During the writing of Modernist Cuisine, our editor-in-chief Wayt Gibbs pointed out to me that, according to the Websters Third New International unabridged dictionary, doneness is officially not a word. My response was that it ought to be, and unless there was another word that communicated my meaning just as clearly, then I would insist that we make doneness a word. [Editors note: We later discovered that the word is indeed included in the 2002 addenda to Web3.]
Doneness now officially a word, and no longer in need of being separated from other words with a pair of quotation markssuccinctly captures a rather complex notion. For me, doneness means cooking a piece of food to the ideal texture, temperature, taste, and flavor to match the personal preference of whoever will be eating it.
Steak is a great example of a food that elicits strong personal preferences for specific doneness. Some of us are enthusiastic carnivores and want a steak to have a flavorful charred crust, but a center that is raw and meaty. Others, for reasons hard for me to fathom, insist that their steak be well done.
Traditional techniques for cooking steak, like grilling, require that the meats time over the heat must be just right. Cook a steak sous vide, on the other hand, and it becomes simple to nail the perfect degree of doneness every time. This is because you set the water bath in which the steak cooks to the final temperature that you want the steak to reach. Once it achieves that temperature, it just doesnt get any hotter. This difference is one of the most compelling arguments for cooking sous vide, whether youre a restaurant chef or a home cook.
For the March issue of Mens Health magazine, I worked with the journalist Paul Kita on an article he was writing on how to prepare the perfect steak at home by using a MacGyver-like sous vide setup. If you pick up a copy of that issue, which is on newsstands now, youll see that Paul did a great job of distilling the essential details of how to select the perfect cut, age the meat for great tenderness and flavor, and then cook the steak with nothing more than a zip-closure bag, a pot of water, and an accurate digital thermometer.
One important detail that didnt make it into the article, however, is the cooking temperature that will yield your preferred degree of doneness. If you happen to like rib-eye steak cooked medium, then the bath temperature of 5860 °C / 136140 °F suggested in the article is right on. But if, like me, you prefer your steak done medium rare, a sous vide bath temperature of about 56 °C / 133 °F will give you that juicy pink doneness.
In Modernist Cuisine, we recognize that everyone is entitled to their own preferences for how they like their meat or seafood cooked. With this idea in mind, we developed dozens of best bets tables for cooking various cuts of meat and seafood. In each table, we offer suggested temperatures and cooking times that span the gamut from rare to well done.
You may have seen other tables with temperatures corresponding to different degrees of doneness. But notice that those conventional tables rarely include cooking times, which is a crucial component for food safety. Unfortunately, these older tables are usually based on misunderstandings about U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. In Modernist Cuisine, youll find an entire chapter devoted to all of the superstitions around food safety and government regulations. When it comes to cooking meat and seafood, commonly prescribed cooking temperatures almost always result in over-doneness!
It is often claimed, for example, that you must cook beef, veal, or lamb to an internal cooking temperature of 63 °C / 145 °F to prevent foodborne illness. This statement is totally false. The FDA requires NO specific internal temperature for steak. Put simply, even the FDA balks at the idea of telling millions of meat-eating Americans that they cannot have their steaks pink and juicy.
If you study the microbiology at work, as we have, you learn that there is very little need to prescribe a specific internal temperature because the inside of a healthy muscle is sterile. The immune system of the animal took care of eliminating any pathogens in the muscle. (If it hadnt, the animal wouldnt be healthy.) So unless the meat has been cut or punctured, the interior will remain sterile even after being butchered into cuts of meat.
Its the surface of the meat that you need to worry about, because handling it can spread bacteria from the outside of the cut and make you ill. (A word of caution: some cuts of meat are sold blade tenderized, which involves puncturing the meat with a large number of small blades. This process can carry bacteria inside the cut, contaminating the meat throughout.)
When you pan-roast or grill a steak, the searing hot temperatures quickly kill any bacteria that have taken up residence on the surface. So it is virtually impossible to cook an intact steak this way and not sterilize the exterior.
The situation is different, however, when cooking steak sous vide. If the temperature is low enough and the cooking time is too brief, some of the bacteria on the surface may survive and remain infectious. If youre worried about this possibility, you can eliminate the risk by blanching your vacuum-sealed meat in water hotter than 70 °C / 158 °F for a couple of seconds prior to cooking. Alternatively (and this is the approach we prefer), use a wickedly hot blowtorch to give it a quick sear, which also causes a delicious brown crust to form.