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If every piece of meat you cook ends up too tough to eat or completely raw, it’s probably time to invest in a meat thermometer.
Since I’ve started using one in my own cooking, my meat has begun to consistently turn out perfect. Whether I’ve used a cheaper option or the most technologically sophisticated thermometer I could get my hands on, this kitchen tool has taken all the guesswork out of preparing meat. I no longer need need to press a steak with finger to see if it’s cooked enough, and I never end up with overdone pork chops or chicken. If I’m wondering is something or ready or not, I just pop the thermometer into the right spot and immediately know how much more time my food needs over heat.
Before you do invest in one, though, you’ll want to take a look at some of your options. The most rudimentary thermometers out there don’t cost a lot, but they’ll only give you the most basic temperature readings, and sometimes not very well. If you’re willing to spend just a bit more on a more advanced thermometer, it’ll work faster and more efficiently, and you can use it in so many more cooking projects that go way beyond meat.
These are your best options if you’re looking to add a meat thermometer to your kitchen tool collection. Plus, how to use them for the most accurate temperature readings, whether you’re cooking meat or something else.
Bimetallic thermometers usually cost under $20, and in most cases you can find them right at the supermarket. They tend to be in large supply around Thanksgiving, when everyone’s desperate to take the temperature of their turkey. In my experience, they’re cheap for a reason: They break really easily and frequently de-calibrate on their own, so when you try to use them again, the temperature readings are totally off. (Most thermometers are sold with manuals that will tell you how to recalibrate it, but it’s a pain to do again and again). It’s also really slow at actually taking the temperature, which is annoying when you’re trying to get in and out of the oven quickly.
You also can’t use bimetallic thermometers on food that’s less than three inches thick, because the temperature sensing coil within the thermometer is two and a half inches long, and it will not accurately detect the temperature unless it’s fully submerged, according to the USDA.
If you’re interested in a bimetallic thermometer, you can buy one for $6 on Amazon.
Instant-read or probe thermometers
Unlike bimetallic thermometers, both instant read and probe thermometers are powered by electricity, so they will take the temperature way, way faster. And they’re both less fragile, too.
One big pro to a probe thermometer is that you can actually leave it in the meat as it cooks, so you’ll get live temperature readings throughout the process. One thing to keep in mind, though: All that exposure to heat will eventually wear down the cable and can cause it to break, and it can’t be re-calibrated like the others can. So while it may be great for larger, time-sensitive projects (like roasting a turkey) it’s maybe not the best for everyday temperature-taking.
On the other hand, instant-read thermometers do exactly what they promise: They take the temperature instantly. You’ll have to replace the battery every now and then, but in general, they last longer and give more accurate readings than your other options.
Some of the instant-read thermometers out there are really pricey, but you don’t have to spend a lot to get a good one. And you can also use it for a bunch of other fun projects besides meat to get your money’s worth. For example, you can also use it to precisely temper chocolate, make perfectly chewy candy, and whip up a batch of homemade yogurt.
How to test for accuracy
If you think your meat thermometer needs to be re-calibrated, here’s how you can know for sure: Stick the thermometer into both boiling and ice water—it should read 212 degrees F in boiling and 32 degrees F in ice, and if it doesn’t, then you’ll know you have a problem. If the temperature reading is off, check the instruction manual or the brand’s website for information on how you can recalibrate it.
How to take a proper temperature reading
No matter what kind of meat you’re cooking, stick your thermometer into its deepest spot to get the most accurate temperature reading—at least 1/2-inch deep. You want to make sure the entire thing is cooked, not just the exterior. When it comes to things like poultry, be sure to avoid touching any bones, fat, or gristle, as those parts can skew the results.
You’ll know any poultry is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F; beef, veal, pork, and lamb will be ready to go at 145 degrees F.
Pro tip: Stop cooking the meat when it’s 5 degrees away from the desired temperature. (I’ve made this mistake too many times.) Residual heat will cause meat to continue to cook, which means it might actually overcook while it’s resting.
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