How to Choose a Food Thermometer

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Reviewed by Sharon Denny, MS, RDN

Food thermometers are a useful and necessary tool in the kitchen. Using a food thermometer is the only reliable way to be sure that food is cooked to the desired and safe level of doneness. Always use a food thermometer when you cook poultry, meat and egg dishes, or when reheating leftovers.

When it comes to choosing a food thermometer, there are quite a few options:

  • Dial oven-safe
  • Digital instant-read
  • Thermometer-fork
  • Dial instant read
  • Thermocouple
  • Disposable temperature indicators (single-use)
  • Pop-up
  • Oven probe with cord

With so many to choose from, it can be hard to know which thermometer will best serve your needs. When choosing a food thermometer, consider what you will be cooking and read the instruction manual before use:

For thick foods such as roasts or hams, dial thermometers are best. Dial thermometers are designed for food that is at least 3 inches thick, and should not be used for thinner food. They can also be used for soups and stews. Some models can be left in throughout cooking, but first read the instructions to make sure the thermometer is oven-safe.

For thin foods such as hamburgers or chicken breasts, digital instant-read or thermocouple thermometers work best. A thermocouple boasts both the fastest read time (2 to 5 seconds) and the highest price tag. Both have the added convenience of a digital display, but cannot be left in while cooking.

If you're looking for versatility, an oven probe thermometer with cord should suit most of your cooking needs. It can be used for thick and thin food and in the oven or on the stove top. With an oven-safe cord, you don't need to open and close the oven to check your food's temperature.

For fans of cooking in the great outdoors, a thermometer-fork is the device for you. While some grill masters pride themselves on their ability to tell doneness by color or firmness, a food thermometer is the only way to ensure food has been cooked to the proper temperature. This multitasking thermometer gives quick readings and is good for checking doneness near the end of cooking time.

Most food thermometers have a 2 to 4 degree (Fahrenheit) margin of error. This margin can increase if the thermometer is not placed in the correct location. This can result in undercooked and unsafe food. In general, the thermometer should always be placed in the thickest part of the food to determine doneness. When cooking meat be sure to steer clear of the bones, fat and gristle. For egg dishes, dishes containing meat, or irregularly shaped food, the temperature should be checked in multiple locations before determining that the dish is done. See this chart for proper food temperatures.

A food thermometer's life span depends on use and the manufacturer. If you're concerned that your thermometer may be inaccurate you can test its accuracy using either the ice water or boiling water method. To ensure food safety you should replace an inaccurate thermometer.

Finally, as with any cooking utensil, wash food thermometers in hot soapy water after every use. And be sure to store your food thermometer properly. Thermometer probes are sharp and should be stored in the stem sheath.

Watch this video to learn more about using a food thermometer.

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