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The Poke Test And Other Steak-Cooking Myths

You’ve probably heard some of these steak cooking tips before: Use the finger test to see if a steak is done. Only flip your steak once. Let it rest at room temperature before cooking. According to The Food Lab’s J Kenji Lopez-Alt, these — among others — are steak cooking myths that need to go away once and for all.

If there’s anyone who knows how to cook a steak properly, it’s J Kenji Lopez-Alt. You’ve seen his tips here before. In his latest piece, he tackles a number of steak cooking myths that we’ve been guilty of sharing before too. For example, he summarily dismisses the so-called “finger test” for testing the doneness of a steak:

There are so many uncontrolled variables in this assay that it boggles the mind that anyone would think it’s at all accurate. First off, not all hands are created equal. My thumb is squishier than my wife’s thumb. Should I gauge my steak’s doneness based on hers or mine? Or perhaps some Harry Potter-esque universal constant will make her steak conform to the rheological properties of her hand, and mine conform to mine.

Then we get to the meat itself. Thick steaks don’t compress the same way as thin steaks. Fatty steaks don’t compress the same way as lean steaks. Tenderloins don’t compress like ribeyes. You get the picture. More than once I’ve seen a macho grill cook take an unfamiliar cut of meat, apply the poke test, and come out completely off the mark when the steak is sliced.

Truth is, if you work in a restaurant where you are cooking very similar cuts of meat on a regular basis, then you will eventually develop the ability to tell their doneness by poking. Throw some irregularity into that mix, and that ability quickly disappears.

Ultimately, instead of relying on the finger test (or the face test), buy an instant-read thermometer. He suggests (and I agree) that the Thermapen is the one to have, but our friends at The Sweethome have a cheaper option.

Similarly, Kenji debunks the whole “don’t use a fork to flip your steak” myth as well — he explains as long as you’re not repeatedly stabbing your steak over and over with a fork, you’re OK:

This one is true… to a degree. A degree so small that it can’t possibly be detected by the human mouth. The whole myth here is that people seem to think that a steak is like a water balloon; That is can be “popped,” releasing juices. This is not actually the case.

Really, a steak is like a series of very very very very very very thin water balloons, all packed tightly into bundles. Poke your steak with a fork and a few of those balloons may indeed pop, but most will simply be pushed out of the way. It’s like filling up an olympic-sized swimming pool with water balloons then throwing a needle into it. You may pop a a couple, but you’ll hardly notice that they’re gone.

It’s by this very principle that a jaccard meat tenderizer works — it pokes a steak with dozens of thin prongs, pulling apart some of its muscle fibrils without actually rupturing too many of them.

The Takeaway: Go ahead and use that fork if your tongs or spatula are in the dishwasher. None of your guests will taste the difference.

You’ll note that he doesn’t say “have fun and use that fork all the time”, he just clarifies that using your fork to flip a steak isn’t going to automatically ruin it and make it tough and dry. These are just two of the seven steak-cooking myths that he tackles in the post — you can read the rest at the link below, like why letting your steak come to room temperature is bunk (and how he tested the myth to disprove it), and the ever-popular “searing locks in juices”, a myth even we’ve debunked before.

Check out the full post at the link below to learn how to ensure the steaks you serve are the best your guests have ever eaten.

The Food Lab: 7 Old Wives’ Tales About Cooking Steak That Need To Go Away [Serious Eats]