I’m the sort of dork who carries around a flashlight and a multitool everywhere. I admit it’s weird, but I use them a lot too. The world is full of loose screws, rough edges, bent prongs, and dark corners that need a little work. The right tools are the versatile ones you can have right on hand to make your life a little better, and a good instant-read thermometer falls right in that category. At the grill, by the smoker, or in the kitchen, an instant-read thermometer deserves to be part of your everyday selection.
About Instant-Read Thermometers
An instant-read thermometer is a device for measuring temperature and displaying the temperature on a digital display. The instant-read part is overly optimistic, but the best of this roundup will give you a good readout in 2‒3 seconds, while even the worst units on the market can do it in 12 seconds. That’s not exactly instant, but it might as well be compared to the old analog dial thermometers that might take a minute to get a reading.
Instant-reads aren’t the only modern thermometers out there. Probe thermometers use a similar technology, but are optimized for continuous long-term measurements in a high-heat environment instead of reading speed. Instant-reads and probe thermometers work well together as a team on the grill. The probe keeps you apprised of the general progress of your cook, then the instant read gives you the immediate details that tell you whether your meat is done or if it needs a little more time.
Instant-read thermometers have two main sections. The probe is a thin metal needle that contains the actual temperature sensor out near the tip. A longer probe lets you measure deeper into large pieces of meat, but makes it easier to break the probe.
No matter what size your probe is, you should check the manual to find out exactly where the temperature sensor is in the probe. It’s going to be slightly behind the tip, but you should know exactly how far behind so you can put the sensor in the center of even a thin steak to get the real internal temperature. The body of the thermometer carries the electronics that turn the raw data from the sensor into a temperature and the display that tells you what that number is.
Instant-reads come in two main form factors. The folding style has the probe attached to the body on a hinge, with the body longer than the probe so the tip of the probe can lock into the body for storage.
The lollipop style has the probe fixed to a small body not much bigger than the display. Lollipop-style thermometers are easier to maneuver in a tight space, but need a separate sheath to protect the probe for storage.
Our 5 Winning Instant Read Thermometers
How We Tested Our Winning Thermometers
To test thermometers for accuracy, you need to start with an accurate thermometer. It’s a tricky bootstrapping problem, but we snagged a laboratory thermometer for our testing — the Thermoworks Reference Thermapen. This unit is certified to be accurate to ±0.1° with a display that goes down to 0.01°. Of course, everything has a drawback, and the Reference Thermapen’s is read time. Where even our worst instant-reads could get a temperature in 12 seconds, the Reference never needed less than 30 seconds, sometimes way more. For testing, we matched up this high tech piece of equipment with an extremely high-tech Board with a Hole in It so the Reference could come to temperature without being disturbed.
As explained in the section on calibration, the best way to test your thermometer is in 32° water. With our volume of thermometers, we knew we couldn’t hold a 32° water bath, so we compared the instant-read temperatures to the Reference thermometer in a roughly 34° bath, with the probes as close together as possible to minimize any differences within the bath. I started a stopwatch when I inserted the test thermometer into the bath and stopped the timer when the temperature stopped moving. I averaged three runs of each thermometer, plus extras where there was an outlier.
Where cold water is your repeatable test, the money range for meat is 125°‒205°. We used an immersion circulator to hold a pot of water at 140° to test the thermometer performance in this more realistic range. I tested read time in the same way as in the cold test. It’s worth noting that all of the thermometers were more accurate in the warm test, though read times were pretty consistent in both warm and cold tests.
By this point, we were pretty solid on accuracy and read time, so we used this test to measure readability and comfort. Boiling water was an easy way to consistently simulate the difficult environment of a grill and find out what thermometers were comfortable to hold in a hot environment.
After making sure we had all the other tests done, it was time for some destruction. We ran each thermometer under a running faucet from every angle to see which ones broke down. For the ones that didn’t break down, we checked for water inside the casing too.
Enough Talk, Jump Me Down to the Winning Reviews Already
What Does an Instant-Read 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 instant-read thermometer is the best tool to accomplish that.
Now, you might say that you can spot the 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 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 good probe thermometer is your best tool here, but 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 characteristics of bones, and there’s going to be a lot of variation in your meat. When my BBQ 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. Visit our thermometer page to see more on types of thermometers.
For Cooking in the Kitchen
Sometimes you cook the meat inside and need the same answers as on the grill. A good instant-read isn’t just for meat. It’s the easiest way to do a quick check on any temperature in the kitchen, whether it’s a loaf of bread, a pot of poaching liquid, a custard, or a pot of caramel sauce. The instant-read is a versatile, do-everything tool like a pocketknife.
The Buyer’s Guide
When the point is to measure the temperature of things, it’s no surprise that accurate temperature measurements are important. The interesting topic is how accurate a 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.
All the thermometers on our table show temperature 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 quickly is important to an 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 backlight. 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.
1. Thermapen Mk4: Best of the Best
The Thermapen is the best instant-read thermometer on the market, but it’s got a price tag to match. The accuracy is excellent, testing at 0.7° off in the cold test and right on the money in the warm test. The thing that separates it from the rest of the pack is read time. At 2‒3 seconds, nothing else is even close. Once you’ve got the probe where you want it and get your eyes on the screen, it’s already locked in.
The Thermapen is comfortable to handle and features a big display and an automatic backlight. It’s got a sensor to rotate the readout automatically to match your display position for maximum readability. It’s rated to survive a 30 minute immersion in water, and while we didn’t try that, it had no problems at all with our water test.
