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We’ll tell you how to cook the perfect steak to your preferred doneness

Feed your meat-tooth with a juicy thick cut Traeger grilled steak. Whether you like it fresh from the field, with some pink, or deader-than-dead, we’ve got you covered. We’ll teach you how to cook the perfect steak to your preferred doneness.

Here are the basic steak doneness ranges.

Steak Doneness Internal Temperature

Now let's talk about how to get there:

Steak Science

When you're cooking a steak, you're really doing two things:

  • searing the surface of the steak — which you want to get up to at least 285 degrees Fahrenheit, and
  • heating the inside of the steak which you want to keep much cooler.

Searing Steak for the Maillard Reaction

The Maillard reaction is one of nature's greatest miracles. It is a cascade of chemical changes that happen when meat (and other foods) reach approximately 285 to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

maillard reaction

At this temperature, certain amino acids and sugars react with each other to create hundreds of delicious flavor compounds and pleasing aromas. The meat also begins to turn brown as a result of this reaction.

The same reaction happens in bread, vegetables, and most things we eat. That classic "cooking" smell we're all drawn to — that's the Maillard reaction you're smelling.

The Perfect Sear

You do want to get the surface of your steak up to (and a little bit past) 285 degrees Fahrenheit. This will initiate the Maillard reaction, giving your meat a pleasing color. This will also slightly toughen the surface of the meat, and give your steak a satisfying crunch as you bite into it.

Searing also kills any surface bacteria that may exist on the meat.

But you don't want the inside of the steak as tough as the surface. Beneath that crust, you want a tender, warm, blast of beefy flavor.

So you need the sear to happen fast.

Moisture Is the Enemy

The Maillard reaction gives grilled steak its irresistible aroma.

That's why we cook it over fire rather than boiling it — something that's boiling in water can never get over 212 degrees Fahrenheit, because that's the highest possible temperature of the water.

But some people do effectively boil their steaks on the grill — by throwing them on when the surface of the meat is moist with condensation or a marinade.

don't grill wet steak

Grilling wet steak is like starting a race going uphill. Your grill can't cook your steak until it first evaporates the water which takes a lot of energy. Your steak can't get past the 212 Fahrenheit marker and toward Maillard levels, until all that water is gone. Meanwhile, the internal temperature of the steak is rising because of the ambient heat around it.

You can end up with the worst of both worlds — no browning on the surface of the steak, and overcooked meat within it.

Here are a few ways to banish moisture from your steak:

The Refrigerator Method

Take your steak out of any wrapping it came it, set it on a plate, and let it sit, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

The low humidity of the fridge will start evaporating the moisture, and the coolness will keep it safe. You'll want to make sure your fridge doesn't have any funky smells like last month's leftover sushi — that aroma could transfer to the meat.

The Salt Method

Salt the steak at least one hour before cooking or immediately before putting it on the grill.

Never salt the meat and let it sit for less than an hour, because during this time the salt is drawing out moisture. It needs the extra time to absorb the moisture.

The Blot Method

Pat the steak dry with a paper towel. You'll definitely want to do this if you used a steak marinade.

NOTE: You may have heard the recommendation to let your steak sit out at room temperature before cooking to make the cooking process shorter. Recent food science research suggests this doesn't actually increase the temperature that much. The heat of your Traeger is going to do nearly all the work whether you pull your steak right out of the fridge, or give it 30 minutes on the counter.

Cooking the Inside of the Steak

While you're getting that Maillard reaction on the outside of your steak, and throwing off tantalizing aromas, the meat on the inside is warming up, too.

The USDA says 145 Fahrenheit is the safe internal temperature for cooked steak, but most steak lovers prefer an internal temperature lower than that.

Of course, no one wants to bite into a cold steak. That's why the lowest recommended internal temperature for steak is 120 Fahrenheit. The inside of the steak hasn't really "cooked" but it's warm enough to be tasty.

As for food safety — "almost invariably, muscle interiors are sterile and pathogen-free" according to Scientific American. In part, because the meat inside hasn't been exposed to any surface bacteria.

As the Maillard reaction happens on the outside of your steak, some exciting chemical reactions are happening inside of it, too. In well-marbled cuts of beef like rib eye, the fat inside the beef will begin melting at around 100 degrees, adding more juicy flavor in every bite.

But know this — as your steak's internal temperature continues to increase, the meat near the surface of the steak is in danger of getting overcooked.  

