Grilling With the Poke Test

Cooking on a grill is both science and an art. Consider the question, how do I tell if my steak is done the way I want it? This may be one of the most frequently asked questions in the world of grilling. If you ask a trained chef or a master griller, they will tell you that they use the “poke test” to judge when the meat done to the desired serving temperature. Obviously, this test is not the only way to determine doneness, it just happens to be the handiest way (pun intended) to do so. As long as you still have your fingers and your face, you can learn and use the poke test!

The truth is, that way and I mean way too many people who cook steaks on their grills, will mangle a fine piece of meat trying to determine whether it is done. Admit it, there was a time, and it could be now, that you checked for doneness by using a knife to cut into to the heart of a cooking steak to see if it was done. You peeked into the cut to see if the meat was the “right color” to match the requested doneness. If it wasn’t, the meat stayed on the grill grate, with the wonderful meat juices leaking out of the cut and sizzling on the Flavorizer bars of your Web Genesis gas grill. Oh, the horror!

The best way to learn the poke test is to practice. First, get a digital meat thermometer and learn the appropriate temperature that corresponds to when you should remove the meat from the grill, to assure the desired doneness. Please note that we are making a distinction between the temperatures at which the meat is removed from the grill and the temperature after the steak has “rested” before it is plated to serve.

Why a digital meat thermometer? You need greater accuracy than the standard round faced dial model is going to provide. To often these tools will display a temperature range for the doneness of the meat. A medium rare steak may have a range on the dial of 130 to 140 degrees. The problem here is that this is the temperature at which the steak is served and eaten medium rare. A steak will continue to cook and rise in temperature, as it rests, after being removed from the cooking surface. Therefore, a steak needs to be removed from the grill when the digital reading is 125 degrees for a medium rare steak.

Now, here is where the practice comes into play. When you get a reading of 125 degrees, poke the heart of the steak with your index finger. Capture the sense of the steaks texture at this internal temperature. One rule of thumb for the poke test is that the firmness of the steak should feel like poking your chin half way between your lower lip and the tip of your chin. For the request of a rare steak, remove at 115 degrees and a poke that feels like poking your ear lobe. The medium request is removed at 140 degrees and the poke should feel like poking the end of your nose. If, god forbid, you get a request for well done, the internal removal is 160 degrees and it will feel like poking yourself in the middle of your forehead!

After a bit of practice, you can get rid of the meat thermometer and rely on your index finger and your face to set the standard for perfectly grilled steak.

To be frank, there are several versions of the “poke test” and numerous suggestions for different methods of practicing and determining the texture and feel of the cooking meat. For additional information on the test, we suggest you visit our blog, GrillingFantasies.com and review other techniques and a story or two about the fun and fantasy of grilling.