°F
  • Medium rare: 130°F to 135°F
  • Medium: 135°F to 145°F
  • Medium well: 145°F to 155°F
  • Well done: 155°F to 165°F

When comparing these doneness levels, you may have noticed one very important thing. The temperature range for medium rare is only half the size of every other doneness level. While rare, medium, medium well and well-done steaks all feature a temperature range of 10 degrees, there's only a five-degree range in which the temperature must fall to qualify the steak as medium rare. This small window is part of what makes the perfect medium-rare steak so difficult to achieve.

Note: The USDA states that the official safe internal temperature for steak is 145°F and above. Fortunately, medium rare is only just a bit below this temperature, and it is consumed regularly without any harmful effects.

Why Is Medium Rare the Best Temperature for Steak?

The qualities of a medium rare steak are what make it the perfect doneness level for a steak. A medium rare steak has a pinkish-red center with dark pink or light brown edges. The middle is warmed through and has a soft, luscious texture. It's been cooked long enough to remove the "bloodiness" that a rare sometimes exhibits, yet it isn't overcooked in any way. A medium rare steak has reached a temperature where the fat marbling has melted and distributed flavor throughout it, so it has an incredible amount of juiciness and retains its natural flavor.

For the best results, remember to take your steak off the heat just a bit before it reaches the ideal temperature. When the steak reaches 125°F to 130°F, remove it from the heat and allow it to rest for about five minutes. During that time, the temperature will continue to rise by about five degrees, giving you the ideal 130°F to 135°F temperature. The rest time also allows the juices to redistribute through the steak. If you skip the resting step and cut into the steak too quickly, those juices will run out and the steak can become a bit dry and tough.

How to Test for Steak Doneness

If you want perfect accuracy with your steak doneness, using an instant-read digital thermometer is highly recommended. This will give you the most precise reading in seconds so you can closely monitor the steak's doneness. When using a thermometer like this, it's essential that it is inserted at an angle into the center at the thickest part of the steak. A true medium rare steak should ultimately cook to 130°F to 135°F at the center, so if you measure the temperature near an edge instead, you could get an inaccurate reading that causes you to take the steak off the heat too early.

Don't want to use a digital meat thermometer, or don't have one available? You can try the touch test instead. To do this, press down on the top of the steak with your index finger. With the other hand, touch your thumb to your middle finger. If the firmness of the steak matches the firmness of the area of your palm right under your thumb when you press with the index finger on your opposite hand, your steak should be cooked to medium rare.

Ways to Cook a Medium Rare Steak

There are multiple cooking options available for a medium-rare steak. If you want a steak with a crisp sear on the outside, you will want to use a grilling or pan-searing method to cook the steak. This ultimately gives you the medium rare cook you want at the center, while the edges and exterior of the steak have a higher level of doneness due to their exposure to the hot cooking surface.

Do you prefer a steak that has the perfect medium-rare doneness throughout? The best way to achieve a medium steak this way is with sous vide cooking. This uses a low temperature for cooking in a water bath. It offers the highest level of control over the doneness level of the steak since it's designed to cook to the temperature at which the water is heated. The steak is also completely sealed during the cooking process, which keeps all the flavors and juices locked in. While it does require specialized equipment, the at-home dining experience with a sous vide is very unique, flavorful and memorable.