The whole point of paying $15 a pound and up for ribeye, strip loins, and other expensive cuts of beef, is they are tender and flavorful enough that they can be eaten without cooking them too much. If you're just going to cook the steak until it's well done, you might as well save yourself the money and buy a pot roast.

might as well buy pot roast

A "medium-well" steak with an internal temperature of 145 degrees, is really a pretty well-done steak closer to the edges of the meat with a slightly rare section in the center. Once you get all the way to an internal temperature of 165 degrees or higher, the entire steak is well done, and is probably going to be tough.

Don't do this to your steak.

Checking the Temperature of Your Steak

So how do you know when the center of your steak has reached the proper temperature? The best way is the surest — scientific measurement.

Steak Doneness Internal Temperature Grill Time at 400 °F (Mins. Per Side) Center Color
Rare 120-130 °F 2:30 Red
Medium Rare 130-135 °F 3:30 Pink
Medium 135-145 °F 4:30 Some Pink
Well 145-155 °F 5:30 Sliver of Light Pink
Well Done 155-165 °F 6:30 Mostly Brown
What Have You Done? 165 °F+ 8-10 Brown Throughout

For the best steak every time, invest in a digital thermometer with a thin probe and know for sure when that pricey cut is at the peak of perfection.

Steak Doneness by Touch

You may read about the "poke test" for determining whether steak is done. The idea is that you find a place on your body that corresponds to a steak doneness level. You press that place — sometimes a part of the face, sometimes a fingertip, sometimes the meaty part of your hand below your thumb — note the "springiness," then touch the steak to see if it has the corresponding "springiness."

You'll sometimes see this in a "cooking tricks" type of list, and "trick" is a good word because like a magic trick, it should only be attempted by professionals. Chefs who cook many steaks a day, usually of similar cuts on the same equipment indoors, can get pretty good at using simple touch tests to see if steaks are done.

But as an outdoor griller, you've got other factors to consider including the outside temperature, the cut of the steak, whether you marinated it or not, how soft your hands are — so unless you cook the exact cuts of meat, prepared the same way, at the exact temperature, many, many times, the poke test will let you down.

Here's a closer look at the classic steak doneness levels.

how to grill perfect steak

RARE – Just a minimal sear on the exterior of the meat. People cook it rare because they're embarrassed to eat it fresh out of the fridge in front of guests.

  • Internal Temperature: 120-130℉
  • Grill Time: ~2.5 minutes per side
  • Center Color: Red
  • Center Temperature: Cool

MEDIUM RARE – A truly seared steak. A medium rare steak is the recommended doneness to taste the natural flavor of the meat. It’s usually how meat connoisseurs and chefs like to eat it.

  • Internal Temperature: 130-135℉
  • Grill Time: ~3.5 minutes per side
  • Center Color: Pink with thin brown stripes on top and bottom.
  • Center Temperature: Room Temperature

MEDIUM – Most everyone is happy with this doneness, it’s not bloody or as dry as the Sahara desert.

  • Internal Temperature: 135-145℉
  • Grill Time: ~4.5 minutes per side
  • Center Color: Some pink
  • Center Temperature: Lukewarm

WELL – It’s definitely cooked, still showcases the flavor of the meat.

  • Internal Temperature: 145-155℉
  • Grill Time: ~5.5 minutes per side
  • Center Color: Sliver of light pink
  • Center Temperature: Warm

WELL DONE – It’s browned and cooked throughout.

  • Internal Temperature: 155-165℉
  • Grill Time: ~6.5 minutes per side
  • Center Color: Mostly brown
  • Center Temperature: Warm throughout

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?! – This is the hockey puck of steaks - Go ahead and eat a salad if you hate steak this much.

  • Internal Temperature: 165+℉
  • Grill Time: ~8-10 minutes per side
  • Center Color: Brown throughout
  • Center Temperature: Hot off the grill 

THE PERFECT STEAK – Always purchase high-quality meat. The quality determines the texture, tenderness, and how flavorful the steak will taste. 

  • The thicker the steak, the easier it is to cook and the better it will taste.
  • Stop by your local butcher shop and ask for exactly what you want, i.e. a 2” thick cut steak. Most grocery stores stock steak that is ½” to 1” thick, thin steak cooks faster and has less flavor.
  • Pre-heat your grill and make sure the temperature is set to it's highest temperature (400-500℉). Grilling steak can be a quick and easy process. Also, thick cut steak has more forgiveness with cook time and tenderness.

Try each of these steak cooking times at home and taste the rainbow of steak flavor to see what you’re favorite doneness is. Enjoy!

