4 Important Tips for Using Cooking Thermometers

4 Important Tips for Using Cooking Thermometers

Christine Gallary
Sep 18, 2015
Meat Thermometer
(Image credit: Ariel Knutson)

Food thermometers take the guesswork out of cooking and give us some peace of mind and reassurance that food is cooked properly. There's a wide range of them out there on the market, from simple ones with a dial to fancy digital ones that promise quick results. They're an important part of cooking, so we're here to give you some tips for buying, using, and maintaining them.

Candy Thermometer
(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

1. Know your thermometer types.

Not all kitchen thermometers are created for the same purpose. Here are four major categories, so you can be aware and purchase the one that makes the most sense for what you want to do with it.

  • All-purpose thermometers: This is the one to get if you only want one type of thermometer for your kitchen. These thermometers come in both analog and digital forms, and they usually can read a wide range of temperatures, so you can use it for anything from meat to baked goods to deep-frying. These thermometers come with a pointed probe that you can insert into the center of foods. The range of temperatures that all-purpose thermometers can measure does vary. Some, like the highly sensitive thermocouple Thermapen, can be used for everything from frying to candy-making. A more basic analog thermometer (like the type you might buy in your grocery store) will probably not work at the high temperatures needed for candy.
  • Candy thermometers: These thermometers can usually clip onto the sides of pots and pans, so you can keep a constant eye on temperature while doing high-temperature tasks like deep-frying and boiling sugar. These do not come with probes.
  • Meat thermometers: Meat thermometers are designed to measure meat doneness and have markings that correspond to the different levels, like rare, medium-rare, and well-done. Many can be inserted into a large cut of meat before it's cooked and remain in the meat during the cooking process.
  • Appliance thermometers: There are appliance thermometers that measure temperatures in the oven, refrigerator, and freezer. Using these thermometers means you can make sure your appliance is running accurately and at the proper temperature. They can be especially useful when baking in the oven or if the power goes out and you want to see what temperature it is in the refrigerator or freezer.
(Image credit: Faith Durand)

2. Test and calibrate thermometers.

A thermometer is only useful if it's accurate! If you're not sure, test food thermometers by placing them in ice water or boiling water. It should read 32°F in ice water, or 212°F in boiling water (let it sit in there at least 30 seconds to get an accurate reading). If your thermometer is off, look up the manufacturer's instructions on how to calibrate it, or get a new one.

3. Learn how to use thermometers properly.

Knowing the best place to take a temperature can be tricky. With meat, you want to stick it into the center of the thickest part, but make sure it's not touching any bone. For whole poultry, like chickens and turkeys, take the temperature where the thigh meets the rest of the body, since that part is thick and takes the longest to cook. For thin pieces of meat like hamburgers, stick the probe in sideways.

Besides knowing where to put the probe, you also need to give the thermometer time to do an accurate reading. "Instant-read" is, unfortunately, a misnomer — read the label of the thermometer to see how long it takes to truly get a reading, as it usually requires 20 to 30 seconds of holding it steady to get the right temperature.

4. Clean your thermometers.

Nobody likes to use a grimy, rusted thermometer. Immediately after each use, wash the probe of food thermometers with hot, soapy water, and wipe down the rest of the thermometer so grease doesn't build up. For candy thermometers, clip them onto a pot of boiling water to boil off any caramel or sugary residue.

If you've used the thermometer for meat, sanitize the probe by dipping it in boiling water or using a food-safe sanitizing solution. Don't forget to turn off digital thermometers to preserve battery life, and make sure everything is dry to prevent rust.

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