Plus, find out what types of thermometers are best.

By Amy Sherman
December 03, 2020
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Cooking not only makes food more delicious, but it also makes it more digestible and destroys microbes including harmful bacteria, fungi, and viruses. When it comes to cooking meat, poultry, and seafood, there are specific guidelines set by the U.S.D.A. that specify the safe minimum internal temperatures. Using a meat thermometer means you can check the internal temperature of your proteins, ensuring they have been properly, perfectly, and safely cooked every single time. Without a thermometer, we can't accurately judge temperature.

Thermapen thermomter inserted into meat on a grill
Credit: Courtesy of Thermoworks

There are really just four temperatures you need to know when it comes to cooking meat. USDA inspected fully cooked ham needs to reach 140°F; fish, seafood, beef, pork, veal, and lamb need to reach 145°F; ground meat should be cooked to 160°F; and all poultry, including ground poultry, needs to reach 165°F. Those are instant read temperatures. With carryover heat, you may be able to remove the item from the oven when the temperature reaches a lower reading, as long as it stays at that temperature for a specific period of time or rises to the proper temperature.

There are several different types of thermometers that can be used to check the temperature of meat—old-fashioned analog dial thermometers as well as digital thermometers. Another style of thermometer, the nifty looking infrared "gun" style thermometer, is good for measuring external temperatures only, so save it for assessing the surface temperature of your grill or griddle.

Analog Dial Thermometers

There is just one advantage to the dial thermometer when it comes to checking the temperature of meat, says Tim Robinson, vice president of marketing at ThermoWorks: They are very inexpensive. With that being said, they're also not terribly accurate. "They are very slow and can take 15 to 20 seconds to work," says Robinson. "They experience hysteresis, which means that the act of measuring changes the temperature. They provide poor accuracy and speed and fall out of calibration easily." The only way you might want to use this style of thermometer is leaving it in a large piece of meat such as a roast or a turkey during cooking.

If you need an analog thermometer, try OXO Good Grips Chef's Precision Analog Leave In Meat Thermometer ($15.99, oxo.com). It's a good option thanks to a large face and a visual guide for proper insertion depth.

Digital Thermometers

When looking at digital thermometers, look for features such as large rotating backlit displays that work for those who are right or left handed, a motion sensor so it turns off when it's not in use, and the ability to calibrate. Robinson explains that there are actually two kinds of digital thermometers—a thermistor and a thermocouple. A thermistor is a combination of "thermal" and "resistor" and uses a glass bead and a resistor to measure electrical resistance. Says Robinson, "The sensor side is 1/8th inch to 1/16 inch, much smaller than a whole inch needed for the dial style thermometer and it's much faster and more durable than a dial thermometer." You'll get a reading after three to four seconds on an "instant read" digital thermometer, but keep in mind that they cannot be left in meat during cooking. The ThermoPro TP19H Waterproof Digital Meat Thermometer is a well-priced option ($18.99, amazon.com).

The thermocouple measures changes in electrical resistance and is considered more accurate than the thermistor. Explains Robinson, "The thermocouple measures the flow of electrons so you can see real time temperature changes." This means that you get a quicker read and a wider range of temperatures. It's more accurate, but also the most expensive option. The ThermoWorks Thermapen Mk4 ($99, thermoworks.com), which gives full readings in about two seconds, is consistently the most highly rated. Another top pick using the thermocouple technology is the Lavatools Javelin PRO Duo ($69, amazon.com).

For the most whistles and bells, check out the BlueDOT® Alarm Thermometer with Bluetooth® Wireless Technology ($55.20, thermoworks.com). It offers a wireless connection to your smart phone with the ability to set an alarm and to track and graph max/min temperatures.

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