What Does an Instant Read Thermometer Do for a Meat Geek?
The number one job of an instant read thermometer for a meat geek is to check the temperature of food on the grill. Meat needs to be cooked to a particular temperature for flavor, texture, and food safety. Your most important job is to protect the health of the people that eat your food, and an accurate instant read thermometer is the best tool to accomplish that.
Now, you might say that you can spot the internal temperature of a piece of meat with a glance and a poke, but I don’t buy it. Maybe the steakhouse chef who’s turned out thousands of steaks can pull it off, but there’s just too much variation in surface temperatures when it comes to meat and fire. Put a good instant read thermometer up there with your tongs and spatula with the top grill tools.
Smoking is all about the long term, so a BBQ thermometer that connects to your phone is your best tool here.
An instant-read has a place in your smoking tool kit too. Smoking is usually about big pieces of meat, and the goal is to cook it all just right. Add in the peculiar temperature range characteristics of bones, and there’s going to be a lot of variation in your meat. When my Wi-Fi thermometer says my pork butt is ready, the first thing I do is test it in three or four places with the instant-read. One probe doesn’t tell the whole story. Thinner meats like ribs can only be practically measured with an instant-read too.
For Cooking in the Kitchen
Sometimes you cook the meat inside and need the same answers as on the grill. A good meat thermometer isn’t just for meat. It’s the easiest way to do a quick check on any temperature range in the kitchen, whether it’s a loaf of bread, a pot of poaching liquid, a custard, or a pot of caramel sauce. A instant read thermometer is a versatile, do-everything tool like a pocketknife.
Instant Read Thermometer Buyer’s Guide
What To Look For in an Instant Read Thermometer?
When the point is to measure the internal temperature of things, it’s no surprise that accurate temperature measurements are important. The interesting topic is how accurate an instant read thermometer needs to be. What’s the smallest temperature difference you care about? The references I’ve seen put the difference between rare and medium-rare steaks at seven to ten degrees. For cooking meat, I’d like to see an accuracy figure no worse than ±1.5°. That’s enough to reliably tell the difference between not-quite-medium-rare and medium-rare. Outside the realm of the Meat Geek, candymakers and chocolatiers need a higher level of accuracy. Tempering chocolate involves moving it carefully between 86° and 90° — when even 91° is too much, you need serious accuracy. Check out our testing and see which instant read thermometer is the best here.
All the meat thermometers on our table show temperature readings to a precision of 0.1°. They’re definitely not that accurate, but the extra precision can be helpful. The tenths digit gives you useful information about which direction the temperature is changing and how fast it’s moving. It’s like the speedometer in a car. I usually round my speed to the nearest 5 MPH, but the higher precision of the dial lets me see whether my speed is creeping up or holding steady.
Reading temperature quickly is important to discovering the best instant read thermometer. A quick read time gets you two main things. First, your meat is still cooking when you’re temping it, so you want to get an answer fast enough to pull the food off the heat before it overcooks. Second, your hand on the thermometer is right over a hot grill, and you only can hold it there so long. Better to get an answer right away than have to swap from hand to hand while the digits crawl around.
Speaking of holding your hand over a hot grill, the design of the thermometer can do a lot to help or hurt you. We’re looking for a thermometer that’s comfortable to hold and read, with the ability to get some distance away from the heat. We also want to see good controls in reasonable places that you can practically use.
It doesn’t do any good if the thermometer knows the temperature but you don’t. A good thermometer needs a display you can read easily, even under less-than-ideal conditions, like a smoky grill in the evening. Look for a big display with a good backlit screen. Some thermometers let you rotate the display, which helps if your angle is unusual.
Accidents will happen, and your thermometer shouldn’t get knocked out of commission by a spilled drink or getting knocked to the ground. Look for something that can take a fall and for a good water resistance rating.
Using Instant Read Thermometers
How Instant Read Thermometers Work
In general thermometers take some material that changes when it’s heated, then measure that change with some other measuring device. For example, mercury expands when the temperature goes up. Your classic mercury thermometer has a precise tube where the mercury can expand that’s marked with a specialized ruler. As the mercury expands, we read the temperature off the ruler.
