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.
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 the best instant read food thermometer ever, but it might as well be compared to the old analog dial thermometers that might take a minute to get a temperature reading.
As for accuracy, instant-read thermometers are extremely accurate, often within +/- 1°F, making them a reliable tool for ensuring food has reached the correct internal temperature for both quality and safety. They are reliable due to their sensitive and swift responsive digital sensors, which provide rapid, precise readings.
“The best instant-read thermometers are accurate within 2 degrees Fahrenheit, which can undoubtedly make or break your final dish. The speed of temperature reading is also an essential factor, and a good thermometer should be able to provide an accurate temperature in less than 3 seconds.” –Cooks Illustrated
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; check out our full review article on our favorite dual probe BBQ thermometers.
Instant read meat thermometers have two main sections. The probe is a thin metal needle that contains the actual temperature sensor out near the tip. A longer stainless steel 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 internal temperature sensor is in the probe. It’s going to be slightly behind the tip of most thermometers, 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 reading 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 fold out 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 meat thermometers are easier to maneuver in a tight space, but need a separate sheath to protect both the probe and for storage.
Our 5 Favorite Instant Read Thermometers
The technology on most instant read thermometers just keeps getting better and better. I sprung for the Thermapen ONE, and the difference between the ONE 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 ONE as the best meat thermometer. 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.
See the full results and and rankings from our testing below.
The Thermapen ONE is the best meat thermometer on the market, but it’s got a price tag to match. The accuracy is excellent, testing at 0.5° 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 1 to 1.5 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. This is the only thermometer out there that really deserves the name “instant read”.
The Thermapen ONE 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 $105.
Other aspects got a little better too. The probe tip went from small to smaller. It’s a just a few tenths of a millimeter, but every little bit helps keep the juices in your steak. The backlight is a little brighter and more even. It’s advertised as accurate readings to ±0.5°F instead of the previous model (the Thermapen Mk4 ) coming in at ±0.7°F. I can’t say that makes my life better, but I appreciate the effort. Speaking of effort, it takes slightly less to change the settings. Instead of the unmarked tiny buttons dangling off a little circuit board you find on the Mk4, the ONE has labeled buttons big enough and far enough apart to make changing settings a breeze. You won’t do this a lot, but better design is always a win.
Add it all up, and the Thermapen ONE overtakes the Thermapen Mk4 as the best thermometer out there. Everything about it is great, except the price tag, which is still quite high. The bottom line doesn’t change: the Thermapen ONE is the best of the best, with a price to match.
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 Thermapen ONE from the manufacture’s website to avoid being taken.
- Best available read time of 1‒1.5 seconds
- Accurate readings to ±0.5°F
- 2000-hour battery life on one AAA
- Durable and waterproof — IP67-rated.
- Wide temperature range: -58°F‒572°F
- Large self-rotating display LCD screen with automatic backlight
Not willing to part with a C-note? For a third of the price, you can get a good instant read 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 food 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 ONE, but at $34 it’s amazing meat thermometer.
- 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°
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 instant read meat thermometer, 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
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
The OXO Good Grips thermometer can take quick and accurate readings. The only downside is that it costs more money than all the other thermometers except for the Thermapen ONE; actually, at the time of writing this, the Thermapen ONE is on sale for $74.96 – cheeper than the OXO.
Comparing the OXO to the Javelin, our mid-price pick, the OXO is bulkier and doesn’t have the magnet to let you stick it to the fridge. While the OXO was about 3 seconds faster than the Javelin, the display is light colored text on a dark background which makes things less clear if you’re reading the display from an angle. On the upside, and one thing we really did like, the display automatically rotates 180° and the probe itself can flip all the way around, making it ideal for a lefty.
While it stood up to our waterproof test, I’m not sure how much contact with water it can stand up to. The battery compartment seems more water resistant than waterproof.
- Fast read time
- Auto rotation for easy reading
- Probe rotates 200+°
- Price – not nearly the quality of the Theramapen for about the same price
Like the Lavatools model, the Maverick PT-55 tries to find that sweet spot on the price-performance curve. It’s respectably accurate readings, 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
How We Tested
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 have an accurate reading down 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 reading 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 probe into the bath and stopped the timer when the temperature reading 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 temperature 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 all the instant thermometers’ read time in the same way as in the cold test. It’s worth noting that all of the instant read 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 meat 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.