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Temperatures, Ordering, and Buying
Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest dining-out days of the year with reservations made weeks or months in advance and special menus presented by chefs around the country. Can you guess what one of the most popular dishes is? Steak, usually filet. Why? Because V-Day is a celebration, and celebration gives us allowance to splurge. And what could be more of a splurge than going to a fancy restaurant and ordering the most expensive piece of meat on the card!
But there’s another reason so many steaks get served on Valentine’s. Something you may not know is that many people in the restaurant industry have a special nick-name for Valentine’s Day: Amateur Night. It gets this name because of the many hundreds of people that flood any given restaurant on that one night of the year who almost never go out to eat, especially not at a fine-dining establishment. Such customers aren’t usually the adventurous type. Let’s just say they’re not likely to order the Chef’s roast duck leg with parsnip ragout and orange-flower water raspberry gastrique. They want something familiar, something comforting, something that says fine dining and high class without involving too much risk. Many of them opt for steak.
Now, you are not them, but they are out there and they inspire every kitchen to put a steak on the menu for Valentine’s, and if you go out that night, you will reap their sowing. Steak will be on the menu and the line cooks might make a statistical assumption that you don’t know what you’re doing when you order. So if you want to make sure you don’t get the short end of the steak when you go out on Valentine’s, you need to be able to order steak like a pro, and that’s what we’re here to talk to you about today.
Welcome to our Guide to Steak. Whether you’ll be joining the hoards at the fine dining establishments or searing up your own juicy cuts at home, we’ve got you covered. We’ll review the different cuts of steak, steak doneness temperatures, of course, and even how to pick out a steak at your local butcher or grocery store. So settle in, things are about to get meaty.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: STEAK TEMPS
Let’s first lay down some science to build on. Meat is made of muscle fibers. Those muscle fibers are bundles of various kinds of protein fibers. When those proteins are heated past a certain point, their shape changes in a process called “denaturing.” This is what cooking meat is all about. By applying heat to the meat we fundamentally change its structure and composition, thus altering flavor and texture until a raw piece of meat becomes palatable.
When the protein fibers in meat reach 130°F (54°C) they begin to tighten, coiling up and packing themselves more tightly. As the proteins coil and tighten, they expel water, like a sponge being wrung out. The hotter the temperature above that 130°F (54°C) threshold, the tighter the squeeze and the more water lost.
If you heat a steak beyond to 140°F (60°C), the red myoglobin in the meat will start to denature and turn a darker, grey-brown color. The long protein fibers will move beyond tightening and start to shrink, expelling even more water.
And this brings us to the steak doneness. When your waiter asks you how you’d like your steak done, don’t answer by saying that you’d like it “with some pink.” “Some pink” isn’t a measure of actual doneness, and, to be frank, requires someone to cut into your steak to peek inside.
Order with the standard system of rare, medium-rare, medium, medium well, or well-done. I’ll go into these gradations in detail below, but first I want to make something very clear: based on what we’ve just gone over above, if you don’t want to sound like an amateur, don’t order a steak that is both well done and then complain when it isn’t juicy! No amount of cooking skill can overcome the physics at play in the protein structure of the steak.
STEAK DONENESS TEMPERATURE CHART
|Preferred Doneness||Degrees F|
It is important to note that the temperature is the key to doneness, not the color. So while I describe the coloration of each doneness below, keep in mind that there are other factors that can affect the color of the meat regardless of actual doneness. It is possible to have a medium-well steak that is quite rosy, if the steer from whence it came had certain genetic factors or the pH balance is different. Color isn’t doneness—temperature is.
RARE STEAK TEMP 120–129°F (49–54°C)
A rare steak is usually very red in the center that can still be cool to the touch. It is just past raw in the center and has a texture that is not everyone’s cup of tea. The flavor, undeveloped by cooking, can be somewhat iron-y.
MEDIUM-RARE STEAK TEMP 130–134°F (54–57°C)
Medium rare usually has a warm red center. This is widely acknowledged as the sweet spot of juiciness and texture, providing the diner with a pleasant mouth-feel, good flavor development beyond rare, and less “ick” factor for some.
MEDIUM STEAK TEMP 135–144°F (57–62°C)
The center of a medium-cooked steak is very warm and is usually pink, not red. It will be firmer (read: tougher). It will seem juicier, in that when you cut it, juices will run out of it. But those juices have been squeezed out of the fibers. So while you will see juices on the plate, the steak itself will have a slightly lower water content in the meat and be drier and chewier.
MEDIUM-WELL STEAK TEMP 145–154°F (63–68°C)
This is where things really start to change quickly. The protein fibers in the muscles shrink dramatically and the steak loses much of its volume. (The truth is, if you order a steak medium well, now matter how much you actually like it that way, the kitchen will think you have no idea what food is supposed to taste like. It’s not fair, but it’s how it works.) This steak will usually be just slightly pink in the center and will have lost much more of its juices to the fire.
