Three reasons why your finger is not a good thermometer

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Published: April 6, 2012


For reasons that are beyond the realm of our understanding, many backyard aficionados will suggest that a meat thermometer is for rookies, and that a “real” grill master need only poke their finger into a steak to know when it’s done. Well, between you and me, I’ve never known a finger that could tell temperature.

Disclaimer: Before I get a lot of hate mail telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, consider for a moment that not everyone has a bionic thermometer finger. Telling an inexperienced griller to use their finger to temp meat is like telling an eight-year-old to drive to the store and pick you up a six pack. There’s gonna be trouble!

Just like our previous article suggested that time was not a good indication of doneness, neither is touch. There are too many variables at play that can throw off your “readings” and leave you with an undercooked, or overdone piece of meat. Here are three reasons why your finger is not a good thermometer:

No two hands are the same

The “Finger Test for Doneness” suggests that by touching different fingers with your thumb, the fleshy part of the hand will mimic meat cooked to certain degrees of doneness. The problem is, no two hands are the same. As a result, the fleshy part of the hand will provide differing levels of firmness.

Would you trust your wife’s soft supple hands to determine the doneness of your dinner? What about the hands of a neighbor who sits behind a desk all day? Or, the lumberjack down the street who can break every bone in your hand with a firm handshake?

Depending on the firmness of a hand, one man’s rare is another man’s well-done. Whereas a good meat thermometer is the same yesterday, today and forever (so long as it’s cared for and calibrated).

No two cuts of meat are the same

When it comes to beef, you’re generally talking about four grades – Standard, Select, Choice and Prime. Each grade is given based on the degree of marbling apparent in the cut. Marbling (intramuscular fat) is the intermingling or dispersion of fat within the lean muscle. The level of marbling will greatly effect the texture of the meat.

A Prime cut cooked to medium rare will have a different texture than its Standard grade counterpart. This is due in large part to the marbling. The threads of fat strewn throughout the cut will render during cooking and leave the meat soft and juicy, whereas a cut that’s devoid of those ribbons will retain much of its tough texture.

As a result, although the steaks are cooked to the same internal temp, the texture is different. Only a good meat thermometer will be able to give you an accurate temperature reading – never mind the quality of the cut.

Your finger can’t compensate for the rest

One of the most important steps in the grilling process is the rest. These are the 10-15 minutes that your steak is allowed to sit (covered with aluminum) away from the heat. During this period you can expect residual heat to increase the internal temp of your meat 5-10°F, which means a steak pulled off the grill at medium will likely be medium-well after a rest.

When a quick check of your palm and a poke of the meat tells you that it’s “perfect” chances are the finished product is going to be overcooked (if you let it rest). You can compensate for this eventuality by pulling the meat off early, however you’re going to have to retrain your finger to feel for softer textures. Either way, there’s really no way of knowing the real temperature of your meat.

In Conclusion

When you’ve got a few $20 dollar steaks on the grates and an eager audience waiting to tear into them, your index finger just isn’t going to cut it. Especially if you’re grilling on a new cooker, experimenting with a new cut, or just plain new at the whole outdoor cooking thing. Do yourself a favor and keep your digits wrapped around your favorite beverage and get yourself a good meat thermometer – here!

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