Cooking Steak on a Pellet Grill

When you cook steak on a pellet grill, you have the best of both worlds. You can grill steak in a hurry using the direct heat method. Or, you can use the oven capabilities of the pellet grill to do the increasingly-popular reverse sear method. With this method, your steak will get a nice dose of wood smoke while it cooks.

Direct heat method (fastest): To grill over direct heat, set the grill to high, close the lid, and allow it to preheat for 15 minutes. Place the steaks on the grill grate and cook for approximately 3.5 minutes per side until the internal temperature of the steak is 135 degrees Fahrenheit (medium-rare).

Reverse-sear method (easier, more smoke flavor): To do the reverse-sear method, set your grill to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, close the lid, and preheat for 15 minutes. Put the steaks on for 60 minutes, or until they reach an internal temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Take the steaks off the grill, then set the temperature of the grill to high. Allow it to preheat with the lid closed for about 10 minutes, and put the steaks back on the grill. They'll sizzle and brown, getting that terrific Maillard reaction aroma and color. Cook for approximately 4 minutes per side to allow the sear to form, and to get the internal temperature of the steak to 135 degrees Fahrenheit (medium-rare). See all of Traeger's steak recipes for more ideas on how to cook a steak on a pellet grill. 

Cooking Steak on the Stove/Oven

If you're cooking a steak indoors, the best method is one that has gained popularity over the last few years — the reverse sear. The reverse sear is when you cook the steak rather slowly in the oven, then finish by searing it on the stovetop. The benefit of this method is that you're less likely to overcook the steak, and you have more control over the sear.

Preheat your oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, and put the steaks in the oven on a baking sheet. Cook them until the internal temperature is 110 degrees Fahrenheit which will take about an hour.

Just before you take the steaks out, drizzle oil in your heaviest skillet and set it over high heat. Take the steaks out, and put them in the pan. Sear them on both sides (which should take about one minute per side) and finish by searing the edges.

You can also do the searing process outside on the grill - but then, why would you want to miss out on the ease, consistency, and wood fired taste of cooking your steak on a pellet grill? Makes no sense. 

Cooking Steak on a Gas Grill

If you're using a gas/propane grill, the instructions are essentially the same. Set the grill to a high temperature (400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit), and follow the timing guidelines above.

You'll need to work a little harder to replicate the kiss of wood smoke flavor delivered by Traeger wood pellets, though. Wood chips, in either a foil pack or smoking box, are the best method.

However, your chips can't sit directly over a flame, or they'll flare. So using wood chips may mean you don't have as much cooking surface for your steak, or that you can't get your grill quite as hot.

Cooking Steak on a Charcoal Grill

Grilling steak over charcoal can be tricky. It's difficult to know the exact temperature of the cooking surface, and that temperature can vary depending on the type of charcoal you used and how evenly you spread the charcoal.

Briquette charcoal can give you temperatures of around 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Lump charcoal may be able to generate higher temperatures. You can check for a high temperature on your charcoal grill using the hand test. Hold your hand at grate level, and if you can only keep it there for 2 to 3 seconds before it gets too hot, you have a 400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit surface to grill.

If you've got that heat, you can grill using the timing instructions above. But beware — your charcoal grill may have hot or cool spots that can affect the cooking time. You'll have to keep a close watch and you won't be able to set it and forget it like you can with a Traeger.

For wood smoke flavor, you can use wood chips. Typically, you add wood chips directly to charcoals, but this can affect the heat you're generating.

If you add dry wood chips, they could flare up and burn your steak. If you add soaked wood chips, they will cool down the charcoal. A foil pack added before cooking is probably your best bet.

Cooking Steak in a Sous Vide

Your sous vide (aka water bath) will get your steak exactly to your desired doneness temperature. However, it takes a lot longer than cooking on a grill — probably about an hour.

maillard reaction can't happen in a sous vide

Also, that important Maillard reaction above can't happen in a sous vide as the temperature of the water isn't high enough. Experienced sous vide cooks recommend searing the steak first, then beginning the sous vide process.

Read More!

https://www.seriouseats.com/2012/12/the-food-lab-complete-guide-to-pan-seared-steaks.html

https://www.seriouseats.com/definitive-guide-to-steak

https://www.seriouseats.com/2015/05/food-lab-how-to-grill-steak-cuts-of-steak-marbling-salting-charcoal-technique-resting-tips.html

https://modernistcuisine.com/2013/03/the-maillard-reaction/

https://barbecuebible.com/2017/09/26/how-to-grill-steak/

https://amazingribs.com/more-technique-and-science/more-cooking-science/myth-searing-steaks-seals-juices

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