How To Tell When Meat Is Done

A few weeks ago, I read Tara Austen Weaver‘s book The Butcher and the Vegetarian, a memoir in which she writes about being brought up as a vegetarian and the challenges she faced as an adult, when she had to start cooking meat for herself to try to recover from a serious health issue.

The Butcher and the VegetarianIt’s a very good read, witty and honest, and even for readers like me, who don’t share her dietary background or meat-handling angst, there are a lot of elements to relate to in her story. I especially enjoyed the sections where she addresses the political and ethical sides of the meat question in a remarkably level and dispassionate way.

A number of things she wrote stayed with me after I’d turned the last page, but there is one short passage in particular, early on in the book (p.31), in which her brother gives a technique for testing the doneness of red meat. It’s a small thing, but I liked the tip so much I thought I would, in turn, share it with you:

“Put the tips of your first finger and thumb together lightly, then use your opposite hand to squeeze the fleshy bit of the palm just below the base of the thumb. That is the consistency of rare meat. If you switch to thumb and second finger, the pad of your hand actually feels more solid, and that’s the texture of medium-rare. Thumb and third finger is medium; thumb and pinky is well done. Clearly this is what they are talking about when they say opposable thumbs are a sign of our evolution.”

Perhaps it’s a well-known trick — see below — but it was new to me, and of course I found myself, as I’m sure you just did, joining my fingers and prodding the flesh of my hand approvingly as I read through the paragraph. I don’t know that it can be assumed we all have the same muscle tone in our hands, but at least it’s a (relatively) constant frame of reference for each cook.

By an amazing stroke of synchronicity, Guillaume Long, whose illustrator’s blog I pointed you to earlier this week, recently illustrated that very same tip, as given to him by his swimming buddy, who happens to be a professional cook.

And if you’d prefer a real-life demo, a commenter to that same post linked to a video on the French recipe site Marmiton that shows the hand movement.


On an unrelated note, I’d like to point out a new feature in the comments section on C&Z: each comment now comes with a “reply” link that you can click on if you’d like to react or respond to that particular commenter. Your comment will appear right below it, so the discussion is more clearly laid out for all to follow. I hope you find that feature useful; please let me know if you encounter any problem while using it.

  • What a coincidence! A few weeks ago (just as barbecue season began in earnest), someone in office gave me the same tip. I thought he was kidding until I tried it for myself. Epicurious has a video for the same technique.

    • Thanks for the video link!

      • No problem. I guess it’s safe to say that your new Reply feature is working without any problems :)

  • I learned that same tip from my mother-in-law

  • I wonder if this is where the term ‘rule of thumb’ came from.

    • Ruth Adams

      Rule of thumb comes from the (I hope) outdated laws when a man could beat his wife for whatever infraction he decided she had committed. He could use a stick no larger than the diameter of his thumb. We’ve come a long way, baby!

  • And if it feels like pressing your thumb to your forehead, well then you might as well toss it out and start over! I like this tip — feeling for doneness rather than relying on a recipe’s time and temperature suggestions is so important.

  • Amazing! I needed a good frame of reference and this is perfect. Thank you so much for sharing the tip!

  • elizabeth

    I’ve never understood this trick. Am I really supposed to put my hand onto the grill and squeeze my hot steak?

    • I only cook meat on the stove so the heat is never intense enough to be a problem. But if you were cooking it on a grill, I think the idea would be to transfer the steak to a plate and prod it from there.

      • NicM

        You don’t have to pick up the whole piece and squeeze it either. I just use my thumb and give the steak a quick prod while it’s still on the grill. I could never get the desired doneness before learning this trick and it’s great on camping trips when cooking supplies are limited.

    • Reez

      I like this trick! The way I understand it is that this trick simply gives you a frame of reference, much like using color of the inside of the meat. I would think that using your fork to test doneness the meat would work just fine?

  • I’ve never heard of this trick, but I will have to try it! I’m always scared that something isn’t done well enough, which is probably why I don’t cook much meat for myself! :)

  • Hmm…I foresee a lot of finger-prodding near the grill this summer :)

  • Thank you for this tip. I have passed it on!

  • ATL Cook

    I have used this trick for years. I cook beef by temperature as I must eat it RARE. 120º so that means I take it out of the oven, grill, grill pan @ 115º and let it stand.

    Do not put a fork in your meat or you will lose the juices. Letting the meat stand allows those juices to be reabsorbed into the meat before cutting it.

    The real meaning of Rule of Thumb.

  • I heard this tip a few years ago and have used it to varying degrees of success. I’ve spent a lot of time lately with a friend who has a Ph.D. in Meat Science, and he’s a thermometer type of guy. Steaks to 140oF and burgers to 160 / 170 (can’t remember).

