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Credit: Quentin Bacon

Every Cook Needs Three Thermometers (And One of Them Is a Magic Wand)

updated Apr 29, 2020
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Confession time: When I was a young, dumb cook, I had an aversion to thermometers and recipes that required them. I thought that a recipe that called for a precise temperature taken with a thermometer signaled something out of reach — pretentious even. Now that I am much (much) older and (I hope) wiser, I can say this betrayed an all-too-common misunderstanding of the difference between fussiness and precision in recipes. A thermometer is not a fussy thing at all; it’s a little piece of magic, a shortcut not an extra.

There is a difference between a fussy direction and one that is precise. Fussy is peeling asparagus (not worth it, strictly speaking). Precise is not an extra step at all, but actually a shortcut to a confident result worth eating and repeating. In recipes, precision is caring to give good directions. Not directions that wave vaguely: “Oh, you know, up that hill past the gas station,” but carefully and kindly: “Go two point two miles; take a right at the gas station and look for the red flag on the mailbox just past the turn.” Precision does more of the work for you; it leaves less to figure out on your own. Precise recipes are often long, but get you to your destination swiftly and securely.

And when it comes to precision in food, thermometers are the ultimate tool. Temperature is the secret to many types of success, not just safety. It’s not just about the threats of salmonella and E. coli in undercooked burgers and chicken; the temperature of your food holds many insights, just as it does for you and your own health.

And speaking of health, can any of us forget that we’re living through a global life-changing pandemic? Groceries have been a tad harder to come by and I, like you, have been hyper-aware of waste. I am always cautious about wasting food, but right now? I’ve leveled up. I’ve stocked my freezer and my fridge and I care more than ever about what is in both. For this reason and so many others, let’s talk about the three thermometers we should all have in our kitchens, now and always.

1. Fridge and freezer thermometers to keep your food safe.

Yes, your fridge needs a thermometer, and your freezer too. These are often sold in pairs, and they help protect your food from loss and waste. A refrigerator should be at or below 40°F (4°C) for optimal freshness and performance, and your freezer should stay at 0°F (-18°C). A thermometer helps keep an eye on this for you. Obviously, none of us want our stocked freezers to quietly go bust. I was a little concerned recently that the seal on my fridge was beginning to fail as the temperature felt warm. So I dug up my fridge thermometer and put it on the back shelf where it should have always been. Now I can watch and know: yes, things are at temp. This should not be an expensive purchase, but it can save you a great deal of money in the long run.

2. An oven thermometer, to save your food from burning.

Pretty much every oven has its good and bad spots — even new ovens, but especially drafty gas ovens and teeny-tiny old apartment ovens. I’m beating this point into the ground, but let’s say it again: Even on good days none of us want to waste food, and a too-hot or too-cold oven can send your food to the compost heap so fast. Blink and you’re burnt. So again, do yourself a favor, pop a cheap thermometer in your oven, and see if your dial is telling you the truth. Again, this is an economical tool. Buy one and hang it.

3. Your magic wand, your right hand, your food thermometer.

Now, on to the main event: your probe thermometer. If you just pull your thermometer out when grilling an expensive steak, may I implore you to hear all the ways that a thermometer can make your cooking easier, swifter, and more confident. Truly — a good, fast thermometer is a magic wand that lets you see inside your food. You can take the temp of all sorts of things. Last night for instance I was baking a phyllo skillet pie, full of greens and eggs. The top looked runny even though the bake time was up. Was it done? Was it underbaked? Instead of guessing about, I whipped out my Thermapen, took its temp, and sure enough: It was at a food-safe 195°F.

I use my thermometer to temp cinnamon rolls, banana bread, and even cakes to see if they are done and pull them out before their tops brown. Precious loaf of sourdough bread? Temp that sucker before you take it out. And this goes beyond heating food up; think about cool-down too! A thermometer comes in handy for when you’re cooling things off, like ice cream mix, kombucha, yogurt, and even chicken stock to see if it is cool enough to go in the refrigerator. Why guess? Just take the temperature.

Taste, sound, smell, and feel all matter too, but a thermometer is a shortcut to precision, and in cooking now and forever, who doesn’t want a good shortcut?

Any reasonably good and fast thermometer will do, but honestly, the thermocouple probe thermometers that Thermapen makes are just a joy to use. Yes, they’re an order of magnitude more expensive but they are incredibly fast (instantaneous!) and precise. Think of it as taking yourself to Ollivander’s for just the right wand; it’s magic.

If you aren’t ready to spring for the spendy sort of magic wand, and want a starter thermometer, I really love the still-speedy ThermoPop instant-read thermometers also from ThermaPen. (They’re cute, too.)

One more tip: I keep my thermometer ready and on-hand while cooking all the time. I use it over and over. If you keep it by the grill a lot or want to move between foods while taking temperatures, for safety’s sake grab a pack of these cheap wipes that let you just quickly wipe the probe down between uses, no washing needed.

So, are we together on this? Set up your food, your health, and your fridge and oven for success with the trifecta of thermometers, the trio that will keep you cooking safely and with confidence.