Why Hello there! And Welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, my last desperate effort to educate the masses of food history before the ancient Chicken Gods arise and strike us down. I’m your mad prophet of the moment, Jon O’Guin. Today, we’re going to talk about a simple concept that’s started a lot of arguments: meat doneness. Buckle up for some mudslinging, and praise the Chicken Gods before it’s too late!
Oh no. It's too late. They've already come.
First thing first: What is “doneness”? What does it mean for a meat to be “done”? That’s easy enough to explain: Most meat, uncooked, is at least somewhat pinkish. This is NOT, as many think, due to blood, but rather a chemical called myoglobin, which, despite sounding like the cry of a drunken dungeon lord, is a pigmentation (and oxygen retaining) chemical in muscle fiber. The redness comes from iron atoms in the molecule. As you cook meat, myoglobin’s iron atom becomes oxidized, changing ionization states, and shifting color.
This complicated process draws water “out” of the food, and creating a firmer matrix of molecules. In short, the meat becomes more rigid. This isn’t necessarily tougher, but rather…’more resistant to motion’. While an undercooked piece of meat maybe chewy in a sort of gummy way, overcooked meat’s chewiness is more of a “crushing cardboard” sensation.
"You really aren't selling the whole "chewing' thing too good, chief."
In any case, since pretty much all respectable methods of cooking meat cook from the outside inward, the “doneness” is then used as a guide to roughly how much of the meat has undergone the change. Now, the exact temperature for each designation and the designations themselves vary regionally, but since I’m an American, I’m going to use the system I was trained with, with a single foreign addition. So, let’s start with the odd man out.
This is a French term, as one could guess by the “eu” up there. (Damn it, was that a pun?) Anywho, The French, as it turns out, are renowned for liking their steak cooked as little as possible. Which, you know, for a people who invented ‘literally a ball of raw ground streak’ as a dish, that’s pretty in-character. But yes, a Bleu steak is one that is seared on the outside, and whose internal temperature only reaches about 120 degrees Farenheit.
This is the lowest temp you’re likely to see in an American restaurant, and we’ll get into why later, but for now, know that Rare is meat that’s basically still red in the center, cooked to around 130 degrees. As a fun lesson, when cooking steak, you can use the ‘finger test’ to determine roughly how cooked it is. Hold your non dominant hand loosely, and poke the pad where your thumb connects to your palm. That squishy lack of resistance is roughly the same squishiness you get from raw meat. If you touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of the index finger and poke the pad again, you’re feeling roughly what ‘rare’ should feel like.
I think of this temp as “the great compromise”, because of the point we skipped in the ‘rare’ block: The USDA recommends beef steak (indeed, all solid animal cuts) be cooked to at least an internal temp of 145, and rested for 3 minutes. This is because 140 degrees is the edge of the ‘danger zone’ of food safety: Above 140 degrees, most bacteria dies. We’ll discuss more of this when we’re finished with the doneness scales, but know that Medium rare is around 135 degrees, and represents some red in the very center, but mostly pink. Using the ‘finger test’, it’s the toughness when the thumb touches the middle finger.
Medium is around 145 degrees, and there should be no red left, just pinkness. As noted earlier, at this juncture, steaks are getting more and more firm. I should note that the French call this the demi-anglaise or “half-English”, because for some reason all of Europe likes to claim that England eats all its steak Well-Done. The finger test hits the ring finger here.
A Half-English Breakfast is something to be mocked.
This doneness is one of the more commonly skipped in regional variations, but medium-well, by most definitions, sits somewhere around 155 degrees. It should have only a slight amount of pink left, and it doesn’t really have a finger. It’s for someone who wanted to be a little safer than medium, but didn’t want well-done.
Well Done is an internal temperature of 160 degrees. There should be no pinkness at all, and the finger test uses the pinky. This is the highest ‘legitimate’ degree of doneness. The French term for it is “trop cuit”, meaning ‘Overcooked.’ And above this level is DEFINITELY overcooked.
Now, I attempted to minimize this in the previous listings, but it’s something that needs to be discussed: there is a GREAT amount of contention about appropriate levels of steak doneness. This comes down to two opposing forces: for the vast amount of people, the more you cook a steak, the worse it tastes. The reduced liquids and firmer texture make it less and less palatable with each step. On the other hand, to be completely safe, according to the USDA, you’ve got to go to at least Medium. This is made more confusing by the fact that Ground Beef is supposed to be cooked Well-Done by those same guidelines, so people get confused. “Well, if my hamburgers are supposed to be well-done, I suppose my steaks are as well.”
Now, I want to be clear: I’m on the lower-cooking side. I order my steaks AND hamburgers medium-rare. My brother orders his rare. In the culinary world, I know I’m on stable ground. There are shops in Florence that will not serve their steak at any degree EXCEPT medium-rare. My favorite expression of this fight comes from King of The Hill.
Damn it, Bobby!
And this is an old, old fight. Claiming someone likes their steaks well-done is an insult in the culinary world. THAT’s why Europe likes to joke that England eats steak well-done, they’re making fun of them. The reason is: the safety argument is…only so persuasive. See, as stated, you need prolonged exposure at 140 degrees to kill bacteria. Except, most bacteria is on the outside of solid animal cuts. You know, the part that’s sitting on the 300-500 degree metal COOKING the meat. Sure, there is a risk of some penetration, but most chefs agree that a solid sear on a steak kills at least 90% of any sort of bacterial risk.
And this is where that Florence thing comes from: asking for a more well-done steak carries with it an implicit judgment: “I think your steak isn’t clean”. A well-done steak is one that’s been rendered completely safe, in the same way that a boy contained in a giant plastic bubble is. And to some, that’s a great boon. If you have a compromised immune system, I get being that safe. If it’s the way you were raised, I suggest you try some medium or medium-rare steaks, and see how you like them. If you don’t, that’s fine. Just understand why the world always seems to be making jokes about you: they think you’re judging them, and they’re firing back.
NEXT TIME: JON MAKES POTATOES, BECAUSE HE WANTS SOME TIME FOR ALL THESE MEAT OPINIONS TO CALM DOWN.