What is the Best Temperature for Grilled Steak?

When I worked in a professional kitchen, most diners ordering steak had an automatic response to the server’s eternal question, “How would you like that cooked?” The usual answer: “Medium-rare.”

Generally, I would say the same. But the truth is that not all steaks are universally better when cooked to medium-rare (around 130ºF). I find medium-rare hanger steak—a loose-grained cut from the underside of the cow—to be limp (and rare hangar steak is downright mushy). When I make this cut, I like to cook the steak a little further—to medium (140ºF)—which I find yields a more flavorful steak with better texture.

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However, I wasn’t sure if this opinion was based in fact, or if it was a holdover from my formative years (when my father assured me that I preferred my steak medium-well, please).

So in a recent conversation with Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton—chef-owners of Ox Restaurant in Portland and co-authors of Around the Fire, which our cookbook critic reviewed earlier this year—I posited my theory that some steak cuts are best cooked past medium-rare.

Greg agreed. With tougher cuts like hangar, tri-tip, flank, flap steak, and skirt steak, he said, “you need to allow time for the fibers to relax.” According to Greg, any steak on which you can see the grain of the meat running down its length is at its optimal level of tenderness and juiciness when cooked to medium.

For short ribs, Gabrielle goes a step further, recommending they be cooked to medium to medium-well (140ºF to 150ºF). English-cut short ribs are one of her favorite steaks to grill, she says, noting that “the connective tissues and marbling need time to render, so it’s best grilled over low heat for a long period of time.” This cut, which is often braised, has a lot of fat, so it can stand up to the higher level of doneness. Plus, Gabrielle says, “the tendons get crispy and satisfyingly chewy,” when cooked this way.

So it looks like my dad was right after all. (But I’m still not letting him near my rib-eye…)