Summer project: How to tell when meat is done

July 9, 2010

I wrote the first draft of this blog post last week. Since then, Cotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate and Zucchini posted on the same topic. I pondered writing something new, but am instead going to barrel ahead. Cotilde wasn’t the first, and I won’t be the last, and – heck, I already took the pictures and everything!

Of all the things I’ve ever said in all the cooking classes I’ve ever taught, the thing that most amazes and delights people is when I teach them how to tell when their meat is done. So, in the hopes of amazing and delighting you, I’m going to teach you, too.

Now, when I say “how to tell when your meat is done,” I mean besides cutting into it, which spills out its delicious juices and makes it more likely to be dry, and besides using an instant-read thermometer, which is effective but, for cuts less than about 1 1/2 inches thick, more trouble than it’s worth.

What I’m talking about is how to tell when your meat is done simply by touching it.


How rare meat feels

How rare meat feels

Okay. Now, with your non-dominant hand, the one you don’t write with, touch together you’re your thumb and index finger – not pinch, just touch. This is a participatory exercise, so play along! Now with your other hand, touch the pad of your thumb. See how that feels? Kind of soft and squishy, but with a little firmness about 1/2 inch deep? That’s now rare meat feels.

How medium rare meat feels

How medium rare meat feels

Now touch together – not pinch, just touch – your thumb and middle finger. And again, feel the pad of your thumb with your other hand. Notice how it’s firmer? Isn’t that amazing and delightful?!? That’s how medium rare feels!

How medium meat feels

How medium meat feels

Thumb and ring finger – that’s medium.

How well done meat feels

How well done meat feels

Thumb and pinky – you blew it! Just kidding. That’s well done.

This works for all kinds of meat, poultry, and fish – beef, chicken, pork, lamb, salmon, whatever. Chicken, you’d want to cook until it’s at least medium (thumb and ring finger). Steak, it could be anywhere on the scale. Pork, medium, but it’s also okay to cook pork a little rarer these days, to medium rare (thumb and middle finger). Fish also could be medium or slightly rarer.

And this works with all cooking methods, whether you’re grilling, pan-searing, broiling, roasting, whatever. Although, as alluded to earlier, if your meat is more than about 1 1/2 inches thick, all bets are off and you need to use a meat thermometer.

And of course it’ll vary from one person’s hand to another. So what you do is practice. You’re grilling a steak to, say, medium rare – note the above photo of my perfectly-cooked medium rare steak – and you want to check its doneness. So you put together your thumb and middle finger and, with your tongs, feel the pad of your thumb. Now use your tongs to feel the steak. Now go back to the pad of your thumb. And compare.

As you practice this, you’ll undercook or overcook a steak or chicken breast or two, but after a bit, you’ll be able to perfectly cook your meats every time, just by touch, just like in a restaurant.

Make it your summer project, learning how to tell when your meat is done without cutting into it and spilling out its delicious juices or bothering with a meat thermometer. In the process, you’ll get to enjoy a lot of yummy cooking.

Let me know how it goes.

My summer project? Homemade Cherry Garcia ice cream. I haven’t perfected it yet, so stand by. Good ice cream – or steaks or chicken breasts – takes lots and lots of testing and research.

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