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:

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.

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