Understanding cooking thermometers

In all of the posts we’ve written about meat, we’ve talked about cooking the meat to a specific temperature. When I first started cooking, I thought only professional chefs took the temperature of what they were making. It wasn’t until I bought a thermometer to use with my smoker that I realized it was a great tool for all cooks — especially beginners.

A thermometer reduces the risk that you will overcook or undercook meat. I like to think of it as idiot-proofing my cooking. In fact, it kind of feels like cheating.

Some meats you want to cook to higher temperatures on purpose — a pork shoulder slowly smoked to 195º F falls apart and melts in your mouth, even though it was safe to eat at 160º F. Conversely, if you fry a pork chop on the stove to 195º F, you’ll have the equivalent of an inedible rubber Frisbee on your hands. Following recipes and cooking to the suggested temperature can really improve your cooking.

There are two types of cooking thermometers:

Leave-in thermometers

Instant-read thermometers

I recommend having both. The leave-in thermometer is appropriate for when you’re roasting meat in the oven, and the instant-read thermometer is best for testing temperatures of stove-top cooked items. Leave-in thermometers you can set for the recommended temperature and most models will even beep when the temperature is reached — like I said, it feels like cheating. And, instant-read thermometers are great because they are the size of a pen and just as convenient to use.

Read the instructions on the thermometers to learn how to gauge the most accurate temperatures. Usually, you will want to take the temperature at the center of the thickest part of the meat, and you don’t want the thermometer to be touching any bones to get an accurate read.

You might also benefit from having a thermometer for measuring liquids in your collection:

I suggest getting one with a clip on it so you can easily attach it to the side of your pot when deep-fat frying, making candy, or whatever it is you’re doing with liquids and need an accurate temperature reading.

If you’re really into thermometers, you can also get ones to test the accuracy of your oven and your refrigerator. You may be surprised by how inaccurate the internal thermometer on your appliance really is. Also, I think the laser thermometers that check surface temperatures are really cool … although, I’ve never actually used mine for cooking. I mostly use it to test the temperature of the sidewalk in the summer, because I’m weird.

11 comments posted

  1. Posted by Meg - 01/13/2011

    As a vegan, I can say that these still come in VERY handy for things other than meat :D

    My husband checks the temperature when he’s heating oil for his deep-friend seitan — too hot or cold and the batter doesn’t cling and crisp just right when frying. We also use it to check the temperature of water when we’re making a big pot of tea. It makes a big difference!

    Finding out the right temps for things can be a lot of trial and error at first, but once you know the number it does feel a bit like cheating!

  2. Posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown - 01/13/2011

    While we’re talking about thermometers – you should have one in your fridge to ensure the temperature stays between 0˚C – 4˚C (32˚F – 39˚F) It keeps food fresher, longer and reduces the growth of many foodborne pathogens (eg. Listeria).

    Keeping a thermometer in your freezer will ensure you keep food fresher longer too. Freezer temperatures should be -18˚C (0˚F).

  3. Posted by Don - 01/13/2011

    I’m disappointed you didn’t mention at all how critical thermometers are for use in cooking to prevent pathogens. Doug Powell at KSU’s grody-named BarfBlog harps on this all the time. Whether it be meat or anything else, getting it up to the temp where the ickies are killed is important.

  4. Posted by Meg - 01/13/2011

    @Don

    “Whether it be meat or anything else, getting it up to the temp where the ickies are killed is important.”

    Well, hardly “anything else”! One of the things that I love about being a vegan is that so many of the foods I eat can be eaten raw without any particular worry. (And when there are pathogens, it’s almost always from contamination by pathogens that originated in animal products that shared the same factory/store/farm/restaurant.) But since my husband and I are both vegan, no separate cutting boards or having to Lysol the counter tops, either, or worrying that a slightly undercooked veggie is going to kill us. Now THAT really simplifies things :D

    But yes, if you are going to eat meat, for your own sake and the sake of those you are serving, PLEASE don’t under cook — especially hamburgers or other ground up meat.

  5. Posted by Erin Doland - 01/13/2011

    @Meg — Not that it’s extremely relevant, but you should know Don and I are friends in the real world and he thinks it is funny to begin EVERY comment stating his disappointment in me. He thinks he’s funny ;)

    @Don — I love the barf blog. We actually have a food safety post on the schedule for next week.

  6. Posted by Meg - 01/13/2011

    @Erin

    Well, then I hope you are good friends ;)

    And obviously he’s not too disappointed if he keeps hanging around.

  7. Posted by Nicky at Not My Mother - 01/13/2011

    The oven-temp thermometers are so useful. When we moved into our current house the previous owner told us that the oven heats up to 50*C more than you set (um about 90F). I’m so glad they told us that!

    So I bought an oven thermometer for less than $10 and sure enough she was right – but I also discovered that the temperature varied wildly during cooking, after initial heating, opening the door etc. Very useful to know. I’m getting a fridge/freezer one soon to do some checking there too.

  8. Posted by Josh - 01/14/2011

    It might also be worth noting that no thermometer is truly ‘instant-read’. It takes a number of seconds for the probe to heat up to the same temperature as the food item, which can be the difference between a medium steak and an overcooked one. Those with thinner probes are generally much quicker.

  9. Posted by Malcolm - 01/14/2011

    We (wife and I) both cook a lot, and even though we have both been cooking meat for decades, and we know our oven well, we still often use a meat thermometer, particularly when cooking something a bit unusual (large Christmas ham, for example). It just takes the guesswork out of it and we can get a perfect result no matter what.
    I also have a laser surface temp thermometer, which is used for my pizza oven (yes it is MINE, I built it from scratch!) because every fire in the oven behaves a little bit differently – that thermometer is essential.

  10. Posted by Julia - 01/17/2011

    Ok, as an avid Unclutterer fan, I’m a bit disappointed in this one. You’re recommending three devices that all do the same thing!

    Please answer:
    If you could only have one, which one would it be?

  11. Posted by Erin Doland - 01/18/2011

    @Julia — An unclutterer gets rid of distractions that get in the way of the life they desire. I find cooking thermometers useful and helpful, not distracting. Therefore, I don’t have issue with owning three (I actually own six … all of the ones mentioned in the article plus one for beverages). Wait, seven, I have one in my freezer.

    If I only had to pick one, I’d go with the instant read. It’s not helpful with baking, though, because you have to open the oven and remove the food or keep the oven door open while it takes a reading. You also wouldn’t put the instant read in the oven to see how accurate your oven baking temperature is. However, it’s the one that can successfully gauge the temperature of the food you have cooked to prevent you from getting ill.

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