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10 Foolproof Ways to Know When Your Meat Is Cooked

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Is it done yet? When it comes to grilling or smoking, that's the, er, burning question. Even the most seasoned grillers and smokers sometimes experience a twinge of uncertainty when it comes to gauging the doneness of a particular meat or seafood.

One of our missions at BarbecueBible.com is to help you take the guesswork out of grilling. Here are ten tests you can use now to tell exactly when the food on your grill is ready.

  1. The cut test: Disparaged by some food writers and practiced by just about everyone else. Using the tip of a paring knife, make a small slit in a steak or chop (ideally on the side that will wind up on the bottom) and look at the center to check for doneness. This technique violates the integrity of the meat—use it sparingly. It can also lead to some false doneness identification, as the meat at the cut may look more well-done than it actually is.
  2. The flake test: To determine whether grilled fish steaks (like salmon, swordfish, or halibut) are done, press the surface with your forefinger. When the fish is cooked, the flesh will break into clean flakes. Of course, there are times when you might want the fish to be rare, i.e., when you're grilling sushi-grade tuna.
  3. The shrink test: Use the shrink test to determine the doneness of ribs. The ribs are cooked when the meat has shrunk back enough to leave the last one-fourth inch of the bone exposed for baby backs, or one-half inch for spareribs and beef ribs.
  4. The tear test: This is also for ribs. When the meat is tender enough that you can tear the ribs apart with your fingers, they're done. Or flex a rack of ribs: If the ribs in the middle of the rack develop a shreddy tear where they flex, the ribs are done.
  5. The poke test: One of the best ways to judge when relatively thin cuts of meat, like steaks and chops, are done is to poke them with your forefinger.

    --A rare steak or chop will feel soft—even squishy.
    --A medium-rare steak will feel yielding—with just the slightest resistance.
    --A medium steak will feel gently yielding—somewhere between soft and half resistant.
    --A well-done steak will feel firm with just the slightest yield.

    There's an old rule of thumb (literally) to help you gauge the resistance. Make the "OK" sign by pressing the tip of your forefinger to the tip of your thumb. Press the base of your thumb with the forefinger of the opposite hand. That's the soft squishy feel of a rare steak.

    Now move the tip of your middle finger to the tip of your thumb. Again, press the base of your thumb with the forefinger of the opposite hand. It should offer slightly more resistance—the feel of a medium-rare steak.

    For medium, press the tip of your ring finger to the tip of your thumb. The flesh at the base of your thumb should feel half yielding, half firm.

    For well-done, press the tip of your little finger to the tip of your thumb. The flesh at the base of your thumb should feel firm and unyielding.

    But remember, everyone's hands are slightly different, so learn to calibrate the degree of resistance to the way you like your steak.

Get the last five tests for checking doneness at BarbecueBible.com.

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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.