Touching For Doneness

Our Fingers Can Help Us Cook The Perfect Steak

Top to Bottom, From Rare to Well Done

Touching For Doneness

Our Fingers Can Help Us Cook The Perfect Steak

Do you ever watch a professional chef or one on TV cooking a steak or a chop and they touch the meat while it's cooking? The meat may be in a pan or on a grill and using the tip of an index finger, the chef quickly taps and touches the hot steak. Have you ever wondered what they are doing? Here's the answer: they're feeling for the state of doneness.

With just a touch, a skilled cook can judge if a piece of meat is done or if it needs more cooking. They're feeling for a degree of softness or firmness in the meat. The more soft, the more rare it is. As they tap again and feel it getting gradually firmer, they can tell how well done it is. This method is more fool-proof than a timer and it saves a steak from being cut open (yes, it's the ultimate test but then you've got a slashed piece of meat with the juices running out).

Learn From Your Own Hands

While it's easy for any of us to mimic the gesture, if we don't know what we're feeling for, we may only end up with a burnt fingertip and an over-cooked piece of meat. By using your own two hands and a few fingers, you can teach yourself what rare, medium rare, medium or well done feels like. Once you learn the feeling and know what you're touching for, you can transfer that knowledge from your hand to the grill pan. As you read this, just follow along and try to do what I describe. It won't hurt at all.

  1. Using your left hand, touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your index finger. You'll be making a circle with your fingers, as if you're signaling "OK."

  2. While holding the left hand in that position, now take your right hand and using your right index finger, touch the pad of your left hand, the soft fleshy part that is at the base of your left thumb (Fig. 1). Feel how soft that is? Remember that feeling.

  3. Now go back to the left hand and replace the tip of the index finger with the tip of the middle finger (Fig. 2). Again, with your right hand touch the soft pad. It will be firmer. If you can't feel this right away, alternate between the index and middle fingers and keep feeling the pad for the difference.

  4. Repeat these same movements but next bring the ring finger to the left thumb (Fig. 3), and then the left little finger to the thumb (Fig. 4). As you replace each finger tip, continue to touch the pad and you'll feel it change from very soft to firm.


Here's the point of this exercise: When you're touching the index finger to the thumb, and the pad of the hand is the softest, this is what rare meat feels like. Moving to the middle finger changes the pad to feel like medium rare. The ring finger will give you the feeling of a medium-well done steak. And the little finger is well done.

When meat, which is a piece of muscle, cooks, the fibers of the muscle seize up from the moisture being cooked out of the meat. This means the more raw or rare the muscle, the more moisture it will have and thus, the softer it will be. The more cooked it is, the more firm it will become. Practice feeling your own hand and learn what rare, medium rare, medium and well done feel like. Then you'll be able to cook a steak or a chop in a grill pan, sear it on one side, flip it over, and in a few minutes, touch it and feel it change from rare to well cooked. When it feels like it's done to how you want it cooked, take it out of the pan or out from the broiler, let it rest for 5 minutes, and it should be perfect. (This same test can, in principle, work when cooking a roast, although an instant meat thermometer will give you a far more accurate answer on that kind of cut.)

If we are all to become fearless in our kitchens we must eventually stop experiencing cooking only through recipes. Learning small details, like how to touch meat for doneness, start adding up and before you know it, your confidence will have grown, you'll make fewer mistakes and your food will simply taste better. And then you can broil a steak for your dinner guests and show them the hand trick. Everyone always loves it.

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