Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Done, doneness: Determining “doneness”—or when something is done, when it must come out of the heat, which can rarely be forecasted by total cooking time—is one of the most important skills a cook must learn. Because it’s a skill, it can never be perfected absolutely; rather a cook refines his or her skill by paying attention to everything cooked and always adding this accumulated observation into an understanding of when something is done.  With some meats, doneness can be objective, cooking a sausage to, say 150 degrees.  But a thermometer is only as good as the person using it.  Pulling a standing rib roast from the oven at 120 degrees will yield different results depending how hot the oven was and how cold the meat was when it went in.  If you determine a custard is done and thus pull it from the oven, that custard may well overcook once it’s out of the oven; it’s “done” shortly before its final temperature is reached because of carryover cooking.  Braised dishes offer a broader window for doneness than lean roasted items, but it’s still a window and overcooking and undercooking are possible without some care from the cook.  A cook should use all his or her senses when determining doneness.  Learning to evaluate the doneness of meats by touch is an important skill and can only be achieved by practice.  Because an important part of cooking meat is allowing it to rest, one doesn’t necessarily remove it from the heat when it’s done, rather, it’s done after it’s rested.  A handy tool for testing doneness is a long thin needle or cake tester that can be inserted into the center of a piece of fish or meat, then held to your skin (wrist or below your lower lip) to know whether an interior is cold, warm or hot.

                                                                                        from The Elements of Cooking, page 112

Just about every culinary school instructor I’ve encountered responds to the question, “How long should I cook this for?” with the same answer: “Till it’s done.”   I always found this annoying but their point is a valid one: time is not a reliable indicator of doneness, ever.  We need to rely on all our senses, and often tools, to evaluate whether something is done, but there’s no getting around the fact that the only truly reliable tool for evaluating doneness is experience, combined with awareness—a long history of paying attention to your food as it cooks, how firm a steak is when it’s rare (above) and when it’s medium, the sound a loaf of bread makes when you tap it, the amount of jiggle in a custard and then correlating that visual to how firm or loose the custard is once it’s cool.  It’s paying attention.  Be the ball, Danny.


33 Wonderful responses to “Elements: Done, doneness”

  • Kevin

    I feel quite accomplished knowing when my custards are ready by giving my oven handle a thump with a fist and watching the nature of the jiggle in the pan. You’re right on this one. Experience is key.

  • Elise

    I couldn’t agree more, the only way cooking is learned is by doing. Just thinking about experiments my parents endured, can still dad tell me about “no slick chicken”. The only problem I have with the picture, way too rare. I have heard that I am too midwestern, need all my meat cooked to at medium or better. Oh well, no one is perfect.

  • Andy

    As a home cook, I feel like it’s difficult to really get a handle on the art of doneness because with steaks for example, I might only cook them once every 2 or 3 months.

    In contrast, I make some sort of pan sauce probably 2 or 3 times a week, so I’ve gotten good at determining when it’s just thick enough without being a glob of gelatin by the time it’s served.

    If I had 100 pounds of steaks and a full day to cook them, I could probably develop a high degree of skill. For now, relying on an instant-read thermometer helps, but it just doesn’t have that element of ‘finesse,’ does it?

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Don’t forget about that 6th sense that just let’s you *know* when something is done….because it tells you it is 😉 You know the one….its the one that, even though you’re 60 feet away from the stove it just makes you stand bolt upright and say outloud, “Ok, it’s ready to come off the heat, a.s.a.p.” without any external clues. I love that voice! 😀

  • Bob delGrosso

    Andy you make a great point.

    No matter what you do finesse only comes after lots of practice. Once you do something so much that you don’t have to be fully conscious of what you are doing to do it well, finesse seems to follow.

  • Natalie Sztern

    i did read somewhere in ur book that the heat in the kitchen is also a factor in doneness – if this is true in the way I read it, then does one also take that into consideration with regards as to when to remove a roast as ex from the oven considering the kitchen could be very hot?

  • Snoozer

    This brings to mind the problem that restaurants can’t agree regarding the definition of “rare” “medium rare” “medium” etc. Every time you try a new restaurant it is a crap shoot, though of course it is safer to order rarer — they can always put it back, you can’t uncook it. A uniform standard is much needed.

