“Can you grill a steak to temp?”

This is one of the guaranteed questions at any job interview in a kitchen that requires actually cooking food rather than washing dishes or cutting vegetables. It’s a surefire way to tell the green new hires from the veterans who have answered this question successfully with their work innumerable times. “To temp” simply means to order – blue rare, rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, and well (the last option being informally known in the back of the house as “ruined”). Being able to do this successfully multiple times during a shift, many times while cooking more than one order at a time, is required of almost all restaurant staff. To undercook a steak is unfortunate, and to overcook a steak is unforgivable. How someone likes their steak is a deeply personal thing – you’ll see this in action if you ask any group of diners the question. Many insist that medium rare is “the perfect steak” and will be the first to echo the cries of many a line cook and chef of “heresy” if someone in their group dares to cry out well done. Regardless of what your personal opinion is, it’s a necessary skill to have under your belt no matter the level of cooking enthusiast or professional you fancy yourself to be. Many who haven’t spent much time in the art of cooking will insist that there are multiple ways to tell what temperature a steak is at (aside from checking it with a meat thermometer), but truth be told, there’s only really one way to do it reliably across every cut of steak every time. (Hint: it has nothing to do with the color of the meat itself!)

The most reliable manner to achieve this feat is by utilizing something colloquially known as “the hand test.” To do this, flip one of your hands so that your palm is up and it is relaxed. Touch the fleshy base of your thumb with your opposite hand’s index finger. You’ll find that it’s not very firm at all, echoing the properties of raw or rare meat. Next, gently touch the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb, making an OK sign with your hand. If you touch the same fleshy base of your thumb with that opposite index finger while making that sign, you’ll find that it’s slightly firmer than it was before. This is the same degree of resistance that you should expect when you press down on a steak with your grilling fork or the corner of your spatula once it’s reached medium rare. When you touch your middle finger to your thumb and test the firmness of your thumb’s base, that’ll correspond to the resistance that a medium steak will put up. Your third finger touching your thumb will correspond with a medium well steak’s feel, and your pinky finger will correspond with the tough resistance that a well-done steak will show you if you test it while it’s still on the grill.

The hand test is all well and good for when the steak is still on the grill, but there is one more crucial piece of advice that cannot be forgotten or skipped when it comes to temping a steak like a pro – take the steak off of the grill or source of heat before it reaches the temperature that the person you’re cooking for asked for. You need to do this because the steak will continue to cook while it’s resting on a plate, assuming you don’t cut into it. (The heat will remain trapped inside the piece of meat if you don’t cut into it prematurely.) It’s crucial that you do not cut into the steak until it has finished resting and cooking, as doing so will speed up the cooking process. Speeding up the process ruins the texture of the meat. Cutting into the steak also allows for the juices that have been collecting inside the meat to run out before being served, which not only ruins the taste but dries it out as well.