The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking raw meat to a minimum internal temperature that kills the harmful bacteria or parasites inside it and therefore makes it safe to eat.
For beef, pork, lamb, and veal, that temperature is 145°F, with a resting time of 3 minutes, unless ground. Ground meats and sausages should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160°F. Poultry, including whole birds, cuts, and individual pieces to 165°F with no resting time.
Be sure to check out the detailed specs over at the USDA’s website.
Since you’re here, I’m going to make a bet that you’re already in the know about the importance of the internal temperature of meat during cooking—and you’re looking for the best tools to be able to measure it.
You’re in the right place. In this post, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about meat thermometers for home cooking (and spare you the B.S.).
So keep on reading if that sounds like what you came here to find out.
Table of Contents
- The Types of Meat Thermometers
- Do You (Really) Need a Meat Thermometer?
- Are Meat Thermometers Accurate?
- Can You Dip Your Meat Thermometer in Cooking Oil?
- Can Meat Thermometers Be Left in the Oven?
- Can Meat Thermometers Go in the Smoker?
- Can You Use a Meat Thermometer for Water?
- Should a Meat Thermometer Start at Zero?
- How Long Do Meat Thermometers Last?
- Are Meat Thermometers And Candy Thermometers the Same?
- Meat Thermometers and Induction Cooktops
The Types of Meat Thermometers
Meat thermometers come in all shapes and forms, some being more functional than others.
When it comes to your home kitchen and backyard BBQ, there are generally three types of meat thermometers that you need to know about: old-school dial thermometers, digital instant-read thermometers, and leave-in, feature-rich cord probe thermometers.
Dial thermometers are more or less an outdated relic of cooking’s analog past. Nowadays, good ones can be really hard to find (there are exceptions to the rule, of course).
Instant-read thermometers are affordable and easy to use, which makes them the go-to choice for most home cooks. They can’t stay in the oven, but will give you a reading in 2-3 seconds.
Probe thermometers with a cord are… essentially kitchen gadgets. They’re packed with all sorts of features, wireless connectivity, and what-nots. So they’ll appeal to the tech-savvy cook, but not the traditionalists among us—me included. But they’re also great for smoking meats. More on that below.
Best for roasting, broiling, and smoking
Dial thermometers are the mechanical and old-school leave-in thermometers that you and I are used to watching our parents and grandparents neurotically peek at as they keeping checking the turkey for doneness on Thanksgiving.
They are clunky and have big dials with diameters of 2-3 inches. Compared to their digital counterparts, their readings take longer and are not as accurate. On the other hand, they’re dirt-cheap and easy-to-use. And they’ll never run out of batteries right when you need them.
Most dial thermometers can be left in the oven, take 1-2 minutes for a reading, and measure temperatures of up to 200°F (93.3°C) with an accuracy of +/- 2-3 degrees.
When buying a dial thermometer for your daily cooking, the first thing you need to make sure is that it’s oven-safe and leave-in; some of the makes and models out there are not fit for use in the oven.
I know bells and whistles can be tempting, but—when it comes to mechanical kitchen gear that goes in your oven and stays there for long periods of time—it’s best to go for the most uncomplicated product available.
The best dial thermometers have an oversized dial that’s easy to read from a distance. The dial should be watertight and protected from the heat of your oven with thick glass that won’t easily crack or shatter when exposed to sudden temperature differences.
To use a dial thermometer, insert it approximately 2 1/2 inches into the meat and leave it there. Always allow it to cool down before taking it out, as the thermal shock can cause damage to its inner workings.
Some dial thermometers are instant-read. But if you’re looking for one, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them. Readings take too long and they’re not very accurate as a whole. More often than not, you’re better off going for a digital instant-read thermometer (see below) instead.
As you read through the rest of this post, you’ll probably notice that I share picks for all types of thermometers but this one. There are two reasons behind this:
First, neither me nor my closest friends have good experiences with dial thermometers, so it was impossible for me to come up with a good pick.
Second, as I was researching products online, I couldn’t find a single one that didn’t seem to have repetitive quality issues. The dials on some were not sealed well, so they’d let moisture in and become unreadable. The glass on others would shatter when some customers would open their ovens (yikes!).
