Meat thermometers are more than "just" the key to a perfect roast
Meat thermometers might seem like an unnecessary accessory -- after all, can't you tell when a piece of meat is done by cutting into it, or poking it with a finger? For home cooks, the answer is no. As clever as some of the guesswork methods of estimating when meat is done may be, they're just that -- guesswork.
In fact, many of us are reaping the consequences of all that guesswork without realizing it. Often, what we call the "stomach flu" is not related to the influenza virus at all, but instead a reaction to improperly cooked food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that every year about 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from foodborne diseases. That's 48 million people -- and of that group, some 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
Even the old methods that once worked -- for example, waiting until a cooked chicken's juices run clear to call it done -- don't necessarily work today, because the way we've raised our meat animals has changed. Things get especially tricky when you're dealing with a big roast, ham or turkey, because different parts of the meat may heat at different rates, and you need to be sure the entire cut is done all the way through.
Having a meat thermometer in hand is the only way to be sure the meat you're cooking is safe. As a bonus, it'll also make it easy for you to produce perfectly cooked cuts of meat every time, even if your grill or oven has hot spots that make separate cuts of meat heat unevenly.
Types of meat thermometers
An instant-read thermometer is meant to be poked into the meat to check its doneness, then removed. However, don't let the "instant" part of the name fool you. If your instant-read thermometer costs less than $100, it probably uses a thermistor sensor, which can take up to 30 seconds to give you an accurate reading -- although the best thermistors can manage it in five to seven seconds.
If you use your thermometer a lot, consider investing in a thermometer with a thermocouple sensor. Thermocouples usually drive the thermometer's cost up to $100 or more, but they also give you accurate readings within two to four seconds -- which in turn means you spend less time with your hands near hot surfaces, or with the oven or grill door open, leaching heat. Although a $100 thermometer might sound unreasonably expensive, it's actually a very good investment because you'll get fast, accurate readings and exceptional durability that can outlast several cheaper thermometers. Also, these high-end thermometers can register such a broad range of temperatures that you can use them for anything, from testing homemade yogurt to boiling sugar for candy making.
Even the fastest and most accurate instant-read thermometer requires you to open the oven or grill, causing a fluctuation in temperature and potentially altering your cooking time. Leave-in thermometers (also called probe thermometers) have one or more probes that are designed to be inserted into the meat and left there as you cook, or clipped to the oven or grill rack to monitor ambient temperature. Numerous experts warn that you shouldn't trust the dial thermometer on your grill to do this -- it might be as much as 100 degrees off.
The probes on leave-in thermometers are connected to a base station which displays the temperature and sounds an alarm when your meat reaches the desired temperature. Some leave-in thermometers can also be programmed to display maximum and minimum temperatures, and some sound an alarm if the temperature exceeds a set temperature range in either direction.
Most probes remain connected to the thermometer display base by cables, but wireless probe thermometers -- most of which use Bluetooth technology to communicate with the display base -- are becoming more common. One of the leave-in thermometer probes we evaluated can even communicate with your smartphone.
Where to put the thermometer
Any meat thermometer you choose only as effective as your placement. You should measure a large cut of meat in several places, because variations in the grill or oven temperature and the meat itself can cause it to cook at uneven rates.
If you're using a thermocouple thermometer that gives quick readings, you can insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, pushing just past the center, then pull the thermometer out slowly and take the lowest (coldest) reading. Contrary to popular belief, you don't want to position the thermometer against the bone, because bone heats at a different rate than the meat of the muscle. If you're cooking a thick steak or a burger or other similarly slim cut, you might try inserting the meat thermometer from the side.
If you're using a thermistor thermometer that requires up to 30 seconds to give an accurate reading, aim as close to the center of the cut of meat as possible and leave the thermometer in place until you get a stable reading. Then you can pull it slowly out to check for cold spots.
Calibrating a meat thermometer
Although all meat thermometers should be calibrated when they come out of the box, some thermometers can be calibrated at home to fine-tune their accuracy. Experts recommend doing this about once a year, or any time the thermometer has been dropped or possibly damaged.
Check your thermometer's accuracy by inserting the probe into a glass of ice water, just below the level of the ice; it should read within a few degrees of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Test another extreme with boiling water: The thermometer should read 212 degrees, or a little less if you live above sea level. For most purposes, being within 2 or 3 degrees of those goals is good enough; if your thermometer needs to be calibrated, consult the owner's manual for specific directions.
How we chose the best meat thermometers
No matter what sort of thermometer you purchase, accuracy and consistency are its most important attributes. A few thermometers do come with nifty bells and whistles like spoken alerts, temperature charts and wireless capability, but consistent performance and easy-to-use controls remain the number one priority.
In order to find the best meat thermometers, we consulted reviews from expert foodie and tech sites such as Cook's Illustrated, ConsumerReports.org, Good Housekeeping, AmazingRibs.com and TheSweetHome.com. We also evaluated hundreds of user reviews from retail websites, although one notable brand, ThermoWorks, is usually available only from the manufacturer.