How to Test Meat for Doneness (Even If You Don't Have a Thermometer)

A meat thermometer is your best bet, true. But it is possible to learn how to test meat for doneness using a few simple visual and textural cues. Discover how to tell if chicken is done, how to test steak for that perfect medium rare, and how to become a master at all things meat. Our Test Kitchen will walk you through four of the best options for how to test meat for doneness.

You have a home full of hungry diners and are moments away from shouting, "dinner's ready!" But is it? The difference between a barely-rare burger or steak and a well-done one can be just a few minutes, and if you don't know how to tell if chicken is done, you're actually putting your entire table at risk for food-borne illness.

So we've pulled together a guide for how to test meat for doneness, whether you're cooking chicken, turkey, ground meat, steak, or pork. No meat thermometer? No sweat. While a thermometer is our preferred method for how to tell if chicken is done (or any of those other proteins, for that matter!), we have three other methods for how to test meat for doneness.

meat thermometer roasted chicken
Jason Donnelly

How to Test Meat for Doneness 4 Ways

Determining "doneness" in terms of texture, appearance, and juiciness is often a matter of personal preference. However, in terms of safety, foods are "done" when they are cooked to an internal temperature high enough to eliminate harmful microorganisms. The best way to measure internal temperature is with a thermometer.

1. With a Meat Thermometer

The most accurate and safe way to test meat for doneness is to use a thermometer. For the most accurate reading, use the following guide to determine where to insert the thermometer.

  • Beef, lamb, pork roast: Insert into the thickest part of the roast, avoiding the bone and fat. Remove the roasts from the grill 5 to 10 degrees F below final doneness. Tent with aluminum foil. Let stand for 15 minutes. The temperature will continue to rise to reach final doneness. During standing, the meat juices redistribute and the roast becomes easier to slice.
  • Burgers, steaks, chops: Insert horizontally into the center, away from bone and fat.
  • Whole poultry: Gauge the temperature at part of the thigh, avoiding the bone.
  • Poultry parts: Insert a thermometer in the thickest area, avoiding the bone.

According to the USDA, the recommended safe minimum internal temperatures are:

  • Beef, veal, lamb, and pork (steaks and roasts): 145°F
  • Ground meat: 160°F
  • Poultry: 165°F
sliced steak on cutting board
Kritsada Panichgul

2. The Poke Test

If you're thermometer-less and are cooking steak, your fingers can help act as a measuring tool. With a bit of practice, the "poke test" provides a quick option for how to test meat for doneness. By comparing the tension in the fleshy part of your hand at the base of your thumb with the tension you feel as you press your index finger into the center of the cut of meat, you can guesstimate how much it has been cooked.

Note that the poke test is best for meat cooked over dry heat, such as a grilled steak, and it works best with cuts like tenderloin, rib eye, T-bone, flank, sirloin, skirt, and tri-tip steak.

  • For rare: Bring your thumb and index finger together gently and press the base of your thumb to test tension.
  • For medium: Bring your thumb and middle finger together gently and press the base of your thumb to test tension.
  • For well-done: Bring your thumb and pinky finger together and press the base of your thumb to test tension.

3. Size It Up

Your eyes can also be a tool for how to test meat for doneness. Steak, pork, chicken, and turkey breasts, for instance, can certainly appear cooked on the outside but may still be cold internally. A simple but subtle hint: the size of the piece of protein. If it looks charred or golden on the outside but still has the same "footprint" as when you began, it likely needs more time. If the meat starts to look smaller, chances are high that it's closer to done.

4. A Juice Check

If you're seeking a thermometer-free option for how to tell if chicken is done or how to tell if your Thanksgiving turkey is all set to serve, insert and skewer into the thickest part of the thigh. It's done if the juices run clear. Or wiggle the leg, which should be loose.

For smaller pieces, such as a boneless chicken breast, use a knife to slice into the thickest part of the poultry. If the juices run clear, the chicken should be cooked enough to be safe to eat. If the juices are red or pink-hued, it likely needs a few minutes more.

Test Kitchen Tip: This is our least favorite way to tell if chicken is done since it's a serious food safety risk to consume chicken that's below a certain 165°F. Plus, puncturing the meat allows the juices to escape, leading to a less juicy finished product.

Now that you know several methods for how to test meat for doneness, you can light up the grill or flip on the stove with confidence.

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