Which is why this category goes without a pick—at least for the time being. That said, if you have a dial thermometer that you’re really happy with, share the make and model in the comments below, as well as your experiences with it. I’m more than happy to extend my article by quoting one or some of you as usual.
Digital Instant-Read Thermometers
Best for grilling, searing, shallow-, and pan-frying
Quick and accurate, digital instant-read thermometers are the best kind of meat thermometer for your daily cooking. What I like the most about them, though, is that they’re highly versatile.
You can use an instant-read meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of roast turkey, test pan-fried pork chops for doneness, or make sure that the thick-cut steak you’re grilling for uncle John at your backyard BBQ is indeed medium-rare; it will work just as good.
Most instant-read thermometers take 2-3 seconds for a reading and measure temperatures from -58°F(-58°C) to 572°F (300°C) with an accuracy of +/- 1 degree.
The biggest drawback of instant-read thermometers is that they’re battery-powered.
As you can probably imagine, Murphy’s law, which states that if anything can go wrong, it will, applies in its fullest form to them. Because they’ll almost always run out of batteries exactly when you need them the most (and that’s usually when stores are not open).
Still, if that’s the price of convenience, I’ll take it!
What to look for in a meat thermometer of this type depends on how heavy-duty you want it to be.
Some models have sleek designs and are intended to be used mainly in the confines of your kitchen. Others are made for outside grilling, so they’re waterproof and more sturdy.
As a general rule of thumb, look for an instant-read thermometer from a reputable brand whose looks and features you like (and, ideally, that comes with a multi-year or lifetime warranty).
Most models are powered by a single CR2 or multiple AAA batteries. Lately, more modern products have been coming out that feature rechargeable batteries with a USB cable. Most manufacturers don’t use the highest-end lithim-ion batteries, so the jury’s out on which is better.
To use an instant-read thermometer, insert the tip 1/4 of an inch into the center of the meat, wait 2-3 seconds to get a reading, then take it out. Don’t leave the thermometer in your oven, and never expose the body to excessive heat—doing so can damage it beyond repair.
The best ones are pricier than dial thermometers, that’s for sure! But, as it’s often the case with purchases for your home kitchen, the better thing to do for your budget and nerves is “buy it nice or buy it twice.”
Probe Thermometers With a Cord
Best for broiling, roasting, and smoking meats
Probe thermometers are the most gadgety of all meat thermometers.
They come in all shapes and forms and are usually packed with features that you won’t see in their counterparts. For the same reason, they’re also the most expensive.
A probe thermometer consists of two parts: an oven-safe probe, which you insert and leave inside the meat during cooking, and a separate body featuring a large display. Older models are connected to the body with a wire; newer ones are wireless.
Unlike all other types of thermometers on this list, a probe thermometer can sound an alarm as soon as the meat reaches your desired internal temperature. Some home cooks find this highly convenient, as it takes away the burden of having to peak at their ovens every now and then.
Most probe thermometers take 1-2 seconds per reading and measure temperatures from -58°F(-58°C) to 572°F (300°C) with an accuracy of +/- 1 degree (though the exact parameters will vary with the make and model).
Some thermometers in this category even have multiple probes, allowing you to monitor the level of doneness of multiple birds or cuts of meat in your oven.
The probes on older models are attached to the body with stainless steel wires. In recent years, newer models started to come out, which connect wirelessly to an app on your phone through Bluetooth.
But wireless probe thermometers have one major drawback to them: their range is generally limited to 150-165 feet at best, and that figure gets negatively affected by the walls in your home.
So, if you end up getting one, you’ll have to keep your phone in—or relatively close to—your kitchen every time you use it.
To use a probe thermometer, insert the probe 1/4 inches into the meat and follow the remaining instructions in the owner’s manual.
How do you know if this is the right gadget for you?
You’re probably going to laugh when you read my two cents on this topic, but this one is really easy to determine:
If you like high-tech cooking gadgets, I can almost guarantee you that you’ll instantly fall in love with one. But if you don’t, getting it to work will feel like a complete nightmare!