WELL DONE STEAK TEMP 155°F+ (69°C+)
At this doneness, the proteins in the steak are completely denatured and the natural juices are drained. Most of the tenderness is gone and any that remains is only due to the lack of connective tissues. With almost no native liquid left in the meat to carry its flavors to the remotest corners of your mouth, it is harder to get the full flavor of the beef. That being said, many people do like their steaks cooked this way and, while we disagree, we wish them well.
It’s worth knowing, by the way, that you will make the kitchen staff angry if you order a quality steak well done—not only because they consider it to be a waste of the food itself, but because on a busy night like Valentine’s Day, you’re also slowing down the line, holding up other reservations, and generally throwing a wrench in the gears.
When you order your steak, it is best, in most situations to order it simply according to the above levels. Don’t say “medium-rare plus.” That’s not a thing. Medium rare is only 5°F (2.8°C) wide. If you try to put a “plus” on that in a busy service, you’re getting medium.
Even better, of course, is to order your steak exactly to temperature. Not all kitchens will be equipped to handle this request, but it’s worth a shot. I like my steak to come off the grill at 125°F (52°C), and I’ll even ask for it that way when dining out. If the waiter looks at you like you’re speaking Swahili, just say “medium-rare.” But some of the best kitchens are going to have quality thermometers *cough* Thermapen® Mk4 *cough* and can actually take steak orders to temp. It’s worth a shot!
CARRYOVER COOKING IN STEAKS:
The temperatures listed above are final temperatures. Because of the high-heat cooking environments for steak, it’s best to pull them about 5–7°F (3–4°C) early to allow for carryover cooking. You don’t need to tell your waiter that, but you do need to know it if you’re cooking at home!
BUYER’S GUIDE TO STEAK CUTS
Of course, staying home and cooking dinner yourself is a great idea, too. To be honest, you can probably make a steak that is every bit as good—nay, even better than—most of the steaks you will get at a busy restaurant. Here we’ll talk about the most common steak cuts and what to look for when you buy a steak to cook at home. Just remember to use the temperature guide above and the Super-fast® Thermapen to cook your steak to your perfect preferred doneness.
To buy a good steak, you need to understand what the grades of beef mean and what they don’t mean. The USDA established beef grading in 1917 to ensure quality beef was being shipped to the front during WWI. It later continued the practice to ensure quality on steamships and railcars. The grading system has undergone changes since the early 1900s, though many of the terms we use now were established by the early 1940s. Though inspection for “wholesomeness and safety” is mandatory and carried out by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), meat grading is voluntary and paid for by the producer.
The grading system you encounter as a consumer has two basic parts: a letter grade indicating the age of the animal and another grade that indicates the level of marbling.
Though it is less common to see it in meat cases or at butcher shops, the letter grade indicating age is useful. If your meat department labels it, know that Grade A beef is from an animal 9 to 30 months old, Grade B from 30 to 42, on down through Grade E, which is over 96 months old. Highest quality beef is usually Grade A.
Marbling scores, what we commonly know as steak “grades,” are given to determine the “palatability” of the beef, a term that includes tenderness, taste, and the mouth feel of the cuts. The grading is established between the 12th and 13th ribs in what is called the Rib Eye Area, and is based on how much fat there is and how well it is distributed. It has been shown that this area is a good indicator of the marbling on the rest of the carcass.
The highest grade is Prime, followed by Choice, Select, Standard, Utility, Cutter, and Canning. Prime beef has the most inter-muscular fat marbling, followed by choice, and so on.
Below you can see a comparison of two strip steaks: one prime grade, the other choice.
From the USDA website we can learn about the grades and how they are used:
Prime grade is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking (broiling, roasting, or grilling).
Choice grade is high quality but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are, like Prime, suited to dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if “braised” — roasted, or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.
Select grade is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
Standard and Commercial grades are frequently sold as ungraded or as “store brand” meat.
Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.”
The grading of beef says nothing—at least not anything directly—about how the beef was fed or raised. Grass fed beef tends to be leaner than grain fed beef, so it will not usually receive high grades like prime. If you want to ensure that beef is handled a certain way, the grading will not tell you. You have to get to know the sources for the beef itself. Getting to know a local producer or small-scale butcher is the best way to learn more about how your beef is produced.
The sirloin is the old-school steak—the big man, big hunger steak of our grandfathers. It comes from the rear half of the loin and, while tender, isn’t as tender as its neighboring cousin, the strip steak. The sirloin is also poorly vague when it comes to quality: the sirloin section of the cow offers steaks of various constitutions, depending on their location. Top sirloin is of very good quality and is very tender, while bottom sirloin is tougher. Many sirloin steaks have a gristly membrane running through them, making them less appealing (and therefore somewhat cheaper) than some other cuts.
Sirloin is also rather lean, which is good if you are trying to eat more healthily, but also means that it has less resistance to overcooking. (Inter-muscular fat acts as a buffer against overcooking by melting and contributing to a pleasant mouth-feel. Leaner cuts must be more wary of exact temperatures than fattier cuts.)
If you want a big piece of beef that is pretty tender and has good beefy flavor, but also doesn’t break your budget, sirloin might be right for you.
