When I cook for my family and entertain friends, I yearn to serve them only the most tender roasts, moist chicken breasts and succulent turkey. However, sometimes cooking the meat to perfection is truly a guessing game, played either by taking the meat out of the oven when the arbitrary timer buzzes, or cutting into it to determine if it is “done.” After researching thermometers (and purchasing both dial and candy thermometers for myself!), I am finished speculating. I can now confidently cook for my loved ones, thanks to this tool that is essential to any well-stocked kitchen.
DIAL THERMOMETER: Temperature gauges with a probe and dial contain an inner coil that expands when heated in order to give an accurate reading. These thermometers can be either oven-safe—meaning they can be placed into the meat while it’s cooking—or instant-read, to be used for checking the internal temperature once the food is done and out of the oven.
This is an important distinction; be sure to check the packaging and/or instructions to see which kind of gauge you have. Using an instant-read thermometer in the oven will only result in a melted thermometer and a ruined meal, so be sure to check which type of thermometer you have purchased.
Dial thermometers are best used in roasts and thicker cuts of meat, as well as with soups and casseroles. These models are inexpensive, and can be purchased for around $10.
DIGITAL THERMOMETER: Like the dial thermometer, digital thermometers also have a probe, yet the temperature is read on a digital display. Because this display isn’t meant to withstand high temperatures, these thermometers are intended to be used once the food comes out of the oven. They’re great for a quick reading, and generally cost between $15 and $20.
THERMOMETER-FORK COMBINATION: Combination units are convenient for checking the temperature of food near the end of cooking time, especially when grilling. The tines of the fork need to be inserted at least 1/4-inch deep into the food, and the reading appears in the handle of digital models within a few seconds. The combination thermometer retails for about $25, and is a great way to obtain a temperature reading while providing a convenient way to move the food onto a platter immediately after cooking.
OVEN PROBE WITH CORD: These models are useful because the instrument stays in the food during cooking while the base unit sits on the counter, which eliminates opening and closing the oven to check for doneness. The oven probe is designed to gauge the temperature of just about any cuisine that is cooked in the oven. Some units include a digital display, and can be set to alert the cook when the desired temperature is reached. A quality oven probe can be purchased for around $50.
DISPOSABLE THERMOMETERS: These single-use devices are designed for specific temperature ranges, and they should only be used on the type of meat for which they are intended. The probe contains a material that changes color to indicate the specific temperature of the meat, and they usually cost around $3 for 10 disposable probes.
POP-UP THERMOMETERS: Commonly found in poultry, pop-up thermometers can also be purchased for other types of meat. These gauges have a piece that “pops” out to let you know when the meat has reached its ideal temperature, and each device is specific for a certain type of meat. These are for one-time-only use, and are often found in multipacks that average 25 cents for each thermometer.
CANDY THERMOMETERS: Thermometers designed for candy generally have a metal hook that attaches the device to the side of the pot, which keeps it from touching the hot metal of the cookware. Candy thermometers generally have a traditional liquid gauge that rises as the candy is heated, and they are meant to withstand much higher temperatures (up to 400 degrees) than meat thermometers. These bulb candy thermometers average around $15. Digital models are also available for about $25.
THERMOMETER HINTS: Determine whether the thermometer you are using is oven-safe or not. It is also helpful to calibrate your thermometer to make sure it is registering the right temperature. Some devices are self-calibrating, and others can be placed in ice water (32 degrees) or boiling water (212 degrees) to see if they are measuring the correct temperature. When dealing with large cuts of meat, be sure to insert the gauge into the thickest part of the meat without hitting any bones; thin cuts of meat need to be measured by sticking the thermometer into the side to get the most accurate reading.
A common cooking problem is either over- or undercooked foods, especially meats; a reliable temperature gauge can help you cook that meat perfectly every time. A thermometer can also help ensure that your food has reached a safe temperature to prevent consumption of harmful bacteria.
Recommended safe cooking temperatures include:
• Pork: 160 degrees
• Poultry: 165 degrees
• Turkey: 170 degrees
• Beef/Lamb/Veal: 145 degrees (medium rare), 160 degrees (medium), and 170 degrees (well done)
• Casseroles: 165 degrees
A thermometer is an indispensable tool for any cook—seasoned or novice. So whether you are making your family’s favorite toffee recipe or preparing a roast for a lazy Sunday afternoon, be sure to have a thermometer handy to ensure perfection every time.