But there’s one exception—and that’s smoking meat. A thermometer with a corb probe will save you from having to check on the meat the smoker every now and then, as well as from poking the meat every time you need a reading. If you’re looking for my two cents, this is where these gadgets truly excel.
When shopping for a thermometer of this type, look for one with two or more probes, especially if you often find yourself cooking for a large family or a crowd. The price difference is not that big compared to the utility that you get from being able to monitor two or more slabs of meat at the same time.
Whichever make and model you end up going for, be sure to check the customer reviews at Amazon (and why not a few other retailers while you’re at it):
Some models have systemic quality issues with their probes’ sensors and cords. Even if you’re protected by a lifetime warranty, it can be a hassle to return a defective product after the first few uses and have to wait for a new one to get shipped to you.
When it comes to probe thermometers, more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Don’t fall for the product with the most accessories and features; there’s a high chance you’ll never need them. Instead, select one from a reputable brand that comes with what you need.
Smart thermometers don’t get any better than Weber 3201, but it also comes at a pretty high price tag.
This grilling hub comes with a rechargeable battery (using a USB cable), can connect to your phone via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and can monitor as many as four pieces of meat at once.
|Type||Probe (4 maximum)|
|Dimensions||3.9 x 2.9 x 1.4 inches|
|Range||From -22°F (-30°C) to 572°F (300°C)|
|Read time||1-2 seconds|
|Phone connectivity||Yes, mobile app via Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi|
ThermoPro TP20 is a meat thermometer with two probes, allowing you to monitor two slabs of meat simultaneously, and two bodies.
The probes attach to a small body that monitors the temperature. The second body features a large display and connects wireless to the first with a range of 300 feet, allowing you to move around and about in your home or out in the garden.
|Type||Probe (2 maximum)|
|Dimensions||6.4 x 2.4 x 5.9 inches|
|Range||From 32°F (0°C) to 572°F (300°C)|
|Read time||1-2 seconds|
|Batteries||4x AAA batteries|
Do You (Really) Need a Meat Thermometer?
Unless you’re a seasoned home cook, and you can time your grilled steak and roast beef by heart, a meat thermometer is one of those gadgets that will definitely come in handy. This is especially true when cooking burgers, sausage, and birds, for which it can be tricky to tell the level of doneness.
Some of the best uses for a meat thermometer are when grilling, smoking, searing, shallow-frying, and deep-frying red meats, birds, and seafood. Other uses include baking, making candy, preparing milk- or cream-based sauces, and mixing hot drinks.
Are Meat Thermometers Accurate?
Some meat thermometers are more accurate than others, but most models will generally measure the internal temperature of foods with an accuracy of give or take 1-2°F.
Sure, you’d probably need something more precise if you were doing a science experiment, but that makes them accurate enough for your daily cooking.
Can You Dip Your Meat Thermometer in Cooking Oil?
When deep-frying foods, for instance chicken, it is important to know that the cooking oil has reached the desired temperature before adding the battered fillets. Otherwise, they won’t brown well and will come out oily.
Can you measure it by dipping your meat thermometer in the oil?
Yes, you can use an instant-read meat thermometer to check the temperature of cooking oil. The usual temperature range for deep-frying is from 375°F (190°C), and most meat thermometers can measure temperatures of up to 572°F (300°C).
To get an accurate reading, insert the probe’s tip about 1/2 inch into the oil and wait for 2-3 seconds before taking it out. Protect the device’s body from coming into contact with the hot all at all times; otherwise, you can inflict damage to it.
Can Meat Thermometers Be Left in the Oven?
There’s no rule of thumb here—it all depends on your thermometer.
Some meat thermometers are designed to be left in the oven; others aren’t. Before leaving yours there, check its owner’s manual to determine if that’s possible in the first place.
Usually, manufacturers state this pretty clearly. If you see “leave-in,” “oven-safe,” or “oven-friendly” in the usage instructions, this confirms that you can leave your meat thermometer in the oven.
Mind your oven’s temperature: some ranges, especially if they’re gas-powered or come with a broiler, can exceed the maximum temperature of your meat thermometer. To avoid damaging the thermometer beyond repair, don’t heat it past the manufacturer-recommended limit.
Can Meat Thermometers Go in the Smoker?
