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—and helping you make perfectly cooked Steaks with Lemon-Thyme Butter, among other things—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.
Okay. Now, with your non-dominant hand, the one you don’t write with, touch together 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.
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!
Thumb and ring finger—that’s medium.
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 Steaks with Lemon-Thyme Butter—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.
A few recipes to practice on:
Steaks with Lemon-Thyme Butter
Spice-Rubbed Steaks with Grilled Gazpacho Sauce
Spinach Salad with Chicken, Strawberries, Blue Cheese, and Almonds
Grilled Chicken with Marinated Peppers
Grilled Chicken with Sundried Tomato, Blue Cheese, and Rosemary Butter
Pan-Roasted Salmon with Cilantro-Scallion Salsa
Spice-Rubbed Pork Chops with Grilled Tomato Sauce
Lamburgers with Basil and Blue Cheese Dressing
Lemon-Garlic Lamb Chops with Minted Couscous