A Short Guide to Food Thermometers

Reviewed by Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD
Short Guide to Food Thermometers

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You can't tell if a food is safely cooked by sight, smell or even taste. A food thermometer is the only way to ensure food is cooked to the proper temperature and harmful bacteria are eliminated.

A food thermometer is not needed just for meat and poultry. A safe minimum internal temperature must be reached to avoid food poisoning in all cooked foods. The "danger zone" for perishable foods is between 40° and 140° Fahrenheit. Perishable foods are no longer safe to eat if they have been in this danger zone for more than two hours (one hour in 90° Fahrenheit or above). A food thermometer also is needed after food is cooked to ensure the temperature doesn't fall into the danger zone. This is especially important for buffet and potluck-style gatherings.

Choosing a Food Thermometer

Stores carry a wide variety of food thermometers. Pick the type best for you and remember to use it every time you cook:

  • Dial oven-safe thermometers remain in place as the food cooks. Insert two to two and a half inches deep into the thickest part of the food and read in one to two minutes. Use this type of thermometer for roasts, casseroles and soups. They are not good for thin foods.
  • Digital instant-read thermometers stay in food while it is cooking. Insert the stem into the food about a half inch deep and wait 10 seconds to read the temperature. Good for measuring the temperature in thin and thick foods, such as shallow-tray frozen dinners.
  • Dial instant-read thermometers cannot stay in the food while cooking. Place the stem about two to two and a half inches deep in the thickest part of the food. Wait 15 to 20 seconds to read the temperature. Used in roasts, casseroles and soups, and inserted sideways in thin dishes.
  • Pop-up thermometers may be in poultry when you purchase the bird. These thermometers pop up when the food reaches the final temperature for safety and doneness. Always verify the meat is done though with a conventional thermometer.
  • Thermometer-fork combination thermometers are convenient for grilling and read in two to 10 seconds. Place at least a fourth of an inch deep in the thickest part of the food, with the sensor in the fork fully inserted.
  • Microwave-safe thermometers are now available designed for microwave ovens only.
  • Disposable temperature indicatorsare meant for one-time use. And, for specific temperature ranges. For example, safe temps for burgers or chicken. They are made from temperature-sensitive materials. Read in five to 10 seconds when the material changes color.

How to Use a Food Thermometer

Before using a food thermometer, read the manufacturer's instructions. Read about how far to insert the thermometer in a food to get an accurate reading.  Follow these simple steps to ensure you are correctly using a food thermometer: Tweet this

  • Step 1: Test it. Use either ice water or boiling water to confirm your food thermometer is accurate.
  • Step 2: Calibrate it. Read the instructions about how to adjust the thermometer, as needed, to ensure you get an accurate reading.
  • Step 3: Place it properly. Placement is very important to get an accurate reading. Place the food thermometer in the thickest part of the food, making sure not to touch bone, fat or gristle.
  • Step 4: Don’t rush it. Wait the recommended amount of time for your type of thermometer. For meat products including raw beef, pork, lamb, veal steaks, chops and roasts, use the food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.
  • Step 5: Take care of it. Clean your food thermometer with hot, soapy water after each use. This prevents cross-contamination and the spread of harmful bacteria.

Correct Food Thermometer Placement

Place the food thermometer in the thickest part of the food. It should not touch bone, fat or gristle. Begin checking the temperature toward the end of cooking, but before the food is expected to be "done." Note that for safety and quality, meat must rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.

Food

Thermometer Placement

Beef, Pork or Lamb Roasts


Insert in center of the thickest part, away from bone, fat and gristle.

Hamburgers, Steaks or Chops

Insert in the thickest part, away from bone, fat and gristle.

Whole Poultry


Insert in thickest part of thigh, avoiding bone.

Whole Turkey

Insert in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest area, avoiding bone.

Poultry Parts


Insert in the thickest area, avoiding bone.

Ground Meat and Poultry

Insert in the thickest area of meatloaf or patty; with thin patties, insert sideways reaching the very center with the stem.

Egg Dishes and Casseroles


Insert in center or thickest area of the dish.

Fish

Insert in the thickest part of fish when fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.

Game Animals


Insert in center of the thickest part, away from bone, fat and gristle.

Game Birds

Insert in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.


Using a food thermometer is only half the equation. Be sure to cook foods to the safe internal temperature.

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