We’ve all read recipes that call for meats like beef to be cooked at a “high” heat – like grilling and barbecuing. But what does cooking beef at a high temperature mean for your health? And does it impact the experience of your meal? Food science can be complicated, even when you’re following the simplest of recipes, so we’re breaking down the science of beef cooking temperatures for you to make sure you have the best eating experience.
Cooking at high heat and what it means
A common term often heard when referring to cooking steaks, roasts, burgers and stir fry is “high heat.” Whether you’re watching a cooking show, reading an article with a quote from a well-known chef or even talking with a passionate home cook, you usually hear something about a “smoking hot skillet (or grill) to get a good sear (or crust).”
When it comes to evenly cooked steaks and roasts, and your health, the best recommendation should be to have your appliances on MEDIUM heat levels, whether you’re oven roasting, grilling or pan roasting.
Let’s take a moment to review the definitions of different cooking temperatures (not doneness, which we’ll get into in a moment).
|Temperature category||Actual temp (°F) of your appliance|
|Low||250° – 300°|
|Medium Low||300° – 350°|
|Medium||350° – 400°|
|Medium High||400° – 450°|
|High||450° – 500°|
If you’re grilling and don’t have a thermometer on your grill, we like this handy guide from Real Simple. You can perform the “hand test” to make sure your grill is at a medium heat by holding your open palm 3 inches above the grill grate – you should be able to keep it there for 4 to 5 seconds. If you can’t keep it there for 4 to 5 seconds, the grill may be at too high of a temperature.
Why go medium?
While cooking on “high” or over a “searing hot skillet” may be recommended by some professional chefs, for the home cook, the result is often food that is charred on the outside and raw on the inside. Or completely overcooked all around. Cooking on medium heat will help ensure a great eating experience.
Heat has a general property of allowing chemicals to change from one form to another. You see this happen whenever you cook an egg — the heat changes the proteins in the egg and solidifies them. In the case of meat, high temperatures can convert things like fat in the meat into substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and the charred exterior of the meat (or the inside, if you’re eating it extremely well-done) can convert into something called heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs). These compounds aren’t unique to red meat s like, pork or beef, —they can also be formed when cooking chicken and fish at high heat temperatures too.
To avoid these compounds and potentially over- or under-cooked meats, choose medium heat levels. You’ll still get that nice caramelization (or browning) which adds lovely flavors to your beef. But you’ll also get a steak, roast, burger or stir-fry that’s still juicy, tender and cooked to perfection. And if you happen to get any char on your beef, trim it off before serving.
Now, when it comes to internal doneness and USDA’s proper internal cooking temperatures, this graphic can be a helpful resource. Use this guide to cook beef to your desired doneness, while avoiding cooking beyond well done to limit PAH and HAA formation. Always use a meat thermometer to ensure accurate results.
Hungry after all that talk about perfectly cooked meat? Get some great grilling recipes on BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com, all of which have been triple-tested on medium heat and are guaranteed to have delicious results, especially these kabobs or this burger.