A common refrain you will hear from chefs is “cake testers are good for testing everything except cakes.” They’re not wrong. Cake testers or “pastry testers” as they are properly called will no doubt let you down if you insert them into your freshly baked sheet cake, brownies, or Pullman loaf. If you want a better read on baked batters and doughs, you’re better off using a paring knife or ideally, thumping and listening for the sound to reverberate indicating that the middle is solidified.
Instead, cake testers are much more in their element on the hot line. If you pay attention to kitchens and kitchen culture, you’ve no doubt at some point seen a line cook pull that slender metal pin with the blue tip from her apron, insert it into a steak or duck breast hot from the oven, and hold it just below her lower lip and decide on what course of action to take from there. So what happened in that instant and why not just use a meat thermometer? I mean, those new Javelin meat thermometers are so fancy with the digital readout and work nearly instantly, so what gives?
To be sure, those meat thermometers are pretty great these days. Even if you’re doing fried chicken in a restaurant, they may have you using one on every pickup because cooking poultry to temperature is pretty serious business. Can you measure the doneness of chicken with a cake tester? Absolutely; but with a caveat, which I will detail below.
So why don’t chefs want you prodding their proteins with meat thermometers? I’ll start by noting that some particular chefs don’t even want you handling grilled steaks and fish with tongs. They think those items are too delicate to be handled that way. A combination of a fish spatula and your fingers are probably the only tools you need to flip that fish in the pan or usher a steak from grill to sizzle tray, to lowboy oven, and to rest.
So given the rather delicate nature of how chefs like their proteins to be handled it should come as no surprise that for a chef, seeing all of those luscious juices come running out of a lamb chop or anything else when you prod it with a giant needle is a sight of pure horror. You’d be better off setting the building on fire than to let all of that rich rendered fat come rushing out of that 45 day aged ribeye, irrevocably diminishing the work that went into it from farmer to butcher to your grubby hands.
You know all of those juices you see running out of that Thanksgiving turkey? That WAS what could have made that bird if cooked to a perfect 165 degrees so sublime. You can have a conversation until you’re blue in the face about brining, dry “brining”, and Colin the heritage breed chicken that chowed down on organic corn and went to bed on satin sheets every night, but the only and I mean only way to cook moist flavorful proteins is to hit your temperature and for the love of god not prod that thing with a giant metal probe allowing all of that perfectly rendered fat and moisture to escape.
So how are perfectly moist proteins achieved? Enter the cake tester. Think about getting a shot. Sure it may sting a little but you probably won’t bleed more than a couple of drops. The same can be said for that piece of meat being run through with a cake tester. It’s only going to lose a couple of drops of moisture, so as long as you, the cook, accurately read what the metal is telling you, you’re going to end up smack dab in the middle of flavor town every single time.
So how exactly do you use a cake tester? For beginners, insert the cake tester through whatever you’re cooking and let it sit for 5 seconds or so. The idea is that you want it to heat up to match the internal temperature of the item you’re cooking. Then take it out and hold it to the skin just below your lips. I usually curl my lip over my tongue to better expose that bit of skin. Why below the lips? Because it’s a sensitive area of skin. Next ask yourself this multiple choice question - is it cold? warm? hot? Or do you not feel anything at all?
So if the answer was “it’s cold”, the meat in the middle is raw. If you’re seared on all sides then your protein is now rare. This is probably not what you’re gunning for unless the guest ordered a black and blue so you need to put that bad boy back on the heat.
If you don’t feel anything at all then you’re still raw in the middle but you are getting somewhere as this means that the cake tester is approximately body temperature - 98.6.
If the cake tester is warm then you are some degree of medium. This is where experience comes in handy. When you’re in the groove using a cake tester every day, you are going to know what temperature it is you feel against your lip. You’ll be able to differentiate between 125 and 140. If you’re unsure, then you just need to use other clues such as feel - you know, like that trick where it should feel something like that fat pouch between your thumb and index finger. Again repetition and experience is the way to becoming a ringer on your protein temps.
One exercise I found helpful in improving my cake tester game is testing it against my lip, making a guess, and then slicing into the piece of meat. I did it with burgers, duck breast, and steaks and eventually got pretty good once I learned to start trusting my instincts. In all honesty, I’m not as good with it since I stoped working grill day in and day out.
If the cake tester is hot, then it is likely somewhere north of 145 degrees. There’s a noticeable difference between the feel of mid rare and well done. When you know the cake tester is going to be hot, like in the case of chicken, hold it to the back of your hand, not your lip. You will have a good indication if it’s done or not. Poultry is also pretty firm once it’s cooked through so give that pan roasted chicken a squeeze.
And that’s all there is to it. As with most things in the kitchen, repetition is king. And believe from here on out, when you see those tasty juices running out of a turkey breast when someone stabs it, you’ll never feel the same about it again. Its like a messy cutting board or an unclean work surface. It’s something you can’t unsee once you know what correct looks like.