The only issue is the one you might expect from a review like this — the Thermapen is $99. It’s the most expensive thermometer in the test by a good margin, but if you buy it you’re getting the best.
Note: There are many knockoffs of the Mk4 being sold at Walmart, Target, Amazon.com, Ebay etc. Due to this issue Thermoworks removed their product from Amazon.com, Ebay, and Walmart. Purchase the MK4 from the manufacture’s website to avoid being taken. You can find this warning featured at the top of the Thermoworks website:
- Best available read time of 2‒3 seconds
- Accurate to ±0.7°F
- 3000-hour battery life on one AAA
- Durable and waterproof — IP67-rated.
- Wide temperature range: -58°F‒572°F
- Large self-rotating LCD screen with automatic backlight
2. ThermoWorks ThermoPop: Best for the Money, Best for Lefties
Not willing to part with a C-note? For a third of the price, you can get a thermometer that’s in the same ballpark. The view from the cheap seats isn’t as good, but the medium-sized display and backlight are reasonably good. Instead of an automatically-orienting display, you can push a button to rotate the display in 90° intervals. The biggest thing you lose from the Thermapen is one digit on the display. With a precision of just whole degrees, I can’t be as confident of our accuracy measurements, but it looks like ±1°.
The read time is second best in today’s roundup at 3‒4 seconds. You’ve got your hand closer to the heat than with the fold-out probes, but the quick read time makes this less of an issue than it could be. It held up to our drenching without any issues. One group of people who’ll really like the ThermoPop are the southpaws. Where most of the thermometers in this test work substantially better in the right hand, the ThermoPop is equally good from the other side of the plate.
Overall, it’s not as good as the Thermapen, but at $34 it’s amazing.
- Excellent 3‒4 second read time
- Advertised accuracy of ±2°F, but better in our test
- LCD screen rotates to four positions
- Reliable splashproof build, ThermoWorks quality
- Clip-on pen sleeve for easy carrying and storage
- Precise to only 1°
3. ThermoPro TP03: Budget Buy
If you want your cash to go to steaks instead of thermometers, pick up a ThermoPro for a mere $14. You lose a bit on accuracy from the more expensive models, testing at about 1.2° off in the cold test and 0.2° in the warm water. The real break is in the read time, where the ThermoPro needs 5‒8 seconds to lock in.
The readout is medium sized and the backlight is average. The handle is comfortable enough with enough distance to keep the heat reasonable. There are some nice storage extras on the ThermoPro, specifically a hanging hook and magnet to keep it handy. Go through just the features, and it’s average.
Look at the features plus the price, and the ThermoPro is extraordinary. At $14, you should grab two.
- Extremely affordable
- Well-designed for usability
- Worse-than-average read time
4. Lavatools Javelin Pro Duo : Mid-Price Choice
Sometimes the smart move is find the price break where diminishing returns start to kick in. The Javelin Pro Duo is right around there. It’s tops in accuracy, reading 0.7° off on the cold test and bang-on on the warm test. Read time is solid at 4‒7 seconds, but not brilliant.
The digits are gigantic and easy to read, with a good backlight. The display flips 180° automatically depending on how you hold it. It’s got the extra bonus of a storage loop and magnet, and is easy to hold. The faucet did it no harm, and it seems well-built. Overall, the price of $55 is much more reasonable than the Thermapen’s at the cost of a lot of read time. I’m not convinced it’s $21 better than the ThermoPop, but it’s a good choice at a reasonable price. You’d be happy with this buy.
- Excellent easy-to-read display
- Comfortable to handle
- Quality build
- Read time is not good enough for the price
Like the Lavatools model, the Maverick PT-55 tries to find that sweet spot on the price-performance curve. It’s respectably accurate, coming in at 0.7° off in the cold water test and 0.5° off in the warm water test. Read time is solid at about 5 seconds. The drench under the faucet didn’t do any harm to it, and the display is nice and big. All these measurable, including the nice price of $40 would seem to put it in contention for a top spot in our test, but the controls are really, really bad. You’ve got to mash the power button a few times to get it to come on. Now, that might just be a fluke, but the backlight control is bad by design. It’s on the same button as the temperature hold button, so you’ve got to press it multiple times to get the backlight on. Five buttons on this thing, and one of them has to do double duty? C’mon. Almost worse, one of the buttons that is on there is a reset button. The right number of times to ever reboot a thermometer is zero, and Maverick thinks I need to do it enough to need a dedicated button. I could see how someone might like this better than the ThermoPop, but the controls are just no good.
- Solid performance and build quality for the price
- Poor user interface
The technology on instant-read thermometers keeps getting better and better. I sprung for the Thermapen, and the difference between the Mk4 and the RT600C I got six years ago are night and day. Even the $14 ThermoPro makes me wonder why I kept it around for so long. If you haven’t looked at the instant-reads on the market lately, it might be time for a fresh glance.
Here at Smoking Meat Geeks, we recommend the Thermapen as the top-of-the-line option. It does everything right, but wow, that price tag is off-putting. The ThermoPop is the best value of the lot, with the Javelin Pro Duo and the Maverick PT-55 up there as mid-price mid-line options. For the Meat Geek on a tight budget, the ThermoPro is good for an amazing price. Whichever one you choose, I hope it inspires you to throw some steaks on the grill and try it out.
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 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, 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 equalize. Insert your 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 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 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.