With summer upon us, it’s prime steak season. People are visiting steakhouses in greater numbers, and throwing more of their own steaks on the grill. Backyards across the country are filling up with the sizzle and savory aroma of steaks. And while that’s happening, people are talking about how they like their steaks done. In fact, this is a point of contention among many steak enthusiasts. Obviously “doneness” is a matter of personal preference — but is there are “right way” to cook steak? Are there any generally accepted rules, and are there any levels of doneness that are actually frowned upon by steak lovers?
Before we get into that, let’s explore the actual effects cooking will have on a cut of beef. Essentially, three things are happening. The first is that the proteins in the beef begin the process of breaking down. The second is that the water in the steak (also known as “juice” or “juiciness”) is starting to evaporate. The third is that fat in the steak are beginning to melt away. That’s why the cooking process turns a raw cut of beef into a smooth, tender, flavorful experience.
This is all happening during the initial cooking or “grilling” process — which in a high-end steakhouse is distinct from the searing process. Once the interior of the steak has been heated and cooked to a consistent level, the surface of the meat is seared at high temperatures, leading to what’s known as the Maillard effect. This is what gives you that crispy exterior that gives way to the tender, buttery interior.
Now that we know what happens when steak is cooked, we can get into different levels of doneness. Everybody knows about rare, medium rare, medium, medium well and well done. Often times (and depending on the skill of the chef), the difference between medium and medium well is difficult to determine. But you should always notice a clear difference between medium rare and medium well, for instance, or medium rare from well done. If you don’t, run (don’t walk) to another steakhouse — or if you’re grilling at home, get somebody else to man the grill!
In terms of what people like, the most common order depends on where you are and who you talk to. In high-end steakhouses, it’s very unusual for regular patrons to order anything above medium — with an order of medium-rare probably being the most common. At backyard barbeques where the quality of the meat and skill of the chef aren’t as dependable, you’ll probably see a lot of orders for medium to medium well — these are considered “safe bets” for people who want a good flavor but don’t want to risk any sort of contamination or undercooking.
The “rarest” steak orders would obviously be the extremes of the spectrum, no matter what the setting may be. Steakhouses will obviously have limits on how rare they will serve a steak, but orders for a “rare” cut of beef are common enough. An order of medium-well or well done, in many steakhouses, is considered rather unfortunate — especially when it’s a really high quality cut of beef! Nonetheless, steak is a personal taste and the important thing is that your steak is made to order — every time.