Is it possible to reverse sear a steak without using a thermometer? Sure, but you’ll want to employ a few tricks to ensure that the serving temperature will be close to what you have in mind. Let’s get started.
Reverse Sear Without Thermometer
There are a couple of options for cooking a steak to the perfect temperature using the reverse sear method—all without the aid of a thermometer. Checking the texture of the steak against the feel of your palm is one popular method. You can also nick the meat to check the color or use a cake tester to see how warm it is in the center.
About the Reverse Sear Method
Reverse searing is the process of cooking a thick cut of meat—usually a steak—over low heat until it’s nearly done, then searing it at inferno-like temperatures. This gives the exterior a lovely mahogany crust and seals in all the delicious juices.
Some chefs prefer to stick to the old-fashioned method of searing the meat over high heat at the outset, then transferring it to low heat to finish cooking. There’s nothing wrong with this method, but it can lead to overcooked steak if you’re not careful.
It’s possible to reverse sear a steak using a cast iron skillet, but I prefer to use the grill. It might take longer to get the grill fired up, but the reward is steak that’s both intensely flavorful and perfectly cooked.
Best Cuts for Reverse Searing
Since filet mignon is often cut about 2 inches thick, it’s a good idea to reverse sear these steaks as well. Cooking them at a low temp for the first stage of the process will enhance their buttery texture, while the sear will create a nice contrast.
T-bone and porterhouse steaks can be reverse seared as long as you take care not to overcook them. Of course, getting the steaks to the proper temperature is what we’re here to discuss.
What about pork chops? You can use the reverse sear method on these as well. Again, though, I would save it for chops that measure at least 1-1/2 inches thick.
When to Reverse Sear
When you reverse sear a cut of meat, you’re not exactly cooking it—you’re just giving it an appealing texture. The process will raise the internal temperature by a few degrees, but it shouldn’t be too noticeable.
If I’m using a thermometer, I try to cook the steak to 5-10 degrees below my target temperature. After I’ve seared and rested the meat, it should have achieved the perfect texture.
Without the benefit of a thermometer, you won’t know exactly what the internal temperature is. But you should be able to tell when it’s cooked to rare or medium-rare, or whatever your desired serving temp might be.
Why Reverse Sear Without Thermometer?
Most of the time, I advocate using a thermometer to check whether meat has finished cooking. After all, it’s the only foolproof method out there.
Sometimes, though, you might not have access to a thermometer. If you’re on vacation and staying at a rental property, for example, the kitchen may not be as well-stocked as yours.
There’s also the fact that thermometers cost money. If you manage to perfect one of the tests we’ve listed below, you won’t have to spend a dime.
Reverse Sear Without Thermometer
The Finger Method
If you don’t have a thermometer (or just want to practice testing meat temperatures without using one), the finger test is the best way to go.
Many professional chefs enlist the finger test to determine whether a steak has cooked to the right temperature. Using a thermometer every time would be impractical. You can do the same from home. With a little bit of practice, you’ll become a pro in no time.
To use the finger test, you touch your finger to the palm of the opposite hand, then touch the steak to compare the textures. The position of your fingers will alter the firmness of your palm, giving you a template to work with.
Make a circle with your thumb and index finger. Now touch the index finger of your other hand to the flesh beside your thumb. That’s what a steak feels like when it’s cooked to rare.
Touch your middle finger to your thumb instead. See how much firmer your skin feels in that spot? That’s the difference between rare and medium-rare.
When you switch to making a circle with your thumb and ring finger, the flesh tightens up even more. This texture resembles a steak that’s cooked to medium.
If you touch your thumb to your pinky, the skin on that portion of your palm will go taut. That’s what a steak feels like when it’s well done—or, as I like to say, well and truly ruined.
The Nick and Peek Method
Is it permissible to cut into a steak to check the color? Some purists would say no, that you’ll lose precious juices that way.
But others argue that the loss is so minor as to be insignificant, and that the “nick and peek” test is a great way to check the meat’s progress without a thermometer. Losing a small amount of liquid is preferable to overcooking the steak, after all.
Find an inconspicuous spot on the meat and cut a tiny nick into it using a sharp knife. Your goal is to remove it from the heat when it appears to be just a shade more rare than you prefer. The meat will continue to cook as it rests.
The Cake Tester Method
Cake testers are metal skewers that feature a grip on one end. They’re a fancier alternative to toothpicks and have the benefit of being reusable, which is good news for the environment.
When testing a cake for doneness, you would insert this skewer into the center of the confection, then pull it out to see if there’s any batter left on it. If the tester comes out clean, the cake is done.
The method is a little bit different when you’re using the skewer to test meat. Instead of looking for crumbs and batter, you’re searching for heat.
Insert the cake tester into the center of the steak or chop at an angle. Wait for a few seconds, then withdraw it.
Immediately touch the end of the tester to the inside of your wrist. Is it cold? If so, the meat is still raw in the middle. If it’s hot enough to feel uncomfortable, the meat has cooked to well done.
What you want is for the cake tester to feel as close to your body temperature as possible. At this point, it’s safe to assume that the meat is cooked to medium-rare.
The Bottom Line
To reverse sear a cut of meat without using a thermometer, you’ll need to practice. Hardly anyone perfects these tests on the first try, but over time, you’re sure to get the hang of it.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!