Why You Need an Instant-Read Kitchen Thermometer

Digital Kitchen Thermometer

An instant-read thermometer might seem like one of those kitchen gadgets you don’t really need. Most of us cook by the seat of our pants anyhow, right? Maybe it seems a little too “cheffy?” But I think you’ll find that if you get one, even a basic $12 model like I have pictured above, you’ll use it a lot, and it will increase your confidence in a wide range of kitchen tasks. See below for reasons you might want to get an even better one.

Here are some of the things I use an instant-read thermometer for:

  • Checking to see if oven-baked food like lasagna is hot enough to serve (160 F is great; 140 F will do if you are in a hurry)
  • Making sure custard isn’t overcooked (if you get to 185 F the egg proteins will get very tough)
  • Food safety 101 – if you are going to keep something perishable out of the refrigerator for an extended period of time it must be below 40 F or above 140 F
  • Food safety 102 – make sure anything with egg yolks reaches at least 160 F to kill salmonella (especially if it will be served to the young, old, or immunocompromised)
  • Checking refrigerator temperature – just stick it in your soymilk or pickle jar for a second. Try it on a few shelves, you might be surprised at the variation.
  • Oil temperature for deep frying
  • Sugar temperature for candy
  • Bread is done at about 205 F (no more knocking on the loaf and listening for a hollow sound); quickbreads around 195 F

As to which one you should buy, I have the Taylor 9842 pictured above. I’ve used it for years with no problems at all. I had to replace the battery once, and recalibrate it maybe once a year. You should understand that with this model, as well as the other inexpensive ones I’ve seen, “instant read” is a bit generous. It takes maybe 10 or 12 seconds to stabilize a reading, and with all of our Internet-modified attention spans, that doesn’t exactly seem instant anymore.

Update, 10/18/2012

I had originally mentioned that there is a more expensive Thermapen model that many people seem to like, but that I hadn’t tried it. A few commenters said they loved theirs, and then Jesse who works for Thermoworks offered to send me one. It arrived yesterday and I spent a little while playing with it and comparing to the Taylor. There is no doubt, it gets to a reliable reading much quicker than the Taylor. It really does get within 1 degree of the final temp in just 3 seconds – a substantial advantage when you need to test the same custard or candy multiple times.

You’ll love the owner’s manual – you can tell right away these guys are temperature geeks, passionate about helping you get your food safe and delicious. Exactly the kind kind of people I like to work with.

I tried the Thermapen on a carefully made ice bath and boiling water, and it literally nailed 0 degrees C and 100 degrees C. I had recalibrated the Taylor and it was hitting 0 accurately, but reading 101.5 C for the boiling water. So the thermapen is both quicker and more accurate.

My only nitpick: you can choose between Celsius and Fahrenheit, but only by setting a switch in the battery compartment. I have some temps in my head in C and some in F – e.g. I remember food safety in F (40 – 140 being the danger zone), and others, like egg and sous vides done-ness in C (62 C soft-boiled eggs are awesome). So I wish the Thermapen offered an external switch. But overall I think it is clearly a much better tool and worth the additional money.

I wouldn’t especially recommend the infrared models where you just point the thermometer at the food to get a reading. Those only read surface temperatures, and for most uses that I’m interested in, I need to know what is going on in the interior.

What do you think? Do you use an instant-read thermometer? If so, tell us which model you have and why you do or don’t love it. And if not, why not?

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Friday, October 12th, 2012 in Kitchen Utensils, My Kitchen.

16 Responses to “Why You Need an Instant-Read Kitchen Thermometer”

  1. October 12, 2012 at 7:29 am #

    I have the thermapen and I love it :-)

  2. October 12, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    You say you’ve never had the pleasure of using a Thermapen. Let’s change that! Get in touch with me and I’ll send you one to demo.

    Cheers,

    Jesse Black
    jesse@thermoworks.com
    801.756.7705

    • October 12, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      I’ll drop you a note; looking forward to trying it.

    • October 18, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

      Jesse, I received the Thermapen and already love it. I’ve added a big update above. Thanks for sending it!

  3. georgia ashby
    October 12, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    I have a question about your “waiting for the temp to stabilize” comment. I’ve never been sure whether the temp that appears at first is correct, or should I continue to watch as it keeps going higher (which is usually way higher than I actually intended!). I’ve never seen anything about waiting to stabilize. (My gadget is from Polar and 10 years old.) Thanks.

