Over the years we’ve tested about 50 meat thermometers and one thing remains true, it’s always best to have the right tool for the job. When it comes to BBQ, you’ll require a thermometer that can simultaneously monitor internal pit temperature and your meat. As a Meet Geek, the metics we always evaluate are functionality and easy-of-use. Because yielding good BBQ is hard enough, the last thing you need is a cursing session between you and digital cooking device while maning the pit. So without further adieu, here’s what you need in a trusted BBQ thermometer and our top picks.
The Barbecue Environment
The art of smoking is mostly about creating the right environment for your food to take on the characteristics of smoked food that you are looking for. That is your job as home pitmaster. Yes, seasoning, brining, quality of meat, etc. are all very important factors, most of which you can control. But the cooking environment is a huge focus, and certainly creates the need to knowing your working temperature.
The other focus is the temperature of the item being cooked. Nothing worse than thinking you had timed everything perfectly, only to find out you had achieved the right internal temp hours ago and now have a dried-out overcooked product. Brisket is not getting cheaper, and mistakes can be costly. As you will learn in this article, there are some very straightforward tools that will make your barbecue cooking process laser focused and Bluetooth enabled.
Pit & Internal Meat Temperatures
Just recently we did some smoked chicken that was to be served immediately to the table. This was a high temperature fairly low smoke dinner project that was hot, juicy and tasty when served. Similarly, we have done lower and slower smoking of boneless chicken thighs that were meant to be used in a variety of ways, from salads to pasta to sandwiches. As a result, we went with a harder smoke for more flavor, creating a more cured meat result for this. This is just one example of how you tweak times and temps when smoking. which only makes senses when we look at the multitude of different foods that will benefit from smoking or a smoke cooked process.
From smoking cheese that will melt at 100 degrees or so, to a pork shoulder that you want to end up with an internal temperature of over 200, there is abroad spectrum of temperatures that come into play. And all your skill will mean very little without accurate readings of the temperature of the cooking environment and the internal temperature of the food.
Why the bi-metal thermometer that came with your grill sucks.
Bi-metal thermometers and gauges that come with your grill or smoker can’t be trusted.
The coil method they use is not nearly as accurate as more advanced digital thermometers, and the thermometers are usually built to poor quality standards. As a result, these kinds of bi-metal dial thermometers unreliable and prone to very inaccurate temperature readings, often off by up to 50 degrees! They’re also quite slow, taking 30 seconds to a minute to read the final temperature.
Hopefully, you were only planning on using these gauges for monitoring the ambient temperature of the grill. Even if they were accurate, they aren’t designed for using on meat – which is why they sit in the lid of the grill, way too high up to actually tell you even the ambient temperature of the grill.
So why even bother with them?
“It’s so hard to get that perfect bark on a brisket with a bi-metal dial gauge because they’re rarely ever accurate. I’ve tested many of them and find that they are usually of by at least 15°F and seen them off by as many as 50°F straight from the factory.” —
Think About How Many Probes You’ll Need
This number will also likely be based on what you’re cooking, but how many temperatures probes your meat thermometer comes is an essential consideration in choosing one. A good Wi-Fi BBQ thermometer should be accurate, and should feature at least two probes, though more is better. Smoking a piece of meat likely requires at least two probes, so you can monitor both the internal temperature of the meat, and the ambient temperature of the grill. If doing multiple pieces of meat, you will want multiple probes. If you’re just grilling steaks or chicken, you can likely get away with just one probe or an instant read thermometer – same for baking and other kitchen tasks.
What Makes a Good Thermometer for Barbecue?
There are two goals in getting and using a remote thermometer for your barbecue and smoking endeavors. First is measuring the internal temperature of the item being smoked or cooked. With larger items, or even differing items in the same batch, this means having multiple probes that can monitor different areas of the food, and different foods. This is not a hypothetical example; spatchcock a turkey as we did for last years Thanksgiving meal and cook it on the smoker. The standard rule of thumb is to target 165 degrees. Except that really, that tends to overcook the white meat portions. They will actually be done 10-15 lower than the dark meat. At 155 you will get clear juice in the center of the breast. At 165 you will eliminate the red bones in the hind quarte and get properly cooked dark meat. Being able to monitor both sections is really important.
The other area to monitor is the cooking environment. This uses an ambient temperature measuring probe, shaped differently from the piercing thermometers used to measure internal temps. Humidity and smoke quality are important, but the temperature is still the most important. Which is why we selected the products that we will explore here. Both of them allow multi-point monitoring, and they go one step further with a bonus feature. You can actually influence the temperature of your cooking environment by integrating these devices to your equipment.
Simplicity & Durability
There should be alerts for high and low temperatures for each channel, and those alerts should be definable to both the base station and your phone. Temperatures and alerts should be easy to read and set from either the base station or the phone.
Wireless setup should be easy, and not require punching in a lot of data into a few buttons. The data produced from the thermometer should be easily accessible and annotatable. The device should be able to operate without a Wi-Fi network if needed.
A fan control unit should effectively control temperature to a narrow band. The controller should recognize highly unusual problems like the lid being open and throw up an alert instead of just slamming the fan to maximum.