    I’ve come to terms with the idea that poultry, pork and seafood don’t all have to be cooked to death. My mother cooked everything to death. But I still have to smother the fear of rare pork and chicken which was drummed into my head since my tender years. I just keep telling myself I am not going to die, it will be delicious. And it is.

  • Scotty

    Of course, you could play my game. Flip your restaurant cooked steak over and look for the nick. 😉

    Remember Danny – Two wrongs don’t make a right but three rights make a left.

  • Derek

    Snoozer, it’s not just the final temperature, but the amount of time the product spends at that temperature that’s relevant to food safety.

    A chicken breast cooked to 140 will be just as safe as a breast cooked to 160 (and possibly safer, in some cases) if held there for a sufficient amount of time. The FDA publishes tables indicating how long certain foods need to be held at these temperatures to “kill the baddies”.

  • breadchick

    This has been the hardest thing to get under my belt when cooking on the grill, when is it done. Thanks for a simple straight forward explanation.

    Now I can “nah nah nah nah nah” my way to a medium rare steak.

  • GG Mora

    Watch out for atmospheric pressure, too. We all know that things take longer to cook at higher altitudes, but…have you ever noticed how much longer things take on stormy days at “normal” altitudes? I realized this on a very thunderstormy day here in Vermont (at only @ 750 ft.), when my sauces took FOREVER to reduce, and a medium rare rack of lamb – usually available in the range of 20-25 minutes – took a full 35. Had me seriously in the weeds.

  • Rich

    First lesson I learned was not to cook a thick piece of meat right out of a cold icebox, because the outside overcooks before it cooks through. The second thing I learned was that you can get a good sear on a thin piece of meat(and not over cook it) by using it, bone dry, right of a cold icebox.
    It may all be relative, but I think an insta-read thermometer is invaluable to learning this skill. The temperature may not be everything, but it helps make all the other sensory input make sense.

  • Tags

    “A cook refines his or her skill by paying attention to everything cooked and always adding this accumulated observation into an understanding of when something is done.”

    Well put. The word “refines” is probably interchangeable with “defines.”

  • Big Red

    My mother was the one that would always scream at me to “Set the F**KING timer! I Still hear her say that in my head. I have rarely burned anything nor over cooked things. I can tell by smell for the most part, and just my internal clock goes off as to when to check things. Firmness, and consistency are learned or just instinctual. The only time I have ever used an internal thermometer is when I am making candy…the hard ball and soft ball stages screw me up entirely. I may be an accomplished home cook, but a candy maker I am not!

    Great Picture by Donna. I want steak, minus Ruhlman’s finger. Who knows where it has been…

  • Paul DeLuca

    In my ’72 edition of American Cookery, James Beard points out the ambiguous and interpretive nature of old recipes. This one for cake:

    “2 teacups sugar, butter the size of 2 eggs, 2 or 3 eggs, 1 coffee cup sour milk with 2 teaspoons soda added, salt, flavoring, and flour enough to make a good batter. Bake.”

    It reminds me that we live in times when there is an unprecedented volume of educational material available to the average cook and there are more tools than ever available to help us determine “doneness”. Still, nothing can help you determine when something as simple as scrambled eggs are done unless you go through the act of cooking them, take in all the sensory clues, and then file that info away for the next time.

    BTW, love the Caddy Shack reference!

  • Tags

    Speaking of overdone, I see Food Network is running a “Rachel Ray’s Travels” mini-marathon opposite the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” marathon.

    If she finishes behind Tony in the ratings, is she done like Emeril?

  • bob

    With spring upon us, I’m thinking it’s time to start inviting friends over for a big ol’ steak party. Maybe in the interest of finances it could be BYO bisteca. Concentrate on making a bunch of salads and sides the day before.
    The next day is your (secret) opportunity to enroll in Steak temps 101, and because you won’t be distracted by other prep, it’s all about seasoning and doneness. Could be a cinderella story….bob

  • Bob delGrosso

    GG Mora

    You are on it. So many of the “mistakes” that cooks make are the result of doing things in the “normal” way when the context has changed in subtle but profound ways.

    If there are any exceptions to the 2 rules you laid down (bring thick meat to room temp, thin cuts stay cold) they are strange to me.
    If he were alive today, I know that Escoffier would say “vraiment” or some variation thereof.

