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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated
to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
When you’re in charge of cooking the meat, you want to make sure that what you serve is both tasty and free of bacteria. The only way to do this is to heat the meat to a specific internal temperature and cook it for a particular period.
Your meat’s width alters how long and at what temp you cook it, and unique types of meat need different treatments. If you’re the meat aficionado at your hearth, you need to brush up on the ultimate all-meat doneness guide before you fire up the grill.
1. Why is Temperature Important?
Cooking your food to a specific temperature is the only way to ensure that it is entirely bacteria-free. Raw meat naturally has pathogens, and cooking at specific temps destroys them.
The USDA puts forth set temperatures defined as proper meat cooking temperatures as the ultimate all-meat doneness guide. Out of concern for public welfare, the USDA cooking temperatures for larger meat cuts are higher than other home cooks or restaurants. It’s up to you to decide what’s best for your family.
2. The Finger Test
The most sure-fire way to check how done your meat is is by using a meat thermometer. There are visual cues, but a meat thermometer is the most precise way if you’re a stickler for accuracy. There are some indicators of meat doneness that you don’t need a thermometer to detect.
The Finger or Touch Test is one way to check whether your steaks, chicken breasts, and other small cuts are done by the sense of touch. Using a meat thermometer on a smaller cut of meat will gouge a hole in the skin, allowing precious juices to escape. The Finger Test lets you check the readiness of your meat just by touching it.
Open your palm and touch the fingertip of your other hand to the fleshy part beneath your thumb. Raw meat will have the consistency of the muscle when your fingers are splayed. Next, lightly join your thumb and first finger, and then touch the fleshy part below the thumb again; this is what rare meat feels like.
Switch your first finger to your middle finger, and the muscle under your thumb should be much more firm; this is the consistency of medium-rare steak. Thumb to ring finger is medium, and thumb to pinky is the firmest of all, well-done.
This method won’t work for seafood, but you can check the color of the fish meat. According to the ultimate all-meat doneness guide, if it’s opaque and flakes off easily, it’s ready.
3. The Importance of Resting Your Meat
Along with visual cues that your meat is done, you also have to take it off the heat and let it sit for a period. This is called resting your meat. The meat’s temperature rises 5˚ even off the heat source, and the meat will continue cooking for a little while longer.
Each type of meat will have to rest for a specific time and most call for a tinfoil tent around the meat. Large cuts of beef need 10-minute rest periods, although the USDA suggests 3 minutes for all meats. Hamburgers don’t need any resting time.
Using a meat thermometer as well as your senses and making sure to rest your meat before carving are essential in preparing safe, delicious meat dishes. Here are the recommended temperatures and cooking times for the different types of meat you might find on your grill.
4. Chicken, Turkey, and Duck
Certain meats are delicious to some when they are rare, like high-quality steak or sushi-grade ahi tuna. Poultry is not the type of meat that benefits from serving it undercooked. In other words, undercooked chicken is dangerous.
Still, overcooking your poultry means dry duck, turkey, or chicken. This is almost as unpalatable as serving poultry underdone.
To cook poultry all the way through, bypassing any risk of bacteria, both white and dark meat must reach internal temperatures of 165˚F and must rest for at least 3 minutes. Many cooks who despise dry, overcooked chicken will take the meat off when it’s a few degrees under the recommended temp as it will continue to rise while it’s resting.
5. Beef, Lamb, Pork, and Venison
There are varying degrees of doneness for steaks and other red meats, and beyond the USDA’s safety parameters, these levels are subjective to taste. Some like their meat rare, whereas others prefer well-done. You can follow similar guidelines when cooking beef and lamb.
In general, meat cooked to rare will be 125˚F; medium-rare is 130˚ to 135˚; medium is 135˚ to 140˚; well-done is over 155˚F. The USDA notes that anything under medium is considered slightly unsafe, but that is a subjective decision.
How long you cook will depend on the thickness of the cut of beef. A tenderloin is going to cook differently than a brisket. After calculating the sum of searing and resting periods, add 5 minutes per ½” of meat.
For example, a tenderloin or ribeye steak, at about 1” thick, will need 6 minutes to cook rare (or get it to 125˚) and 8 minutes for medium. A brisket takes 2½ hours to cook, and it is a dish for the oven or a smoker as it cooks best with indirect heat.
It’s not advisable to serve pork rare, so you should cook it to medium and above, and like beef, you cook it halfway through and flip it once to make sure it cooks evenly. Most pork should be cooked from 145˚ to 160˚, depending on the cut.
Pork chops, for example, that ¾” to 2” thick should be cooked for 10 to 12 minutes to a temp of 150˚ for medium done and 14 to 19 minutes for well-done chops.
6. What About Seafood?
There are three basic categories to sort seafood into – fish with fins, creatures with shells (like crabs and shrimp), and mollusks (clams, oysters, or mussels).
Fish with Fins
To cook thoroughly and avoid bacterial contamination, you need to cook fish with fins and scales to an internal temp of 145˚F. You can test the meat to see if it’s flaky and opaque.
Creatures with Shells
Crabs, shrimp, lobsters, and scallops all have shells, but the meat you can see should be pearly white and opaque.
These creatures are usually sealed tightly in their shells, and when cooking, you should wait until these shells pop open. If some of them don’t pop open, discard them as they may be off.
All seafood will not last unless refrigerated. If any has been sitting out for more than a few hours, you need to throw it away.
7. Prepare Tasty and Safe Meat
Knowing doneness when cooking your meat is key to keeping all those who enjoy your offerings healthy and happy. Each food group has a different set of safe temperatures and requires unique cooking methods. The width of a piece of meat also affects whether it is rare, medium, or well-done. Although a meat thermometer is convenient, you can also test your meat’s doneness with a simple touch-test.
As you reach for culinary perfection, remember to remove meat from the heat source before it reaches its required temp, to let the meat rest. This results in one fantastic result – cooked meat that’s both tasty and safe.