There’s nothing quite like indulging in a perfectly cooked steak at a summer barbecue. While people like their meat cooked in different ways, medium and medium-rare are the two most popular choices. In fact, chefs and barbecue enthusiasts recommend these two doneness levels for cooking meat.
While medium and medium-rare are both good choices, there are differences between them. Understanding the pros and cons of these two options will help you to decide how to cook your meat. In this guide, we will explain different levels of doneness and how to grill meat to perfection.
Medium vs medium rare: which is best?
The answer to medium vs medium-rare depends on the cut of meat and personal preference. Both are delicious, safe, and nutritious ways to grill beef. While medium-rare is juicier and more flavorful, some people like meat more fully cooked and find medium more appetizing.
Six levels of doneness for steak
The six levels of doneness for steak are blue-rare, rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, and well-done. Internal temperature is the determining factor. Measuring doneness by cooking time, color, or firmness will be less accurate. Reaching the target temperature depends on perfecting your timing and controlling the heat of your grill.
A blue-rare steak is a dark, almost purple color and barely warm. It is seared on the outside, but the inside is mostly raw. To grill a blue-rare steak, sear both sides quickly on a very hot barbecue. The internal temperature should read 115 F.
Cooked to 120-130 F., a rare steak has a very red center with a pinkish-red color around it. It is moist and soft to the touch, and the edges are lightly charred. Rare doneness is better for lean cuts because the fats are not yet melted at this temperature.
Some people are nervous about eating rare or medium-rare meat because the red liquid looks like blood. In fact, these are the juices from the meat consisting of myoglobin and water. Myoglobin is a protein found in the muscle fibers of meat.
Pink on the inside with a hint of red, a medium-rare steak should be cooked to 130-135 F. At this temperature, the fats will begin to melt. A medium-rare steak has a soft, tender, and juicy middle and firm outside. Preferred by steak lovers, this is the ideal choice for most steaks.
A medium steak is mostly brown with a hint of pinkness and cooked between 135 and 155 F. While it is a bit less juicy and tender than a medium-rare steak, many Americans prefer this level of doneness for steak.
Cooked to between 155 and 164 F., a medium-well steak is browned most of the way through. A 1-inch thick steak should cook for about seven minutes on one side and five minutes on the second side. Medium-well steaks are drier and less flavorful than those cooked for less time.
A well-done steak has no pink in the middle and is solid to the touch. It should reach a temperature of 170 F and cook for about 10-12 minutes per side. To prevent burning, you should cook meat slowly at a low temperature and move it to different parts of the grill.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) can form when meat cooks at high temperatures. Thus, well-done meat has more potential carcinogens.
How to measure the internal temperature
To get the most accurate reading of the internal temperature, we suggest using an instant-read meat thermometer. You can insert the probe into the meat’s thickest point to determine the best time to remove it from the grill.
Because the cooking process does not stop when meat is removed from the heat, we recommend taking the meat off a bit early and letting it rest for a few minutes. This allows time for the juices to redistribute. The internal temperature will rise by about five degrees during this resting period.
Here is a list of temperatures and estimated cooking times for grilling a one-inch thick steak.
- Blue-Rare: 115 F, briefly sear on each side
- Rare: 120-130 F, 5 minutes on first side, then 3 minutes
- Medium-Rare: 130-135 F, 5 minutes on first side, then 4 minutes
- Medium: 140-150 F, 6 minutes on first side, then 4 minutes
- Medium-Well: 155 to 165, 7 minutes on first side, then 5 minutes
- Well-Done: 170 F or more, 12 minutes first side, then 10 minutes
If you don’t have an instant-read thermometer, you might try another method. The palm test measures the firmness of a grilled steak by comparing it to different parts of your hand. Still, using a thermometer is the best way to check how done your meat is.
Types of steak
The ideal amount of cooking for steak depends in part on the cut. Some common cuts are rib eye, sirloin, filet mignon, T-bone, and New York strip steak. Lean cuts are usually best when served rare or medium-rare. Steaks with bones need longer cooking times.
Ribeye is a juicy cut of prime rib that is best when cooked medium-well. Sirloin is lean and best when served rare because it becomes tough when overcooked. Filet mignon and T-bone are best when cooked to medium-rare or medium. A New York strip steak is best when cooked to medium.
Some steaks are better for grilling than others. We prefer grilling thick steaks because it is easier to get a charred exterior without overcooking the meat. Thinner cuts, such as flank steaks, are best marinated first and then grilled over high heat.
How to prepare a medium-rare steak
Medium-rare cooking retains flavor and nutrients and is ideal for fattier steaks. The melting of the fat into the meat, known as marbling, occurs at this temperature. This process distributes the juices and flavors throughout the meat giving it a soft texture. As long as the meat is of high quality, medium-rare is a safe way to cook steak.
To grill a medium-rare steak to perfection, you will need a grill, a brush, a meat thermometer, tongs, and some USDA or choice cuts. Start by bringing the meat to room temperature, cleaning and preheating the grill, and removing residue. Then wipe the grates with oil, season the steak, and put it on the grill for eight to nine minutes.
Flip it once, and continue cooking until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 115 F. To keep the juices and flavors from escaping, use tongs to turn the meat instead of piercing it with a fork. If the steak begins to burn, move it to a cooler spot on the grill. Let the steak rest for 10 minutes before serving.
How to prepare a medium steak
Not everyone likes to see a hint of red in meat. If you are cooking for a large group, it might be better to opt for medium doneness. The middle of a medium steak will have some play, but the meat is mostly firm to the touch.
To achieve medium doneness, follow the same directions as above. The only difference is that you will grill it for longer. You will need to cook a 1-inch thick steak for about six minutes on the first side and four on the second to reach an internal temperature of 140-150 F.
Meat safety considerations
When grilling meat, safety should always be an utmost concern. Rare and medium-rare steaks are generally considered safe. Ground beef, pork, and chicken should be fully cooked. Use this USDA temperature guide to ensure that your meat is safe.
Steak is safer to eat undercooked than other meats because it is not as likely to have parasites. As long as you cook the outside fully, use clean cooking tools, and the steak is intact, it should not pose a risk. Use extra caution when cooking for children under the age of seven or for people with compromised immune systems.
Ground meat is more at risk of contamination because bacteria on the surface can get distributed throughout the meat. Thus, it is safest to cook hamburgers to at least 160 degrees.
Temperatures for grilling chicken, turkey, and pork
While you can cook beef to different temperatures depending on preference, you should be sure to cook chicken, pork, and turkey fully. Pork should come to at least 145 F. Turkey legs and thighs should reach between 160-165 F while the minimum temperature for chicken or a whole turkey is 165 F.
For a whole chicken or turkey, measure the temperature in the thigh without touching the bone. Turn it a few times to ensure that it cooks evenly.
While there are some advantages to medium vs medium-rare meat, in the end, it comes down to a matter of preference. Some people will prefer a juicier steak or burger while others like their meat to be more fully cooked.
Either way, if you follow these instructions, you are sure to have a delicious barbecue.