    I think one issue with the push test would be that the meat continues to cook after it is removed from the heat source.

    Another fun meat fact that I’ve learned is that studies show flipping meat multiple times is not bad for the meat. So flipping steaks / burgers over a few times isn’t a big deal.

  • Unfortunately, this thumb-to-finger method of simulating degree of doneness is somewhat equivalent to Leeuwenhoek’s theory of the origin of life in the 17th century.

    First of all some terminology. One person’s “done” may be another persons “rare” or “medium”. What a cook usually tried to estimate is the “degree of doneness,” or how far along the piece of meat is.

    Second, different cuts of meat—let’s say tenderloin [filet] and sirloin [faux-filet] (two muscles anterior and posterior to the lateral process of the lumbar spine)—cooked to the same temperature using a cooking method that doesn’t allow for carry-over cooking, will feel different to the touch.

    Third, a thin piece of meat from the same cut as a thick piece will feel different at the same temperature.

    All this is not to say that I don’t judge the degree of doneness in meat by touching it with my finger or tongs, but through experience I’ve learned to judge different cuts, animals, cooking conditions, and hold time so I can usually cook the meat as desired. The thumb-to-finger estimation just doesn’t really correlate to the end product. A healthy respect to what happens to proteins as they are exposed to heat will help a lot more.

    • You’re right, of course, but I still see this as a helpful frame of reference for beginner meat cooks, until they’ve had a chance to develop enough experience to fine-tune the target consistency depending on cut, personal taste, etc.

  • I grew up in a family that eats meat, but meat doneness still perplexed me until I bought an instant read thermometer. They are great for someone who tends to overcook everything fearing its not done. They are also great for cooking fish/seafood and quiche and making yogurt and… well I use it for everything (and heaven forbid you eat any pre-prepared frozen foods, you should confirm the doneness at 170 deg or as marked — see here).

  • I learned this trick at a cooking class years ago, but it never seems to work for me. Maybe my hands are too thin? If I used it, my meat would be well done. Oh well, it was a nice idea.

    Love the new comment feature.

  • I was a vegetarian for the first decade of my adult life and eventually rediscovered meat a few years ago. I still feel a bit inexperienced when it comes to preparing meat so this tip is right up my alley. I have added the Butcher and the Vegetarian to my list of books to read. Thanks so much!

  • Never heard this tip before today. Thanks for sharing, especially now that the barbecue season has officially begun.

  • I just learned about this book & it went straight into my TBR list. Sounds to be a great read! I had never heard of the meat testing trick, but will definitely try it. I never seem to know when the meat is done, so maybe this will help.


  • amy in nyc

    i’ve also heard a similar trick that works better for me than the finger/thumb trick: Pushing cheeks, squeezing your earlobes and poking the end of your nose.

    pushing on your relaxed cheek with your pointer finger=rare
    gently squeezing your earlobe=medium
    pushing inwards on the end of nose=well done

  • JanetM

    OK I have the ‘touch’ for chicken breast. Press the tip of your nose with your index finger – that’s how chicken cutlet should feel it is cooked. I learned this at a cooking class I took. I never used to be sure when chicken was done and would have a tendancy to overcook it – not any more!

  • I saw a Laurent Tourondel on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, and he did something similar that would probably work better for people with particularly thin/muscular hands. If I recall correctly, he held his hand slack for rare, held it in a loose fist (very loose, almost like holding an egg) for medium, and a tighter fist (I can only describe it as the letter “A” in American Sign Language) for well done. I don’t remember if he had another one to specify “medium” vs “medium-rare”, but I just tried both methods and they seemed to work about the same for me.

  • Mike Hewlett

    I’m always intruiged by these tips on cooking meat. What about different cuts, aged meat, young veal against steer, lamb or boar? The consistency of the raw meat, any tenderising actions I may have taken in advance, do these have an effect?

  • This is good information for inexperienced cooks as well as those of us that have been cooking for a while. Red meat is very hard to judge doneness. Thanks for all the helful links.

  • Gia

    I can’t believe this tip is new to people! I only find it suprising becayse even my dad, whose kitchen knowledge outside of barbecuing doesn’t even extend to making fruit salad, knows this one.

    I will say that maybe you’d see short-order cooks in diners using this tip, but certainly not professional cooks, for all the reasons Peter mentions.

  • Thanks. I have never heard of that tip before. I always have trouble telling when meat is ready.

  • This book sounds pretty cool, it would probably be great for me since I just started eating meat last year after 8 years of vegetarianism!

  • I love the cheek-earlobe-nose theory. Seems like every time I touch my palm it’s a different texture, probably because I’m using different pressures to touch my fingers together.

    My husband works on a timing method that always seems to work. But I always poke it and I seem to be able to tell most of the time. Thanks for this great article, and the discussion following!

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