The USDA warns against consuming undercooked meat, as you probably know. Many restaurant menus even have warnings posted alongside the descriptions of their dishes. So is medium rare steak safe to eat? And on a related note, is rare steak safe?
Is Medium Rare Steak Safe?
It’s safe to eat beef that’s been cooked to rare or medium-rare because the bacteria that cause food poisoning are found on the surface of the flesh. When you sear the steak, the bacteria are destroyed. The reason you can’t do this with chicken or turkey is that the flesh of those animals is less dense, meaning the bacteria can penetrate further.
Why It Matters
Raw meat can sometimes harbor bacteria, which can cause serious illness if it’s consumed. Thanks to improvements in farming practices, this risk is fairly low, but it’s a risk nonetheless.
What happens is that the animal’s intestines can get nicked or cut during the slaughtering process. This transfers potentially hazardous pathogens to the meat. These could include salmonella bacteria, E. coli, and campylobacter, among others.
During the cooking process, these bacteria are eradicated, rendering the meat safe to consume. If the meat isn’t cooked to a certain temperature, though, the pathogens can remain.
These food-borne illnesses can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, fever, headache, and diarrhea. That’s why the USDA urges caution when it comes to consuming raw or undercooked meat.
A Word About Flesh Density
Now for the good news: If you’re going to eat undercooked meat, beef is one of the safest options. Why? Because it’s red meat, as opposed to white meat like poultry.
Here’s the difference. Red meat contains more myoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen to the muscles and is responsible for giving raw meat its red color. The flesh is also more dense, which means that the bacteria can’t penetrate too far beneath the surface.
The bacteria that cause food poisoning reside primarily on the surface of the flesh. Therefore, it’s safe to eat steak that’s been well-seared on the outside, even if the inside is still reddish-pink.
That’s not true of white meat such as chicken or turkey. In those cases, the lower density of the flesh means that the bacteria may have burrowed under the surface. You should always cook poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Steak vs. Ground Beef
As we pointed out, the bacteria that you need to worry about resides on the outside of the flesh. So as long as the exterior gets cooked to a safe temperature, the bacteria should be destroyed.
But when the meat is fed through a grinding apparatus, it gets all mixed together. The flesh that was originally on the surface could be lurking in the center of the hamburger. The only way to make sure the meat is safe is to cook it thoroughly.
Since food-borne bacteria die off within a matter of seconds when they’re heated to 165 degrees, this is considered a safe temperature for all ground meat products. That applies to poultry as well as beef and pork—but you should always cook poultry to 165 anyway.
Defining Rare and Medium Rare
Raw steak is just that—steak that hasn’t been cooked at all. Although some dishes—such as steak tartare or carpaccio—call for raw beef, it’s usually given a quick sear to create textural contrast and bring out the flavor and natural juices.
The next step up on the “doneness” ladder is blue-rare steak. These steaks are seared briefly over very high heat, just so the outsides are charred. The interior should still be mostly raw and cool to the touch (115 degrees Fahrenheit), with a deep ruby color.
Rare steaks are more common, especially for very lean and tender cuts such as filet mignon. When the meat is cooked to 120-130 degrees, it has a soft texture and a red center, with lightly seared edges.
If you continue cooking the meat to 130-135 degrees, it’s considered medium-rare. The center should be reddish-pink and juicy, surrounded by a firm exterior. Since the fats begin to render at this temperature, it’s considered ideal for ribeye and prime rib.
The appearance of red juices on the plate can be off-setting to some people. Though this color comes from myoglobin and is not actually blood, these individuals would be better off cooking their steaks to a medium temperature.
Steaks are considered medium when they’re cooked to 135-155 degrees. The center should be firm and slightly pink throughout. It won’t be as juicy as a steak cooked to medium-rare, but it should still have plenty of flavor.
When you cross over into medium-well doneness, you’re approaching sacrilegious territory for many steak lovers. At 155-165 degrees, the center will be almost completely brown, and most of the juices will have been forced out.
Once the steak has cooked to 170, it’s considered well-done, as it has no pink remaining in the center and is dry and solid to the touch. If you prefer your beef cooked all the way through like this, it’s probably better to stick with stews and other braised dishes.
How To Gauge Temperature
How will you know when the meat has achieved the proper temperature? The best way is to use an instant-read thermometer, which will give you the most accurate readout.
Remember that meat continues to cook even after you take it off the heat. Larger cuts like brisket and whole turkeys can increase in temperature by 10 to 15 degrees as they rest. For steak, it’s best to stop cooking when the meat is 5 degrees below your target temp.
Always insert the probe into the thickest portion of the steak when taking the temperature. That’s the only way to insure that it’s cooked to your preferred doneness all the way through, and not just on the edges.
Estimated Cooking Times
How long does a take to cook a steak to rare or medium rare? That depends on the intensity of the fire, as well as the thickness of the steak.
Let’s assume that you’re searing a steak that measures one inch thick over a 400 degree fire. The following times should yield the desired results:
- Blue-Rare—Sear for about 1 minute per side
- Rare—5 minutes on first side, then flip and grill for 3 minutes
- Medium-Rare—5 minutes, then flip and cook for 4 minutes
- Medium—6 minutes, the flip and cook 4 minutes
- Medium-Well—7 minutes, then flip and cook for 5 minutes
- Well-Done—12 minutes first side, then flip and grill for 10 minutes
The Bottom Line
Is rare steak safe? In a word, yes. You can enjoy a rare or medium-rare steak as long as the outside has been properly seared.
If you trust the source—for example, if you’ve raised your own cattle for slaughter and know for a fact that no cross-contamination occurred during butchering—you might even be able to get away with eating raw beef. But we would advise against this practice if you’ve purchased the meat from the supermarket.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!