Steak temperatures are the cause of many complaints from guests. And for good reason.
There is no 100% “accepted standard” for internal temperatures for steaks.
However, there are some “industry standards” that have been in play for a long time and these standards generally work for the home griller as well.
Rare – 120° – 125°
Medium Rare – 125° -135°
Medium – 140° – 145°
Medium Well – 150° – 160°
Well Done 160 – 170° (170° being almost inedible)
Here’s a good pictorial series showing what each temperature should look like when you cut the steak open:
Note that this doesn’t agree exactly with my chart. I consider those “in-between temperatures” to be “plus”. There’s some leeway, which is, of course, part of the problem. Not only do patrons have their own ideas of what a perfect medium rare is, so do different restaurants. There is no one universal standard, so it’s up to the waiter to know the standards of their own restaurant. Heck, even different broiler cooks in the same restaurants can have different ideas as well, so the astute waiter gets to know each broiler cook’s output.
Compounding this problem is the USDA weighing in on the subject. The USDA traditionally errs on the side of being conservative because of legal issues. “Better safe than sorry” is their motto. The USDA now “recommends” that steaks be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°. This isn’t a legal requirement or anything – don’t worry, you can still get your steaks rare at most restaurants. The thing is, the USDA calls this “medium-rare”. Most people will not recognize this as medium rare. Not even close. And you now have standards starting to reflect this in certain quarters, probably because of the very potential legal issues that I mentioned.
Here’s the thing – for “intact muscle meat”, even the USDA is more lenient than they are for ground beef and steaks which have been punctured by a fork or a temperature probe. You see, the main worry about meat is e.Coli, which is an aerobic pathogen. That means that it needs oxygen to survive. You won’t find it in the muscle itself, only on the surface. It’s killed at 160° or higher. As long as you don’t puncture the steak, this will occur on the surface, where it matters, even with a rare steak. People don’t have anything to fear from a steak that’s cooked less than the USDA recommended temperature, unless there is a cross-contamination issue, such as a cook or chef handling raw chicken with e.Coli or some other pathogen and then handling your steak, or putting a cooked steak on a contaminated cutting board. The reason that ground beef has to be cooked to 160° to be considered “safe” is for this very reason. Being ground up, there’s far more surface area on the inside of the meat that is exposed to oxygen. This is why some places refuse to cook a hamburger at anything less than medium, and even at medium, you’re running a risk (note – I prefer my hamburgers cooked no longer than medium rare because I’m willing to assume the risk, which means that I can’t patronize places like 5 Guys or Red Robin).
So what’s a poor server to do, especially if they work in a steakhouse? The main thing is to know your house standards. From a logistics standpoint, it’s very difficult to ask each person that orders a steak what color they like, especially since most people are in sync with the general guidelines. But if you sense that someone isn’t sure, you should always ask them what color that they like their steak. But you should be prepared for some resistance sometimes. For instance, in my place, we generally adhere to the above guidelines. But people used to getting steaks in other places or that have cooked their own steaks a certain way for years might be surprised by your recommendations. For instance, if someone says that they want just pink, I have to steer them to medium well because, in our restaurant, medium still will have some red (or appear that way in the lighting of the restaurant). I always say “Medium is red starting to go pink”. That pretty much covers a good range for medium. This is what my experience says occurs when a steak comes out medium in my restaurant. This surprises some people and they sometimes resist getting medium well because they associate that with the overcooked product that they might get in other restaurants. I hedge my bets even further by telling people that some patrons think that we “undercook” a little. Some guests will use the phrases “warm red center”, “cool red center”, “hot pink”. It’s up to you to know what this means in your restaurant. BTW, no broiler cook ever actually “takes a temperature” – the do it all by feel. Most use the “hand method”. This is using the fleshy pad of the thumb to determine what each temperature is. Once a broiler cook gets the concept down, he or she is able to press the top of the steak or squeeze the sides to determine doneness. First of all, they don’t have time to take temperatures. Second of all, they destroy the integrity of the meat by sticking a probe into it. This allows juices to escape, plus, it actually makes it more dangerous from a health standpoint, as I explained earlier. Here’s a great pictorial:
There are a couple of other categories – “Pittsburgh”, which most people associate with what most restaurants call “Black and Blue”. A true “Pittsburgh” is seared almost black on the outside but can be cooked at pretty much to any temperature, even though it’s rare (pardon the pun) to order it above medium rare. “Black and Blue” is seared black on the outside and pretty much raw on the inside (also called “Pittsburgh rare”). You might also hear “Chicago style”, which is searing the steak after it’s already cooked to whichever temperature the patron desires.
Should a waiter ask for the guest to cut into their steak to “make sure it’s cooked the way you like”? Opinion is divided on this. My thought is that you’re admitting that your kitchen might not be able to hit the desired temperature. Better to ask if “everything is cooked to your liking” at the first check-back (no later than 3 minutes after service). And don’t ask if the steaks are cooked that way – just ask “if everything” is cooked correctly. It’s best not to show concern about a specific product. However, as always, follow your house policies on this.
If you serve veal chops, it’s best to recommend that they be cooked medium rare or higher, even if the guest normally has his or her steaks cooked rare. This is because veal is so tender, if you cook it rare, it’s generally mushy. It needs to firm up a little. Of course, don’t make an issue about it. If the guest wants it rare after your explanation, by all means, order it for them that way. It’s the same for pork chops or veal tenderloin, except that you might want to recommend medium (pork is very tender as well). Guests might be concerned about ordering pork anything less than medium well or well done, but the concern is pretty much unfounded. But it’s not your job to convert them. Simply state that medium well will reduce the juicy quality that we treasure from pork and then follow their lead.
Having said all of that, I suppose that I need to cover my legal bases and say that every person should understand that this is my opinion only (and actually the opinion of many professionals in the industry) and that you don’t follow the USDA guidelines at your own risk.
I only wish that the USDA wouldn’t try to redefine what we mean by medium rare. It would be better if they acknowledge what most people accept as rare through well done and simply “recommend” not ordering or cooking a steak at anything less than medium. That would be just fine. Instead, you have some people adopting new standards based on this recommendation (and I haven’t been able to find the USDA’s temperature charts for anything other than their recommendation for 145 being “medium rare). One source that I found actually called rare 140°! that’s insane. Until a little common sense is shown, we’re going to continue to have confusion at the table. It’s up to the server to try and figure out that the guest really wants.
Remember – the key is knowing your house policies when it comes to describing steak temperatures and the proper procedures for handling a re-cook or a guest’s issues with steak temperatures.
This is what I’d consider a great medium rare steak. Some people would consider this “rare”. You can see that it’s still “rare” in the middle. But you can see about 1/4 inch of cooked steak around the edge. To get this, the bright red meat is brought up from a “cold/cool red” to a “warm red”. It still looks “rare” but it’s not. Rare should be bright red all the way to at about 1/8 of an inch from the surface (or at least bright pink in the last 1/4 inch).
Here’s a perfectly cooked medium well steak, although most medium well steaks that you are likely to encounter won’t be nearly as uniform. Some will only be that color in the middle, with a large ring of brown around the middle.