Not all beef is created equal. 

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Photo: Aaron Kirk; Prop Styling: Christina Daley; Food Styling: Rishon Hanners

Beef: It’s more than what’s for dinner. The average American eats nearly 60 pounds of the stuff annually, and my guess is that about 2/3 of that is eaten at the wrong temperature, which is a figure that I have made up, but sort of feels true.

So, let us unpack the whole temperature thing for beef, shall we? Because there is a lot of controversy surrounding proper cooking temperatures in general. Cooking magazines, cookbooks, and chefs on television will all give cooking temperatures based on what is the tastiest, while the government will give cooking temperatures based on what is the safest. So which is correct?

Watch: How to Make Classic Beef Pot Roast

Food Safety in Beef Cooking Temperatures

The USDA guidelines suggest that all beef be cooked until what they consider “fully cooked,” or what we would consider a temperature of 145°, or medium-well, for whole pieces of beef like steaks and roasts, and 160° for ground beef.

We are going to focus on whole cuts of beef. Contracting foodborne illness from beef is fairly rare, and almost always related to ground meat products. The contaminants reside on the surfaces of meats, so whole cuts kill them off in the cooking because of direct heat on those outside surfaces. The danger is in ground meats, where the surface and interior are all mixed together—if you don’t cook them to a safe temperature, you can get sick.

Cooking Temperatures for Beef

The basic internal temperature guidelines are:

120°- Blue – Cool, blue-red center
125°- Rare – Cool, red center
135°- Medium-Rare – Warm, red center
145°- Medium – Warm, pink center
150°- Medium-Well – slightly pink center
160°- Well-Done – minimal to no pink center

Most people think that when it comes to beef you have your preferred eating temperature and you cook all of your cuts to it. The problem with this is that not every cut of beef wants to be cooked to that temperature. So, we are going to try an open our minds a bit and see if we can’t give the meat what it wants to be its best self.

Large muscle steaks, like New York strip, porterhouse, filet, and ribeye, will be delicious at your general preferred temperature. This is in part because these muscles did almost no work during the life of the cow, so they will have great flavor and texture regardless. If you personally cannot stand a hint of pink in your steak, that is between you and your tummy, and no one should be hating on your choice. It is important to note, from a taste perspective, that post medium-rare, cuts like these tend to dry out a little bit. I recommend Béarnaise as an effective moistener, but you can au poivre if you prefer.

Some steaks actually benefit from a slightly higher temperature. Cuts like skirt steak, for example, are a bit chewy at medium-rare or rare, but are delicious at medium, and have enough internal fat to still be great at medium-well. Flank steak is best between medium-rare and medium; true rare is a bit stringy, but don’t cook past medium or you will end up with shoe leather.

Large roasts meant to be sliced for a crowd, like prime rib, tend to also be their juiciest at a true medium-rare. But because of their size, when the very center is medium-rare, the temperature will range through medium to medium-well on the ends, so these are a great choice for cooking for a group where you are likely to have a range of temperature preferences.

Finally, the hardworking and cheap cuts like brisket, chuck, and short ribs all want to be cooked to well-done, preferably in a moist environment like braising (pot roast), simmering (stew) or a long, slow, low-temperature environment like a low oven or smoker (smoked brisket). These cuts have a lot of internal collagen and fat that need breaking down in order to shine.

How to Properly Cook Beef

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All beef needs to properly rest before eating. For thin steaks, this takes only 10 minutes; for thicker cuts, 15-20; for large roasts a minimum of 30-45 minutes tented with foil ensures that the juices redistribute, and your meat will be delicious.

Since the meat will continue to cook after it is removed from the heat, usually gaining 5 degrees for thin cuts and between 8 to 12 for larger cuts, you want to remove the meat from the cooking environment at a time that accounts for this carryover cooking. For example, if you are cooking New York strips and you want them medium-rare, you would pull them around 125 so that they can come up to 135 after a 10 to 15-minute resting time.

We always recommend using an instant-read meat thermometer to determine the internal temperature of your meat. Be sure to test in a few different spots and be careful not to get the thermometer near a bone or the cooking surface.

What if I Don’t Have a Meat Thermometer?

While large roasts really do require that you have a meat thermometer to determine your temperature, you can get a pretty good read on steaks with the touch test. Be sure to still pull the meat off when it feels like it is the temperature below what you desire, so pull at rare for medium-rare, medium-rare for medium, and so on.

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