Meat: Well Done or Done Well?

The other day, HB and I were discussing why people order steak “well done” when it’s very likely they’d be disappointed with the charred, chewy, dry piece of leathery meat. In fact, if I were the chef, I’d be tempted to overrule their request and purposely prepare it medium well at most.

(It’s probably a good thing I’m not a chef—I have a soup-kitchen Nazi temperament. The only time I might have let you have it your way is if you have food allergies or dietary restrictions; those just relate to ingredient limitations. Prep-style is my way or the highway.)

Perhaps these people think “well done” means “done well.” I remember as I kid I thought that way, until my world-traveling uncle suggested that I try ordering it at medium-rare. After much trepidation I did, and I really enjoyed it.

Or maybe it’s just that they’re used to having beef cooked that way. I know some people get squeamish when they see a bit of red/pink. It doesn’t matter if it’s ground beef or filet mignon—because to them any bit of color means “it’s alive!” Other people want meat to be cooked thoroughly to kill off any potential parasites or pathogens—the way some people do with pork. But what a pity to order an expensive piece of meat only to have it overcooked.

I have to say there are some instances where beef tastes better well done. Marinaded kalbi (Korean beef ribs), oddly enough, tastes better well done. When it’s cooked rare or medium, the flavors haven’t quite settled in—the aromatics garlic, ginger, and green onion are still battling it out, almost overpowering the meat. But as the meat is cooked towards medium well/well done, the flavors seem to reach a peaceful, happy place—at least to me.

Growing up, I had Korean BBQ with the traditional beef marinade: garlic, ginger, soy sauce, green onion, a touch of sugar, sesame oil, and pear/pear juice to tenderize the meat. For the longest time, that’s how I thought meat should be prepared—with some kind of marinade or a steak sauce, like A-1. It wasn’t until I married that I tried kalbi without any marinade—just accompanied by sea salt, cracked pepper, and sesame oil to dip the pieces of meat in before eating it. I’ve actually grown to prefer this way of eating kalbi.

In fact, that’s what we had for dinner tonight—by request of the Princess. And it was done well at well done.

My general rule about the temperature at which meat should be prepared depends on the cut and cost of the meat. If it’s Kobe beef, definitely rare or medium-rare, even if it’s served as a burger. If it’s kalbi—with or without the marinade—it’d be medium well/well done.

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