In the case of digital thermometers, we’re measuring the changes to different electrical properties as temperature changes. For thermistors and resistance temperature detectors, the property is electrical resistance. For thermocouples, the property is the voltage created by the junction of two different metals. A lot of people have loud opinions about what technology does better for accuracy or better for speed. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole here, and with the time I’ve spent in there, you can all but call me Alice. The big takeaway, in my opinion, is that the choice of sensor matters a lot less than how the engineers design the digital thermometer around it. Don’t get hung up on thermistors vs. thermocouples unless you have extremely specific needs. Focus on the end results.
If you’re concerned about the accuracy of your thermometer, you can test its performance in an ice-water bath. Your better class of thermometer can be recalibrated, maybe by you or maybe by the manufacturer. A cheapy might just need to hit the garbage.
This is more complicated than just fixing yourself a cold drink. You need to make a mix of ice and water that’s exactly 32°, and that takes some work. As you can see in our photos, final temperature of our uncareful bath is 34°. To do it right, fill an insulated cup most of the way full with crushed ice. Fill most of the way with water and let sit for a minute to let the temperature reading equalize. Insert your instant read thermometer and stir with the probe. The number on the screen should be 32° ± the manufacturer’s published tolerance ± how imperfect your ice bath is.
You can also check the result against another trusted instant read digital meat thermometer. Get the sensors as close together as possible in the ice bath without touching the probes together. The numbers should be equal, ± the manufacturer’s tolerance for the test thermometer ± the manufacturer’s tolerance for the trusted thermometer. As you might guess from reading this, that won’t tell you much unless you have a very accurate trusted thermometer. Better to learn how to make a really good ice bath.
Boiling water is more suspect than freezing water. Where freezing temperature only changes in situations where you would die, boiling internal temperature changes all the time. It drops a degree for every five hundred feet of elevation gained, and moves with the local barometric pressure. There are online calculators where you can punch in your data and get an estimate of local boiling temperature, but that’s just another error term for the pile.
How to get accurate temperature readings?
The first goal is to get a true internal temperature, ideally probing in the thickest portion of the item to be measured; meat, veggie or whatever. If there is a bone near the center of the item being cooked it is good to get near or touching that area. Keep in mind it will be the slowest area to reach the target temperature. In a turkey for instance, getting right up to the thigh bone will give you the best indication of doneness because it is typically a thick section of the bird. For an unstuffed bird, the opposite is true in the breast meat, you want to stay centered in the thickest section of the meat. Getting too near the rib cage will temp out as done before the core temp has been reached. For higher temps, fowl, pulled pork, brisket, and such, getting that temp evenly and thoroughly is key and best measured at the core itself if possible.
Can you put a digital instant read thermometer in the oven?
Typically, no. A thermometer with a plastic casing or viewpoint, analog or digital, cannot be used in the oven. There are lots of choices that are made for this. Of the thermometers we have tested in the past duel probe thermometers are designed for leave-in use. There are also leave-in oven thermometers, multi-probe thermometer devices designed for BBQ and inferred thermometers. Whether via a stainless-steel braided min-cable or via Bluetooth wireless, or both, the option to monitor what is going on in the oven without having to open it up is unquestionably the best option.
Wireless Meat Thermometer Probes
A single probe free from wires that can report both ambient temperature and internal meat temperatures back to your smart device? Sounds a little too good to be true. We thought so too so we rounded up the Meater, MeatStick, AirProbe, and Yummly! and tested them side-by-side
Can you cook meat with a digital instant read thermometer in it?
Assuming your meat thermometer is designed to work in the cooking environment and can stand the heat, then yes. Again, most instant read digital meat thermometers are not made for this, instead you need a probe thermometer made to monitor during the cooking cycle (see links above). Cooking with a probe in the meat works just fine. Rarely, in a high heat, somewhat longer cook time, you will get a channel of slightly more cooked meat where the metal casing of the device will transfer a small amount of heat. Most often you will not even notice that, and the benefit so far outweighs it making it is still worthwhile to cook meat with a probe in it.
How high do the best Instant read thermometers go?
On average they max out at an impressive temperature range of about 550°F. There are many analog style dial food thermometers that use smaller increments and will max out at 220 or 250°F. These are specifically for internal temps of food that will not exceed those thresholds. Keeping one around that doesn’t need a battery makes sense, but there are such great digital choices with quicker read times and broader temperature ranges as to make these other analog thermometer devices pretty outdated.