Instant-read meat thermometers are designed for the cook who just needs a quick spot-check on how the meat is going. Most experts agree that analog thermometers -- the "dial on a stick" that you poke into meat, which may also show up in the lid of your favorite barbecue grill -- are almost always unreliable, sometimes registering as much as 100 degrees off the correct temperature. Digital thermometers, however, are much more reliable.
If you want the same meat thermometer the pros use, look no further than the ThermoWorks Thermapen Mk4 (Est. $100), an upgrade of the Classic Thermapen that has long been beloved of professional cooks and cookbook authors everywhere. In fact, we couldn't find a single expert that doesn't love the Thermapen.
"Why rely on hunches and pushing on the meat when I can get temperature confirmation in 3 seconds?" asks one of the editors for the online magazine GrillingCompanion.com. Other independent tests confirm the Thermapen's speed and accuracy, clocking in at 2 to 4 seconds for a stable, accurate temperature reading. It also earns excellent marks for repeatability from a major consumer laboratory, and is the only instant-read thermometer that draws praise from one of the nation's foremost test kitchens.
The Thermapen Mk4's fast, accurate performance is no different from that of its predecessor, the Classic Thermapen, (Est. $80) which uses the same thermocouple sensor. While more expensive, thermocouple sensors are intrinsically faster and more accurate than the thermistor sensors you'll find in most home-use thermometers. Both models also have the same 4.5-inch probe that, when paired with the sturdy, easy to grip handle, keeps you more than 10 inches away from hot meats or liquids. Both Thermapen models fold for storage.
So why upgrade something that was already so good? The Mk4 comes with a slew of new usability features that make reviewers very happy. It automatically turns itself on and off when you fold it open or closed, puts itself to sleep when not in use, has a rotating display, and even activates a backlight automatically when held in dark conditions -- say, inside an oven. The new model also uses a single AAA battery, which doubles the 1,500-hour lifespan of the classic Thermapen's two CR2032 coin cell batteries.
The Thermapen is also "built like a tank," in the words of Faith Durand, executive editor of TheKitchn.com, and can survive being left underwater for up to 30 minutes. So although its $100 price tag represents a significant investment, you can expect to keep using it for a long time. Also, you won't have to invest in separate thermometers, because both Thermapens offer a wide enough temperature range (-58 to 572 degrees Fahrenheit) to handle everything from frying oil to candy making, or even testing chilled/frozen foods.
Most of the Thermapen Mk4's settings are customizable -- for example, you can lock the rotating display in place or set the sleep function to kick in anywhere between 10 seconds and 3 minutes -- or not at all -- and in every expert review we consulted, the author felt it's well worth the $20 or so you pay for upgrading from the classic model.
If you can't get past the Thermapen's price tag but still want a fast, accurate thermometer, consider the splash proof ThermoWorks ThermoPop (Est. $30). Many of the same reviewers that love the Thermapen say the ThermoPop offers temperature readings that are almost as accurate and almost as fast -- between 4 and 7 seconds for a stable temperature, over the same wide range (-58 to 572 degrees Fahrenheit) as the Thermapen.
The ThermoPop doesn't have as many usability features as the Thermapen Mk4, but it still draws plenty of expert and user praise for its long, 4.5-inch probe, a round head that's easy to hold, a 10-second backlight for the display, and an auto-off function that kicks in after 10 minutes to preserve battery life. Each easy-to-replace coin battery gives you about 5,000 hours of use.
The ThermaPop's symmetrical design and push-button rotating display make it especially friendly for left-handed users. That said, you do give up a few other usability functions in exchange for the great value: The ThermoPop doesn't fold, so it takes up about 7 inches in a drawer; it only displays temperatures to the nearest whole degree; and it can't be calibrated, although the manufacturer guarantees it to stay accurate within 2 degrees.
Professional cooks and hardcore home users will definitely want to invest in either the ThermoWorks Thermapen Mk4 or its classic counterpart. But if it's more the idea of a folding thermometer that interests you, consider the Lavatools Javelin (Est. $25), formerly known as the Lavatools ThermoWand. This folding thermometer looks an awful lot like the Thermapen, but it uses a thermistor sensor instead of a thermocouple. That means that, although this thermometer still draws plenty of praise for returning quick, accurate readings, it's a little bit slower and a little bit less exact than the Thermapen, returning stable results in 4 to 6 seconds according to a hands-on test conducted at Wired.com.
You do give up a few things in exchange for the lower price, chief among them a notably shorter (2.75-inch) probe, a slightly narrower temperature range (-40 to 482 degrees Fahrenheit), and build quality that is sometimes questionable. But you also get some nifty usability features, like a built-in magnet for sticking the thermometer to a fridge or a vent and an auto on/off feature that mimics the Thermapen's function.
The folks at Wired.com pick the Lavatools Javelin as the best balance between performance and price, and we agree; it's the best cheap instant-read meat thermometer we've evaluated. Many user reviewers love the Javelin's balance of performance and price too, but we also found some complaints that the unit stopped working relatively quickly and the company never responded to inquiries about the advertised lifetime warranty -- something to take into consideration when you weigh the merits of investing in something like the Thermapen, which should last for many years and is backed by a company with a reputation for good customer service.
Although the Lavatools Javelin has long been a favorite in the inexpensive price range, there's a new kid on the block that's well worth a look, the Polder Stable Read THM-389 thermometer (Est. $20). It draws an unequivocal recommendation from a preeminent test kitchen , along with top scores for the speed and accuracy of its temperature readings. It's also a top pick from a leading independent consumer research lab.