    • October 12, 2012 at 9:51 am #

      The final temperature, when it stabilizes, is the accurate temperature. So if it is way higher than you intended, it is overcooked :). Also, if you’ve had it for ten years and never recalibrated it, you are way overdue – check the manual (which you can probably find online) for the proper steps.

  4. October 12, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    I have the infrared point and shoot thermometer. But, as you mentioned, I only use it to take surface temperatures of pans (and pressure cookers) -not particularly good with reflective materials like stainless steel.But they are handy for taking temperature of something in the oven or refrigerator.

    They infrared are tons of fun when you first get them – especially for zapping you kid’s foreheads floor, door, animals running across the yard….

    You get the idea. More a toy than a tool ; )

    Ciao,

    L

    • October 12, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

      Another vote for using infrared thermometers on pans. Especially something like a cast-iron skillet where it takes some time to warm up, you can be sure the pan is hot enough before adding your ingredients. Especially when I just moved to an apartment with an electric range, I found myself using it constantly before I had an intuition for how quickly it heated things up.

  5. Anna K.
    October 12, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    I hope you do demo the Thermapen and let us know how it goes compared to the cheaper one. I’ve been wondering if it would be worth the price.

    I started using a thermometer for bread baking and it makes a big difference because it takes the guesswork out of knowing when bread is done. Even that tapping on the bottom trick is pretty ambiguous, not to mention that it requires turning a hot and squishy loaf of bread upside down!

  6. Razzy 7
    October 12, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Good move, Jesse. You’re going to love the Thermapen, Michael. I recently purchased a Thermapen and am loving it. Over the years I’ve purchased various thermometers that just didn’t work very well. They were slow, difficult to use and often not very accurate. I wish I’d have just spent the money for a Thermapen and have been done with it. I’ve easily spent what the Thermapen costs and gotten inferior products. Thermapens are not inexpensive, but in my opinion they’re worth every penny.

    Thermapen’s instructions are excellent and explain why Georgia, that the temperature reading doesn’t really stabilize or to use Thermapen’s terminology, “it doesn’t lock in on a reading.” Initially when you penetrate the meat on a grill, for example, the display changes rapidly at it moves from ambient temperature to the temperature of the meat. Within 3 seconds the rate of change slows dramatically giving you an accurate reading, but it will not stop changing completely. Why? Because the meat on the grill continues to cook and the Thermapen continues to detect variations in the temperature of the meat. I recognize that you’re using a different brand – I think you meant Polder rather than Polar – but I suspect it functions similarly. To answer your question, the temperature you see first is probably not accurate as it takes any thermometer some period of time (3 seconds with a Thermapen, longer for other brands) to register the actual temperature of the food being measured. Initially the reading changes rapidly and then slows down though technically it won’t “stabilize” though it should change slowly at that point. Jesse Black, feel free to jump in if I’ve said anything that is not accurate.

    The Thermapen user guide also provides clear instructions for checking the accuracy of any thermometer. These same instructions appear online here: link to thermoworks.com

  7. October 20, 2012 at 4:52 am #

    A kitchen thermometer is definitely part of my kitchen wishlist this Christmas. For after use, do you just simple wipe it dry?

    • October 20, 2012 at 6:53 am #

      After use you’ll want to wipe it with a soapy sponge and rinse the probe in hot water, then dry. Otherwise it could accumulate bacteria that you’d be transferring from food to food.

  8. Nell
    October 21, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    @Vegetarian: My most frequent use for a Thermapen is checking the internal temperature of roasting meats. After those uses I wipe dry, then wipe with a paper towel dipped in rubbing alcohol, to sterilize.

  9. Maartje
    March 5, 2013 at 5:47 am #

    I used to have a cheap, battery-operated kitchen thermometer, but it tilts if used on an induction stove. Does anyone know if a Thermopen works (for instance for measuring the temp of oil or caramel) on an induction stove?

  10. March 13, 2013 at 5:28 am #

    Cool device pity that I can’t test it first.

  11. July 22, 2013 at 10:38 am #

    Never thought of buying one until now but it seems like a good option!

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