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When Is Meat Cooked Properly and Done?

We unveil the secrets behind perfectly cooking your favorite types of meat.

When you go out to a restaurant and order meat or fish it's the chef's job to tell precisely when it is cooked and done. But if you're making dinner for yourself or for your family at home, the Goldilocks-esque responsibility falls squarely on your shoulders.

As anyone who has ever grilled meat or fish will tell you, it's not always super easy to tell when these various sources of protein are ready to be eaten, especially since the cook times differ depending upon the exact nature of what you're preparing. However, unless you're cooking large cuts of meat, you don't need much more than a finger to tell when your meal is ready to go from grill to plate.

In other words, there's no use for any fancy thermometers or gadgets to alert you when you're burger is a perfect medium-rare, because there are some simple visual cues, ideal temperatures, and techniques to keep in mind so you can tell exactly when your favorite meats have been properly cooked to your liking.

Scroll down to see our complete list of helpful cooking hints, and be sure to put some of your knowledge to the test with these 50 Cheap and Easy Slow Cooker Recipes!


Grilled fish

Grilling fish seems like a scary prospect because most of us have experienced it falling apart. However, there are a few simple things to keep in mind to successfully prepare grilled fish. First, it's always best to use fresh fish that hasn't been frozen. If you have frozen fish, make sure it thaws properly before cooking. Take the fish out of the fridge or freezer and let it evenly come down to room temperature. Use a little bit of oil all over, and place it on a very hot grill. The high heat will allow for the skin or flesh to get crispy, which will enable it to easily release from the grate.

If you're trying to determine when a piece of fish is properly cooked and ready to be consumed, apply gentle pressure from your fingertip to the thickest part of the filet. If the fish flakes, it's good to go. However, if the fish resists flaking or appears translucent, it needs more time to cook.

If you're opposed to touching your dinner before it hits the table, you could also use a metal skewer or the tines of a fork to check on the fish's progress. Simply insert the skewer or fork into the thickest portion of the fish and wait three seconds before removing it. Once it is removed, place it on the bottom of your thumb to gauge the temperature. If the skewer or tines of the fork are warm to the touch your fish is perfectly cooked, but if they're hot the meal is likely overdone.


Cooked chicken breast

Medium heat generally works best when grilling chicken, but it also depends on the cut. If you're grilling skinless chicken breasts, you don't want the heat to be too high because it will dry out the delicate meat. However if you've got some skin-on chicken thighs, for example, you can use higher heat to get that perfect char on them. The number one way to make sure your chicken comes off the grill with a lot of flavor is to marinate or brine it beforehand. Try our foolproof wet and dry brining techniques for best results.

For chicken that is no longer on the bone (such as a boneless, skinless chicken breast) you'll know when it is perfectly cooked because it will appear smaller than it was when it was raw and will feel firm and bouncy to the touch, much like a tennis ball. When the chicken is cut into, it should appear white, not pink.

For chicken that is still on the bone, you can check on it by poking it with a fork or knife. If the juices that escape are clear, then it is done because that means the last of the pink by the bones has been cooked off, but if the juices are red or pink, or if the chicken itself is pink, it needs more time to cook. Now that you know how to tell when poultry is properly cooked, get some mealtime inspiration from this list of 35 Healthy Chicken Recipes for Weight Loss!


Pork tenderloin

Pork chops are the perfect cut of meat for grilling. Make sure they're at least 1-inch thick and that they have some fat on them, which will prevent it from drying out and will infuse a lot of flavor. Using a dry rub is highly recommended, too, so add some spices to your pork chops and let them sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Oil up the grates and set your heat to medium before you pop them on the grill.

Unlike chicken, properly cooked medium pork should have a slightly pink center (the internal temperature will be 150 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Pork Board). Similarly, if you like your pork on the rarer side, the juices should run mostly clear, and the internal temperature should be at least 145 degrees. However, if you prefer your pork to be cooked a bit more thoroughly, the internal temperature of your pork should reach 155 degrees for the meat to be medium-well. Like it well-done? Pull out your pork when your meat thermometer reaches 160 degrees.


Bacon cheeseburger

Unlike with chicken and pork, when it comes to flavoring your burger patties for grilling, less is more. That means that you'll get the best texture if you don't overwork your meat while making the patties, and only season them with salt and pepper. Set the heat to medium, and resist the urge to press on the patties with a spatula while they're cooking. Don't flip them more than once, or you'll run the risk of drying them out or cooking them unevenly.

The length of time for cooking a hamburger patty should depend on the size and thickness of the burger itself. The meat of a medium-rare burger should feel firm while still yielding easily. For a medium-well burger, keep the meat on the grill or in the oven until the patty feels more like a spring. A good general rule to remember with burgers is that an average inch-thick patty needs approximately 14 minutes of sizzle time to be cooked properly. For every quarter inch of burger thickness, you can add about three and a half minutes on the grill to make sure it's cooked to perfection.

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Grilled steak
Paul Hermann/Unsplash

Steak loves high heat on a grill, and a bit of char is what you want to achieve with a perfectly grilled steak. For even cooking, the meat should be at room temperature. And don't forget to rub the steaks with salt in advance, even up to 30 minutes before grilling.

Though people's cooking preferences for steak may vary wildly, there's a simple trick you can do with just one hand that will help you differentiate between a steak that is medium-rare and one that is medium-well. All you need to do is bring your thumb and index finger together so you form the "OK" sign with your hand. If you press the fleshy part of your palm right below the thumb with your other hand, that will give you an idea of what a rare steak should feel like when you press it.

For the texture of a medium-rare steak, touch your middle finger to your thumb and press the portion of your hand below your thumb, and for a medium-well steak, touch your ring finger to your thumb and note what that feels like. For more tips on how to cook this protein, don't miss these 24 Tips to Grill the Best Steak of Your Life.