What about smoking meat? How useful can a meat thermometer be to you there?
Meat thermometers with a cord probe can be left in the smoker. The probe is inserted 1/8 to 1/2 inches into the meat and left inside, allowing you to continuously monitor the meat for doneness.
Dial thermometers can go in the smoker only if they’re labeled as “leave-in,” and therefore intended for prolonged exposure to high heat. Most instant-read thermometers are not leave-in and you can only use them to take quick readings.
Can You Use a Meat Thermometer for Water?
So you can check steak and birds for doneness. But can you use it in water?
If you’re wondering whether or not you can use your meat thermometer to check the temperature of a pot of water, the short answer is yes.
Water freezes at 32°F (0°C) and boils at 212°F (100°C). When water reaches its boiling point, it starts to evaporate, and its temperature doesn’t rise.
In comparison, most meat thermometers read temperatures from -58°F (-58°C) to 572°F (300°C), so they’re more than capable of measuring the temperature ranges of water.
Only insert the probe—and not the body—of your meat thermometer into the water. More often than not, the bodies aren’t waterproof or intended for exposure to heat.
All of the above applies to other liquids, like gravies, sauces, soups, and stews.
Should a Meat Thermometer Start at Zero?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering if your meat thermometer is defective because it shows a reading other than 0, even when you haven’t stuck it inside meat.
A digital meat thermometer shouldn’t show a reading of 0°F (-17.78°C) or 32°F (0°C) unless it’s explicitly measuring something that’s this cold. At all other times, the dial is likely to show a higher figure, which is essentially the reading of the probe when exposed to room temperature.
The easiest way to test if your thermometer is defective or not is to dip the probe into ice water and keep it there for 10-15 seconds. If it shows a temperature other than 32°F (0°C) on the dial/display, then there’s probably something wrong with it.
Some models can be calibrated; others not. Check the owner’s manual to determine if this is possible for yours.
How Long Do Meat Thermometers Last?
As a general guideline, leave-in thermometers tend to last less than their instant-read counterparts because of their frequent exposure to sudden changes in surrounding temperature and the high heat of your oven or grill.
Maximize the lifetime of your meat thermometer by not exposing it to overly high heat and sanitizing it with antibacterial wipes instead of rinsing it under running water or cleaning it in the dishwasher.
Mechanical dial thermometers last the least, as most models are made in China and from low-cost materials. If you own one, you may need to replace it every 2-3 years depending on how well it’s built and how careful you are when you’re using it.
Some instant-read thermometers, including one of my picks above, come with a limited lifetime warranty that protects you from manufacturing defects. If you buy one with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, the battery will eventually degrade and you’ll have to replace the whole thing in several years.
Cord probe thermometers last the longest. While you may need to buy a replacement cord probe every now and then, the body stays out of your oven and, because these gadgets are considered higher-end, is usually made from sturdier materials.
Are Meat Thermometers And Candy Thermometers the Same?
A few decades ago, meat and candy thermometers were mechanical, and there was one major difference between them: the temperature that they could read. Meat thermometers would only read temperatures of up to 200°F (93°C), and candy thermometers would go as high as 400°F (204°C).
However, that’s not really the case anymore. Most of the digital instant-read thermometers today can measure temperatures as high as 572°F (300°C), which makes them just as suitable for making candy as they are for cooking meat.
Meat Thermometers and Induction Cooktops
Induction cooktops are not like conventional gas or electric stoves. Instead of burning a gas flame or heating an electric coil, they generate a magnetic field that’s so powerful, it makes the iron atoms in your cookware vibrate—heating it from the inside out.
I cook on one and, if you’re looking for my opinion, I think it’s worth the extra money. But there’s just one problem with it: the 1,500-watt magnetic field makes my meat thermometer go completely berserk! If you’re here because you’re experiencing the same, unfortunately there isn’t much that you do about it.
My best advice is to temporarily turn the cooktop off while you’re testing oil for hotness or checking your steak for doneness.
I know this isn’t the most convenient thing to do, but, provided you’re using a thick-bottomed stainless steel frying pan or cast iron skillet, your cookware will quickly recover the temperature as soon as you’re done measuring and have turned the cooktop back on.