I cook everyday so I can tell how a steak is cooked simply by touching it but to learn that takes much time and practice so here is a crash course on the subject. Learning cooking is like learning a musical instrument; you will benefit more by taking lessons from someone but you can learn on your own, though there will be more trial and error.
The best way for you to learn anything is by repetition so here is what you need to do. Buy about 3 steaks, or more if you can afford it, and choose steaks you would normally cook. Cut each steak in half. Don't worry about leftovers, you can freeze them or use them for a stir fry or stew or something.
I have read lessons that tell you how a steak should feel for each level of doneness and how long a steak should take to cook for every inch of thickness but there are flaws with tips like that. For the first point, simply telling someone how a steak should feel when cooked a certain way is flawed because everybody perceives things differently. For the second point, telling someone how long to cook something based on the thickness is flawed because everyone is not using the same oven or grill. Every oven or grill has hot spots and how do we know if your oven or grill is calibrated properly.
The following lesson is exactly how I have trained my cooks in the many professional kitchens I have worked.
Take all your steaks and divide them up evenly to practice cooking rare, medium rare, medium and well done. This will give you reference points of doneness for the entire spectrum. Of course, if you never plan on eating a steak well done and only want to learn how to cook medium rare that is fine; do what serves your purpose.
For this lesson let's assume you are using average-sized steaks that you would buy at the supermarket.
I wouldn't recommend using a thermometer for many of the average cut steaks you find at the supermarket as they are not thick enough.
Here are a few points to remember. While you are cooking the meat stand there and watch how the appearance changes as it cooks. Time the cooking on each side. After the meat is turned feel it every 30 seconds to see how it feels as it cooks. If you are like me you like to touch your meat. :) You will notice that rare and medium rare steaks feel more like a pillow compared to more well cooked ones.
First get your grill or pan on high heat.
I tried to copy and past photos of what the meat should look like for each doneness but the resolution was poor. I assume most of you have a good idea but if necessary just go on the internet and type in medium rare or medium or whatever doneness you want to see pictures.
Put one steak in the pan or on the grill and cook it for about 2 minutes on each side.
NOTE: if you are using a pan make sure you put a little oil in it. ( I hope you already knew that)
Take it out of the pan and cut it in half. Remember rare should be very red inside, not bloody.
If your steak is undercooked, take the other piece and cook it for an additional half minute more on each side, then cut it to see how it looks.
If your steak is overcooked, cook another piece for a half minute less on each side.
By adjusting the cooking time in small intervals you should have no problem achieving the correct doneness and by cutting the steak open there is no guesswork.
For medium rare:
Follow the same procedure but cook the steak an additional minute on each side. Cut it open. It should be red and bloody.
Cook the steak an additional minute more than you would for medium rare. A medium steak should be pink inside with a little blood. The center of the meat should NOT be the color of red wine like rare and medium rare should be.
One thing you should notice is the more cooked meat is the more the texture is similar to wood. If you can, cut open a rare steak and a medium steak and look at them side by side.
One thing you should notice is as meat approaches medium the blood will start to come out of the top of the steak. That is a sure fire way to tell you are close or already there. That is why I suggested watching the meat as it cooks because you will see it change as it cooks and know what to look for.
For medium well and well done
If you are going to destroy meat by cooking it to this point you can just microwave it from here on out. All kidding aside, cook the meat for another couple of minutes on each side. For medium well the meat should be pink with no blood an for well done there should be no pink at all.
Now I still haven't answered how you can have differently cooked steaks ready at the same time so here you go. Hopefully you have practiced all the temperatures, monitored and felt the meat as it cooks and took notes of the cooking times because this is where you will need them.
Now that you know the cooking times start cooking the more well done steaks first and as they cook, add the ones to be cooked less.
For example, if a well done steak takes 10 minutes to cook and a medium rare steak takes five minutes, put the steak(s) to be well done on the grill and cook for five minutes, then add the steak(s) to be medium rare and cook for five minutes and they should be ready at the same time.
If you are using a pan on the oven here is something else you can do especially if your pan is not large enough.
Turn on your oven to about 425F or 200C. Cook all your steaks so they are undercooked by two minutes. Put them on a baking tray an set aside until you are ready for them. You can either arrange them in order to remember which steaks are which or use a permanent marker to mark the doneness on the tray next to the steak as it will wash off.
You can then get the rest of your dinner ready and when you are a few minutes away from serving, put the pan of steaks in the oven to finish cooking them. Make sure you watch the time and once ready, serve.
Hope this helps.
Culinary greetings from the final frontier,