Ribeye is one of the great cuts on the whole cow. It’s well marbled with fat and has large deposits of fat that contribute to the richness of this steak. The fat in a rib eye is particularly tasty, with a characteristic drool-inducing flavor and smell. Rib eye can be purchased either bone-in or boneless. If you like very large cuts get a tomahawk steak, which is a very thick rib eye with a long bone attached to it.
The rib eye steak is composed of two main muscles, the eye and the cap. The eye is meaty and tender, but the rib eye cap is a true delight. It has a tender, almost soft/spongy texture and a deep, intense flavor. When shopping for a rib eye steak, look for something with good marbling in the eye and as thick a cap section as you can find.
If you want a fool-proof method for cooking them, try our tips for smoking and reverse searing your rib eye steak. (If you don’t want to smoke it, use the same two-step procedure in your home oven.)
(NEW YORK) STRIP
The strip steak comes from the “short loin” of the steer and is widely beloved. A nicely portioned, meaty strip steak is a joy to eat, with good tenderness and sharper, beefier flavor than the ribeye or the filet. Strip steaks can be prepared either bone-in (Kansas City strip) or boneless (NY strip). The same principles apply to the strip as the ribeye when it comes to bones.
When looking for a strip steak, look for a uniform appearance to the meat, with the grain not seeming to switch directions halfway across the steak. And, if possible, avoid steaks that have an “eye.” The eye is a section of meat that is offset by a gristly, chewy membrane.
Ah, the filet—the gem in the crown of the steak world. The filet (also called filet mignon) is cut from the beef tenderloin. If you want to save money and get several good steaks, I recommend to a little home butchering and following our instructions for cutting and cooking your own filet mignon steaks.
The filet is über tender, with a texture that is often, and with only slight exaggeration, described as being like butter. Its one flaw is that it is quite mild tasting. There is less sharp beefiness from the meat itself and it has none of the deep richness of the rib eye. Without a good sear, the filet can be pallid and boring. With a good sear, it is a treasure.
Of course, filet is one of the most expensive steaks. You get about 12 good filets from a whole cow, and that is reflected in the price.
When buying a filet, look for the most marbling you can find, and be wary of any seams you may see in the meat. If there is a membranous seem, they’ve probably cut too far into the chateaubriand section of the tenderloin, and you’re getting some chewier bits.
Note that a filet should never really be cooked past medium-rare because it is quite lean and the texture suffers badly when it is cooked even as far as medium. But, to each his/her own!
The T-bone steak is where steaks start to get even more extravagant. It is composed of a strip steak, the accompanying bone, and a little bit of the tenderloin on the other side. It is, in fact, a Kansas City strip steak with a bite of filet. These steaks are large and celebratory, evoking prosperity and fullness. They can be challenging to cook properly, because the filet bit will tend to overcook while the strip section is still coming up to temperature. Careful temperature management and a two-stage, reverse sear cook is really the way to go for this and the porterhouse.
When shopping for a T-bone, try to get the biggest section of tenderloin as you can. Be sure that the bone is cut evenly, with no bits sticking up above the surface which would prevent the steak from lying flat in a hot cast-iron pan. (That shouldn’t be a problem usually, but watch out for it!)
The porterhouse is a T-bone on steroids (not literally). Where the T-bone is a strip steak with a little filet thrown in for good measure, the porterhouse is a strip steak with a whole filet attached. It is two steaks in one, and that explains why it feels like you pay for two steaks when you buy one of these!
As mentioned above, there is some difficulty cooking the two different muscles properly. If you must err, err on the side of perfecting the tenderloin section. Again, a reverse sear is probably the best way to assure perfection with the porterhouse. But other methods do work very well. In fact, we also recommend broiling your porterhouse!
Because of its location in the loin, it is hard to find a porterhouse with a large section of filet that doesn’t also have at least some “eye” on the strip section. Look for a steak with a good balance between a large filet and a small eye, and, as always, good marbling.
The porterhouse is huge, and therefore a great steak for sharing.
A word on steak thickness. Many grocery store meat departments offer “deals” on steaks that look appealing—usually something like an 8 oz steak for $6. This seems like a great deal because it’s a steak dinner for six bucks, but those steaks are often very thin—maybe even as thin as ½-inch. It is very hard to cook a thin steak correctly. By the time you’ve seared both sides, it’s already cooked to well done in the middle. For a properly seared steak with good flavor, you should get steaks that are at least one inch thick. This is true for all cuts of steak. That might mean buying a steak that is too big for you to eat all by yourself, but you can always share one large steak between two people.
Whew! That’s a lot of information about steak, and it may seem overwhelming, but there are just a few key things to remember.
- Always buy the best beef you can afford. Prime beef tastes better than choice grade, and choice is better than select. That makes your meal that much easier to get right.
- No matter what grade you buy or what cut you choose, remember that it is not time or color that determines the doneness of a steak, but the internal temperature. Whether it’s sous vide cooking, grilling or searing your steaks, or just ordering steak in a restaurant, know your preferred doneness temperatures.
- Tools like the Thermapen Mk4 enable both you and your chef to have the control needed to cook steaks perfectly every time.