What the best meat thermometer has

  • Easy operation. Monitoring the temperature of cooking meat should not take time away from preparing other dishes.
  • Splash-proof seals. Kitchen utensils often get wet, especially during cleanup; this should not harm the operation of the thermometer.
  • Wide temperature range. The high end of a meat thermometer's range should measure barbecues and open-flame cooking, while the low end helps you calibrate and indicates if food is chilled to the right temperature for storage.
  • Lithium-ion batteries. Coin-type batteries will need to be replaced less often than AA or AAA batteries.
  • Long probes. A long probe gives you plenty of leeway to insert and extract it without putting your hand too close to roasting meat and, in wired models, lessens the chance that wires will be pulled and damage the connection to the monitor.
  • Speedy reading times. Instant-read thermometers are not really "instant." With the exception of a select few models, it usually takes 10 to 20 seconds for instant-reads to pinpoint a temperature.
  • Warranty. Even the best-selling meat thermometers on the market today occasionally have trouble with inaccurate or inconsistent readings after many uses.

Know before you go

How often do you cook meat or bake bread? Some cooks use their meat thermometers several times a week; others only need them for special occasions. Buying an expensive digital model might not be the right choice if you're a casual cook.

Do you barbecue? Most barbecue experts say they like having two digital meat thermometers on hand. The main one, with wired probes or possibly a wireless model like the Brookstone Grill Alert, monitors the ongoing temperature of a large, slow-cooking entrée. The second, an instant read model, is for checking the doneness of smaller things like individual steaks, hamburger patties or chicken.

Do you have many distractions in the kitchen? If you multi-task while cooking, you may need a meat thermometer with built-in alarms and timers to remind you to check the meat.

Do you need a thermometer for a variety of tasks? Folding-probe or stick-model instant-read meat thermometers are quite versatile. In addition to checking the temperature of meats, they can be used in baking bread, brewing beer, proofing yeast, canning vegetables, preparing coffee and even making candy (although there are specialty thermometers for these uses as well).

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

More expensive instant-read meat thermometers on the market may be worth the higher price tag as they prove more durable and are backed by better after-sales service. The temperature sensors and digital displays of most meat thermometers are delicate, and on cheaper models, costs associated with replacement due to malfunction should be considered. Even top-tier oven-safe and wireless thermometers still have durability issues with temperature probes, and these are typically not covered by warranty, so frequent roasters and grillers may need to buy one or two replacement probes each year.

Buying tactics and strategies

Check online sales. Most meat thermometers we review in this report are sold online with occasional hefty discounts. ThermoWorks offers deals right on its website, while others may be cheaper on Amazon.com or retail sites like CrateandBarrel.com.

Look for bundles. Occasionally, at the beginning of barbecue season or before Thanksgiving, meat thermometers may be sold with cookbooks or other useful kitchen and barbecuing tools, like grill brushes.

Shop around for better warranties. Some online retailers offer better warranties and return policies than the manufacturer.

What's to come

Consumers are becoming more demanding when it comes to the speediness of accurate readings from instant-read thermometers. While most models on the market take 10 to 30 seconds to pinpoint the level of heat, super-fast products like the ThermoWorks Thermapen and CDN ProAccurate DTQ450X boast only three and six seconds respectively. As interest in cooking as a hobby continues to grow, manufacturers will likely offer truly "instant" thermometers in the future. Additionally, faster thermometers are generally more versatile, making them an attractive purchase for occasional cooks who also homebrew, bake or do crafts requiring temperature monitoring. However, appreciation for slow-cooked meats requiring more precise temperature readings and timing means the instant-read style will not replace feature-packed oven-safe or wireless thermometers.

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