Is It Unsafe to Eat Rare Steak?

Is It Unsafe to Eat Rare Steak?yatomo /123RF

At what level of doneness is steak considered safe to eat? The answer depends on your age, health, and appetite for risk.

I have a confession to make to you all: I like my thick-cut steak bloody, to the extent that it’s cold and almost raw on the inside.

Something about the smell, taste, and texture of steak that’s charred on the outside yet rare on the inside brings out the best (or worst?) of the carnivore inside me.

Yet, the other day, a reader stopped by to ask, “Is it unsafe to eat rare steak?” I love me a good question on any day.

There’s a reason why we cook beef in the first place. Raw beef and all other meats can contain pathogenic bacteria that can make you sick. In extreme cases, you and the people at your table could even wound up in a hospital with a bad case of food poisoning.

As much as you get annoyed by uncle John and his dumb jokes, you clearly don’t want that for him when he comes over and asks you to cook his steak medium-rare.

So I set about to do some research. How safe is it to eat raw meat?

Eating rare or medium-rare steak isn’t guaranteed to make you sick. However, it puts you at a much greater risk of getting foodborne illness. Hence why the USDA recommends cooking beef to medium, or a minimum internal temperature of at least 145°F (as measured by a meat thermometer).

The food safety experts have an opinion on the topic that’s as firm as they get. When asked about whether it was safe to eat rare steak, the department’s representatives have replied:

“No. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends not eating or tasting raw or undercooked meat. Meat may contain harmful bacteria. Thorough cooking is important to kill any bacteria and viruses that may be present in the food.”

Especially if you’re part of a group with a heightened risk of foodborne illness, you should think twice before eating raw or medium-raw steak. Here’s why—and what else you need to know.

The Five Levels of Doneness

The levels of doneness (rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, well-done) of beef steak.
sudowoodo /123RF

Generally, meat can be cooked to any of the five levels of doneness: rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, and well-done.

However, not all meats are safe to eat when cooked to anything less than a certain level of doneness. And not everyone should eat them, even when it’s considered okay to do so. But we’ll get to that very soon.

Steak—whether it’s cooked over a campfire, on the grill, on the stovetop, or in the oven—always cooks from the outside in. The heat takes time to penetrate the center of the meat and cook it fully through, which is why the steak’s internal temperature determines its level of doneness.

The only way to take the internal temperature of a steak (or any slab of meat, for that matter) is with an instant-read meat thermometer.

A good one doesn’t cost all that much, but it can help you take your cooking to the next level, all while keeping your home-cooked meals safe. So I highly recommend that you equip yourself with one (check out my picks).

When it comes to steak, the five levels of doneness are as follows:

  • Rare steak is typically cooked to an internal temperature of 120-125°F. It’s seared on the outside and cool and 90% red on the inside. It feels soft to the touch the same way raw meat does.
  • Medium-rare steak is typically cooked to an internal temperature of 130-135°F. It’s seared on the outside and warm and 75% red on the inside. It feels soft to the touch the same way semi-cooked meat does.
  • Medium steak is typically cooked to an internal temperature of 140-145°F. It’s seared on the outside and warm and 50% pink on the inside. It feels “just right,” slightly firm to the touch.
  • Medium-well steak is typically cooked to an internal temperature of 150-155°F. It’s seared on the outside and warm and 25% pale pink on the inside. It feels mostly firm to the touch.
  • Well-done steak is typically cooked to an internal temperature of 160-165°F. It’s seared on the outside and hot and cooked fully through on the inside. It’s firm to the touch and gives you resistance when you press down on it.

The question is, which of these levels of doneness can be considered “safe,” and which put you at a greater risk of foodborne illness?

According to the USDA, you should cook beef, pork, veal, and lamb to an internal temperature of at least 145°F, resting the meat for a minimum of 3 minutes once it comes off the heat. (During that time, the meat will finish cooking in its residual heat.)

This tells you the following:

Steak cooked to medium (145°F), medium-well (155°F), and well-done (165°F) is considered to be generally safe to eat. Eating rare (125°F) or medium-rare (135°F) steak, as much as you may enjoy it, puts you at a hightened risk of foodborne illness.

Does that mean you should stop eating rare to medium-rare steak altogether?

That’s a choice you’ll need to make for yourself.

Use two sets of tongs or two spatulas

Some say that the best way to reduce the risk, no matter how done you like your steak, is to use one set of tongs when it’s still raw and another once it’s starting to cook through.

The bacteria on the surface of the meat, as it turns out, could easily have been transferred to your utensil while it was still raw—and recontaminate it as soon as they come into contact with it when you flip it or take it off the heat.

Some Are at a Greater Risk Than Others

The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans get a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die every year.

Those with a higher risk of catching food poisoning, the center says, include adults aged 65 and older, children younger than 5 years, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems.

How do you know if you’re part of the group of people with weakened immune systems?

FoodSafety.gov, an informational website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, writes that that’s anyone who has diabetes; liver or kidney disease; HIV/AIDS; autoimmune diseases; organ transplants; or is receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

In case you find yourself to be anywhere on that list, err on the side of caution and cook your steak to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F, resting it for at least 3 minutes before you cut and bite into it.

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