A Wi-Fi thermometer should be able to stand up to the ordinary vicissitudes of barbecue life: rain, heat, cold, falls, and more. There are enough wires around with the probes, so an internal battery is preferred.
If you’re looking for something a little cheaper and like the idea of wireless cooking, check out the results from our wireless probe thermometer testing.
Quickly walking through the 101-level look at smoking, we need some fire to get smoke. Fire needs fuel and air to do its job. Once your fuel is burning merrily along, your easiest way to control this process is through controlling the airflow. Shut the flow down and the fire diminishes. So, set this as your default position, with the flame naturally getting cooler unless action is taken.
The action phase comes through the use of your ambient temperature monitoring device. When the temperature dips below the level you want, these devices can control and start a blower that will give the flame the air is needs to come back up, increasing the cooking temperature and the smoke in the environment. Here are the two products that we feel deliver the specifics of what you need to up your game in the smokehouse.
BBQ Style Thermometers We’ve Tested
These folks do like their tech, and now so do we. First, the basics. The device has built in Li-Ion batteries that will easily power through a 24 hour cook time period, and will re-charge easily with a USB base in 4-6 hours. The device has 6 thermometer inputs for flexible use with large cuts or differing foods, along with the probe measuring ambient temperatures. All probes us the same plug in for ease of use.
When it comes to communication, the Firebird really begins to spread its wings. First choice, like most of use in some fashion on our smart phones, is through Bluetooth. The proprietary app allows for easy monitoring and control of all the inbound information, and the ability to change the parameters as needed. The device is also Wi-Fi compatible allowing remote monitoring from virtually anywhere. You can even connect through Alexa with voice commands when your hands are busy.
As a result of collecting so much data from both methods, the apps allow you to build your own cloud stored library of process and cook techniques that work well for you. Setting an expectation that is based on your own experience is an exciting way to hone and perfect your barbecue skills. The data synchronization can go directly through the Wi-Fi, or indirectly via Bluetooth if the Wi-Fi is unavailable. Then you can download for your own records and building essentially your own cookbook.
The probes come with 6-foot braided wire covered leads offering heat resistance well over 550 degrees. The base unity has a large display that is easy to read in most light conditions, and is capable of reading temperatures from -94 degrees to 752 degrees. Yes, they do offer upgraded sensing probes for temperatures that extreme.
Ease of use
All aspects of the connectivity and hardware are very approachable and easy to use. Once your initial connectivity is established things sync up naturally and with little bother. Alerts and communication points are very intuitive, and the directions are written in fairly straightforward language.
With the Drive Fan Cable, you integrate the Drive Blower fan system for keeping your temperature where you want it. The unit blows at 20CFM, more than enough to breath life back to the fire when the temperature has begun to fall off. For charcoal or wood burning systems this is a great addition. For more on how the Fireboard 2 stacks up to other simaular Wi-Fi devices, see our full testing and results here.
The full name of this unit is Smoke X4 Long-Range Remote BBQ Alarm Thermometer. It lives up to that name and then some. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity are restrictive in some ways and subject to signal degradation over long distances without being boosted along the way. ThermoWorks uses RF technology to offer an astounding line-of-sight range of almost a mile and a quarter, or two full kilometers.
ThermoWorks does take geekdom to a whole new level. It is no surprise that their high-quality consumer products do so well. The company has an internationally accredited laboratory dedicated to calibrating devices related to temperature. They are literally the experts in this field with equipment that has published accuracy to +/-0.000015 degrees Celsius. We surely don’t use that kind of accuracy when barbecuing, but it is pretty cool knowing the manufacturer of your measuring device has that capability.
Not everyone wants to use their phone for everything, we get that. The Smoke X4 has the base unit, then has a separate receiver unit, allowing you to use your phone for phone stuff. The coordination of these two devices allows for the long-range communication. We have certainly taken our barbecue show on the road, and out in more remote environments not needing the phone is handy. Both devices use ‘AA’ batteries. The receiver gets 1,800 hours, the base unit gets 330 hours. The base unit can also be powered through an AC adapter.
As careful as we try to be, the barbecuing environment is not without hazards, particularly for electronics. Even if is just a sloshed beer, risks abound. Alleviating one the bigger risks, ThermoWorks produces these devices to provide splash protection rated to ISO66. Basically, safe from everything short of submersion.
The Smoke X4 manages four probes with all the data easy to read on the base unit or the receiver unit. The package includes three food sensor probes and one ambient temperature probe. These have the same exacting standards of precision that the company is known for. One great touch is that the probes have a colored silicone ring at the probe and 4 feet away at the plug for ease of identification.
This unit can drive the proprietary ‘Billows’ device that is a fan for bringing your fire back to life and facilitate more constant temperatures in your cooking environment. If using Bluetooth is important, they have devices that use that, cloud storage and all those bells and whistles. All of this makes it come as no surprise that ThermoWorks is very well represented throughout competitive barbecue, helping multiple teams bring home the awards.
We see each of these systems as great choices we are confident will deliver the results you want for superior barbecue. This should help you with the differences, and similarities, so that you can see which is a better fit for how you approach the craft of barbecue.