The best way to cook a steak is medium rare. Plenty of people will disagree with this statement, for different reasons. For example, some people might prefer a rare steak. Others might favor medium. Both are legitimate (albeit sub-optimal) choices.
However, cooking a steak anywhere past medium, like medium-well or (heaven forbid) well-done, is a practice that should be thoroughly and harshly condemned.
Why Are Medium Rare Steaks Best?
The longer you cook a steak, the tougher and drier it gets. Medium-rare steaks give you the maximum amount of tenderness and juiciness while ensuring that the center of the steak is actually warm.
The interior of a medium-rare steak will be mostly pink with just a tiny bit of red in the center, and the interior temperature is between 130F and 140F. We'll talk about how to know when a steak is perfectly medium-rare a bit further on in this article.
Rare Steaks: Red in the Middle
For now, it's enough to know that steak doneness all comes down to temperature. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of a rare steak, as opposed to medium-rare, is that it's noticeably cool in the middle. That's why the interior of a rare steak stays red.
Beyond the fact that it's not so pleasant to stick a forkful of cold steak into your mouth, another issue with rare steaks is that the fat in the meat doesn't get a chance to melt and turn into little pools of flavor.
Remember, it's the marbling, or the little flecks of fat within the meat, that imparts much of a steak's flavor and determines the quality of a steak. More marbling means a higher quality steak.
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So steak cooked rare is extra tender and juicy, but slightly cool and not as flavorful.
That's a tradeoff some people might reasonably be willing to make. To cook a steak rare, you'd cook it for just a minute or two per side, depending on thickness and how hot your grill is. The interior will be bright red and about 120F to 130F.
Medium Steaks: An Unhappy Compromise
The best thing you can say about a steak cooked medium is that it's the steak least likely to offend, which is really not saying much. The inside of a medium steak is mostly gray with a small amount of pink at the center and no red.
Let's say you're throwing a grill party. If you're not sure how your guests like their steaks, medium is a good middle ground. Those who prefer medium rare will only be mildly disappointed, while those who like it cooked more can always throw it back on the grill. Medium steaks are cooked to an interior temperature of about 140F to 150F.
When Is a Steak Medium Rare?
So we've talked about these interior temperatures and how they correspond with each level of steak doneness. But whatever you do, do not go sticking a thermometer into your steaks to see if they're done. You'll just let all the juices drain out through the hole you just poked. The same goes for cutting into a steak with a knife to see what color it is.
Don't do it!
Instead, you can tell how done a steak is by pressing the center of it with your finger. Let's say you've grilled it for three minutes, flipped it over and grilled it another two minutes. With the steak still on the grill, just press your finger into the center of the steak.
If your finger sinks in and the steak feels soft or mushy, it's not done yet. Give it another minute. If the steak gives just a little bit when pressed and springs right back, that's medium rare. If it doesn't give at all or feels firm or hard, that's medium or beyond.
It may take some practice to be able to identify these sensations, but it's not that difficult. Just remember that medium-rare steaks will give just slightly and spring back when pressed.