Users and experts love the audible beep that sounds when this thermometer registers a stable temperature; no more guessing if it's ready to be read or not, and it'll hold that temperature on the display until you press the reset button. It also has a handy loop on the end for hanging the thermometer or holding onto it, comes with preset temperatures for certain meats, and the display (which can be switched between Celsius and Fahrenheit) is easy to read. The temperature range -- -49 to 392 degrees Fahrenheit -- means you can use this thermometer for most low-temperature foods, but not grilling. The experts say it returns temperatures in 6 to 7 seconds.
There are two things you can't do with the Polder Stable Read, though. One is leave it in contact with a hot pan or put it in the oven; testers with the aforementioned test kitchen said the thermometer melted when briefly left in contact with a hot pan. The other thing you can't do, users say, is splash it with water -- at all. There's no rubber seal in the battery compartment, so if you're anything but exquisitely careful when you wash the probe, the thermometer will stop working. Still, if you don't mind these two quirks, users and experts agree that the Polder Stable Read THM-389 is a great thermometer at an amazing price.
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 eliminate that issue by pairing an in-oven probe, designed to stay in the meat as it cooks, with a base readout that displays the temperature and sounds an alarm when the meat is done. Many leave-in probes can be clipped to the oven or grill grate, too, to monitor air temperature.
The biggest weak point for any leave-in thermometer is the cable that connects each probe to the base readout. With that in mind, it's no surprise that our top-reviewed leave-in meat thermometer and its probes are designed for use in a commercial kitchen.
The ThermoWorks ChefAlarm (Est. $60) is a top pick from numerous experts, including a prominent test kitchen and the barbecue experts at AmazingRibs.com and GrillingCompanion.com, both of whom laud the high quality probes and cables on the ChefAlarm for being able to withstand temperatures of up to 700 degrees. The probes can register temperatures between -58 and 572 degrees Fahrenheit and have waterproof/submersible silicone-coated cables, so they can even be used for grilling outside on a rainy day. Some of the probes return readings in as little as 5 seconds, making them suitable for instant-read use too.
Once you get past durability and accurate, consistent temperature readings, which the ChefAlarm has in spades, leave-in thermometers are all about usability. The ChefAlarm is tops in that department, too, because ThermoWorks manages to pack in a whole suite of useful features without making the interface too fiddly. As soon as the unit turns on, it remembers whether you're working in Celsius or Fahrenheit, and your programmed alarm settings for both high and low temperatures.
The ChefAlarm is very intuitive to use. Just insert the probes into the meat or grill, flip the display base into easel mode or use the built-in magnets to attach it to a nearby metal surface, and you're ready to go. You can also set the timer to count down or up, and the unit will continuously monitor maximum and minimum temperature fluctuations. An adjustable alarm that gets as loud as 92dB can be heard even in a loud, busy kitchen.
Replacement probes for the ChefAlarm range between 4.5 and 12 inches long (plus a 2.5-inch air temperature probe) and cost $16 to $21 each, so you can purchase multiple probes and switch the monitor back and forth between them. "I used to only use these types of probe thermometers with larger cuts like roasts and whole chickens. With the shorter probe in particular, I now find myself jabbing and leaving them in chicken breasts and steaks," writes one of the cooking experts at the online magazine GrillingCompanion.com
If all you want is a simple, functional leave-in timer, the same experts have similarly high praise for the ThermoWorks DOT (Est. $35). The DOT doesn't have all the usability features of the ThermoWorks ChefAlarm, but it does "simple and durable" beautifully. It's compatible with the same Pro Series probes designed for the ChefAlarm, and the included 4.5-inch probe returns results so quickly that it can double as an instant-read thermometer.
"Inexpensive. Fast, accurate. Simple. That just about sums it up," writes barbecue expert "Meathead" Goldwyn at AmazingRibs.com; the DOT was within one degree of the target temperature in his tests, and it's also very easy to use. Just connect the probe, set the high temperature alarm, and clip the magnetized DOT to the nearest metal surface. The DOT's high-temperature alarm is both audible (70dB) and visual (blinking digits).
"The readout could be used as a hockey puck, and the cable is more rugged than most," writes Bill McGrath, another reviewer for AmazingRibs.com. The only complaint he -- or any of the other experts -- note is that they wish the DOT had a backlight.
If you aren't going to use your leave-in thermometer very frequently and want the best bargain for your buck, consider the Taylor Gourmet Digital Cooking Thermometer (Est. $20). It has a relatively small temperature range -- from 32 to 392 degrees Fahrenheit -- so it's best for occasional use with low-temperature foods like yogurt or prime beef, and shouldn't be used with grills.
Durability is a real toss-up in this price range -- you get what you pay for in this category, and the Taylor Gourmet Digital Cooking Thermometer's probe cables are coated with plastic -- but when this thermometer works owners love it, and Taylor's customer service seems proactive about reaching out to customers who've had problems.
The Taylor Gourmet Digital Cooking Thermometer also placed near the top of a comparative test of 22 thermometers conducted by the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. "Depend on this model for a high degree of accuracy," they write.
The Taylor thermometer's high-temperature alarm and countdown timer are simple and easy to use and, like the other thermometers in this category, it has a magnet on the back. The probes will last longer if you follow the manufacturer's directions to carefully dry the sensor plug every time before you plug it in, and make sure to keep water away from the plug and the wires when you clean the sensor.