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How to Properly Use a Meat Thermometer for Perfectly Cooked Meals

Plus how to decide between a probe, dial or digital pick.

how to use a meat thermometer
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Using a meat thermometer is a helpful way to make sure your pricey steak or Thanksgiving turkey doesn’t come out a dry, tough mess. It ensures you’re cooking food to a safe temperature, which is especially important when you're cooking poultry; undercooked chicken can cause illnesses including Salmonella.

How does a meat thermometer work? Simply: Most have a probe that's inserted into the food and a readout that shows the internal temperature. “I rely on meat thermometers to avoid over- or undercooking my food,” says Nicole Papantoniou, director of the Good Housekeeping Institute’s Kitchen Appliances and Culinary Innovation Lab.

When should you use a meat thermometer?

You may think of a meat thermometer solely as the tool to use when making a roast in the oven, but it can also help you with barbecue on the grill or fried chicken in the deep fryer. (Though when probing food from a deep fryer, always remove the food from the oil first and transfer to a safe surface where it won't risk falling back into the vat and causing potential burns.)

As far as when you should insert a thermometer in the cooking process, "it should be toward the end of cooking," says Papantoniou. "If you're using a recipe, start checking about 10 minutes before the cook time expires."

What type of meat thermometer is best?

The best meat thermometers, whether digital or analog models, are fast and accurate and have a thin enough probe to not damage the meat. But they fall into two general categories:

Instant-read thermometers

These come in an assortment of styles and are inserted near the end of cooking to check the internal temperature in one or more places on the meat.

  • Thermocouples have a very thin tip that can easily poke meats whether the cut is thick or thin. They are quick and known to be the most accurate, but they’re more expensive than other types and can’t be left in during cooking, so they’re better for keeping track of a steak than for, say, roasting a leg of lamb or a turkey. They are the best thermometers for using on food when cooking in a deep fryer, grill, or other hot-and-fast techniques, so you can get a quick reading without cooking your hands in the process.
  • Digital instant-read thermometers have a quick response time (though not as fast as the thermocouples) but are more reasonably priced. They generally can’t be left in the food while it’s cooking, but some do come with a corded probe that can be left in while the thermometer stays outside. Some models also have functions to warn when the meat reaches a pre-set temperature and connected apps that send a message to your phone when it’s time to go outside and check the grill. These are great for grilling, cooking on the stove, or in the oven.
  • Analog meat thermometers are sold less commonly now, but they might be lurking in your kitchen. They work the same way as digital thermometers (insert the probe into the thickest part of your meat), but it takes longer for the watch-like face to reflect the internal temperature.

    Leave-in thermometers

    These are inserted before cooking and left in place in the oven or on the grill; they track the internal temperature over the cook time, generally in the thickest part of the meat.

    • Traditional digital probe thermometers are oven safe and monitor the temperature of the food throughout cooking. The probe that goes into the meat is connected by a wire to a base that sits outside the oven and reflects the temperature as the meat cooks. These thermometers may include timers that can be set for time or target temperature, making them very cook-friendly.
    • Wireless digital probe thermometers are “smart” versions of the digital probe thermometer that are safe to go in the oven but relay temperature info to an app via Bluetooth. Many apps let you set the cook time and doneness preference for the meat you’re cooking. Our pros like the Meater thermometer, which also guesstimates your total cook time.
    • Dial thermometers are leave-in thermometers that can often stay in the food while it cooks. They can be more difficult to read than digital thermometers and take longer to reach the temperature, but they are better for large cuts of meat like hams, turkeys and other traditional roasts like meatloaf, since they can be left in during cooking (always check the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure, even still).
    • Disposable thermometers are single-use thermometers that change color or pop up when food reaches temperature. These are good if you’re grilling away from home and don’t want to deal with extra kitchen gizmos, or are cooking a big spread for a special occasion and want to avoid cross-contamination.

      grilled kobe beef fresh from the grill with meat thermometer still in it
      Warren_PriceGetty Images

      What's the proper way to use a meat thermometer?

      Here are a few steps you need to keep in mind:

      1. Insert it into the right spot: Make sure to insert the probe into meat, not hitting bone or gristle. The USDA provides info on where to place the food thermometer to help you pick the right spot for each kind of food and to make sure you reach a safe temperature. For starters:
      ✔️ To use a meat thermometer for chicken, pierce the thigh, avoiding the bone, and the thickest part of the breast to get the best reading.
      ✔️ To use a meat thermometer for meats such as ribs, or a rack of lamb, check in the center portion, away from bones or gristle.

          2. Get it to the right depth: Thermocouples only need to reach ¼-inch deep to get a reading, which is what makes them better for thin cuts of meat, like cutlets. Digital instant-read thermometers go in to about ½-inch deep. Dial thermometers go deep, two inches to 2½ inches, so they are better for thick cuts of meat and large roasts like ham, pork shoulder and turkey.

          3. Don’t wait until the food hits temperature: Carryover heat is your kitchen assistant; take the food off the heat before it reaches the target internal temperature, about five to 10 degrees lower, then let it rest for at least 10 minutes. “This will allow the steak to very gently finish cooking and prevent all of its juices from running out and drying out the meat,” says Papantoniou. "It also makes for less messy carving.” To that end, don’t keep poking the thermometer into the meat, which will drain out the juices.

          Do you need to calibrate a meat thermometer?

          Only if you know your thermometer is off. If you suspect it is, test your meat thermometer by holding it in a glass of ice water for 30 seconds (1 to 2 minutes if it’s a dial thermometer) without touching the sides or bottom. If it reads 32ºF, it’s working correctly. If not, you can adjust it using the manufacturer's instructions, or just factor in the difference when you’re cooking.

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