  • Lisa

    Nice photo. I’m getting hungry for steak even though I’m not even in the mood for it.

    I can tell when it’s done. By touch – not thermometer.

    For some reason, I haven’t been able to find your book at Barnes & Noble or any other book stores.

    I’m looking forward to purchasing it once I find it.

  • Wilmita

    Experience and your five senses cannot be beat.

    I have always hated that question, “How do you know when it’s done?” You just know, that’s all.

    For friends who ask me that when they are going to cook a steak, I usually tell them to open their hand and press the Mound of Venus; (the mound of flesh found under your thumb and near your wrist), at its fleshiest part.

    That is approximately how a rare steak feels.

    For medium, touch your thumb to your middle finger and press that fleshy part again.

    For well done, touch your thumb to your pinky finger and press that fleshy part again.

    That keeps ’em busy for hours and actually kinda works.

    Red Beans and Ricely Yours,


  • Charlotte

    Andy is right — it does take a 100 pounds of steak — I learned how to tell if a steak is done during the two (awful) summers I spent in the kitchen of the country club my mother once ran. Poke enough steaks, listen to them enough, and eventually you do get a sense of it.
    (And in the unlikely event that Mr. Harrison, member of said club who liked to torment the teenaged waitresses and make them cry, here’s telling you that you never ate a steak that hadn’t hit that filthy kitchen floor before we sent it out the door.) It was one of my crappiest jobs ever, but I did learn to tell if a steak is done …

  • carri

    I think carry-over cooking is an important thing to stress when taking about when something is ‘done’…it’s where I am tripped up the most…especially when roasting meats, but also when scalding milk, baking brownies or listening to political debates (I think Lou Reed said it best for that last one…”stick a fork in my a– and turn me over, I’m done!”)

  • luis

    No one, this includes Cosentino’s… can screw this up. Just can not happen. Beautiful meat done right! what is not to like. Bourdain himself would tell you. Eat it and run any way you can have it.
    EAT IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  • Captain Pete

    I always figured it was “done” only when I had an empty plate staring back up at me.

  • FoodPuta

    you mean the Gordon Ramsay method:

    Push on your cheek = Rare
    Push on your chin = med
    Push on the center of your forehead = Well

    Isn’t the rule of every Michelin rated kitchen?

  • latenac

    This is the hardest thing to teach at least my husband. I’ve seen him burn garlic b/c the recipe said to saute it for 2 min. I’ve had him ask me to define “slightly thickened” and not understand as I tried to explain the it’s relative to what it was before. He’s very literal minded when it comes to cooking. It’s hard for me as I learned from my grandmother in a very check and see learn the sign of doneness, etc. mode.

    The picture is hysterical I think. But I watched Rex the Runt this weekend so it looks like it could be a still from Aardman animation.

  • luis

    Note to self…. Buy a real piece of meat like that for pete’s sake and broil it right!!! throw in a nice crisp fresh salad and I’d be a happy camper.

  • S. Woody

    Warming a metal skewer in the cooking protein and then holding said skewer to my lower lip just doesn’t work for me. Having a beard gives that part of my face too much insulation. Of course, the juices that come off of the skewer onto the folicles sure are tasty, but that’s a better measure of checking the seasoning more than doneness.

    Watching how the protein is changing color while it cooks helps me determine when it’s time to flip a chop. Good lighting is important in my kitchen. (And watching those butterflied venison loin chops I prepared a couple of nights ago was a surefire way to raise my anticipation for the finished dish!)

    My partner, whenever asked how he would like something cooked in a restaurant, always asks the waiter “What’s bright pink?” Works every time.

  • Chuck Platter

    This is a nice series of comments, particularly because it works through two senses of finesse that are clearly related but not at all identical:

    1)the one that results from experience and
    2) the one that comes from an aesthetic decision that doing the little things is worth the trouble.

    You can clearly derive 1) from 2) Cooking half a ton of steaks, etc. will expose you to a ton of special circumstances and give you a sure intuition about what is beautiful and what is so-so.

    Unfortunately,you can’t get 2) from 1) so easily, unless you are feeding the Brady Bunch, so the home cook, unlike the pro, probably is not going to master those aspects of finesse where step 4 of the recipe is “Repeat 3000 times.”

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