How to Use a Meat Thermometer
So many types of meat, so many types of meat thermometers. Wondering where to begin? This is your guide.
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Photograph by Brittany Conerly
I’m a rule follower. One fateful year, I decided to smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving. I consulted recipe after recipe, jotted down notes in a spreadsheet, and carefully planned my schedule for the day based on math. The recipe said smoke the bird for 18 minutes per pound at 250 degrees Fahrenheit. At 4 pm on the dot, I consulted my spreadsheet and started to carve. CARNAGE! The turkey was rare. Dinner was late. I gnashed my teeth and begged forgiveness from my starving guests.
Where did I go wrong? I should’ve used my meat thermometer instead of my spreadsheet.
Spend enough time cooking meat and you’ll realize that not all recipes are created equal: Instructions that focus on cooking times instead of internal temperatures can leave you scrambling. Getting a food thermometer is half the battle; using it correctly and consistently will improve your cooking and your reputation.
Jump ahead to:
General meat thermometer know-how:
How to use a meat thermometer for:
Types of meat thermometers
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the breadth of meat thermometers on the market, read up on the differences here.
Digital instant-read thermometers
Digital instant-read thermometers indicate temperature quickly, reliably and accurately. They’re easy to read with clear digital displays and backlit screens. Unfortunately, instant-read meat thermometers can’t let you know when your meat is done unless you remember to interrupt the cooking now and then, open the oven (or grill or smoker), and take an accurate temperature measurement.
Analog meat thermometers
That’s where analog meat thermometers come in. Analog meat thermometers with a spinny dial like grandma used still do the trick today - stick ‘em in your piece of meat, put it in the oven, and keep checking until your meal is ready. Although full of lo-tech charm, they are slow to measure temps and can be tough to read while they’re stuck in a roast in a dark oven.
Wired and wireless digital meat thermometers
Wired and wireless digital meat thermometers both work the same basic way - position a probe in the right spot in your meat, get to grilling or whatever, then watch the screen to follow your dinner’s progress from raw to rockin’. Most have temperature-configured alarms so you get notified when your food is done.
App-based smart thermometers
With the dawn of the internet age, a new generation of app-based smart thermometers with wireless connectivity let you take your measurements to another level. Insert a bluetooth probe into whatever you’re heating, tip-tap a few buttons on your phone and then go on about your business. The best meat thermometers provide alerts and step-by-step instructions on what to do from the first sear until your meal is on the table. Some models measure your oven or grill's ambient cooking temperature in addition to the meat’s internal temperature.
The Yummly Smart Thermometer does all of this. Integrated into the Yummly app, it offers timers and alerts to keep you on track, wirelessly senses both internal temperature and ambient cooking temperature, and gives personalized instructions based on your cooking skill level.
How does a meat thermometer work?
Meat cooks from the outside in (except in a microwave oven). It’s done cooking when enough heat gets into the “thermal center” of the thickest part of the meat - that’s the spot furthest away from the exterior, the last part of the meat to get hot. Meat thermometers take temperature measurements from a pointy probe stuck into the meat as it cooks.
How to test a meat thermometer
Any thermometer can get out of whack after a while. So, it’s a good idea to test your kitchen thermometers periodically: Fill a tall glass with ice water and submerge the probe. Let it sit for a bit without touching the glass. It should read a stable 32° F. If the temperature reading is off by a couple degrees or more, then you’ll need to make adjustments or get a replacement.
How to use a digital meat thermometer
All oven-safe meat thermometers work on the same principle - jam it in, get a reading, marvel at the increase in human knowledge in the world, then stop cooking the meat when it’s the doneness you want. With any meat thermometer, you want to avoid touching the metal probe to any bone, which can give an incorrect reading.
How to clean a digital meat thermometer
You’ll want to clean your digital meat thermometer after each use. Wipe down the pointy part with a damp soapy cloth, then wipe again with a damp cloth, then dry with a dry towel.
Can a digital meat thermometer be used for candy?
Some instant-read models may measure temps high enough to make candy, but most oven-safe meat thermometers are designed to accurately measure the range of temperatures that occur when cooking meat. Many can’t go above 200 degrees, which isn’t hot enough to work with sugary confections.
How to use a meat thermometer
Positioning is important when you use a meat thermometer - the heat-sensing part of the probe needs to be in direct contact with the thermal center of the thickest area of whatever you’re cooking - the last spot on the meat to cook fully.
Insert the internal temperature probe into the thickest part of the meat. When cooking thinner cuts in a skillet or on the grill, insert the probe into the side so that the tip of the probe is in the middle and stays put as you flip the meat over the course of cooking.
How to use a meat thermometer for turkey
When roasting a whole turkey, you’ll want the tip of the temperature probe to touch the center of the thickest part of the breast. Go in from the front of the bird and insert the probe towards the back, parallel to the counter. The same approach works for a standalone turkey breast.
Stop cooking when the internal temperature of the breast hits 160°F; it will continue to get hotter as the bird rests after roasting until it reaches the safe eating temperature of 165°F.
If you’re smoking a turkey leg for the Renaissance Faire, pick the meatiest part of the leg and insert the thermometer probe into the middle. Avoid contact with the bone since it can throw off the reading.
Test out your new meat thermometer skills on these turkey recipes:
How to use a meat thermometer for chicken
Chicken is just like turkey, but smaller. The same rules apply. When cooking a whole chicken, aim your probe for the thermal center of the chicken breast. Go in from the front and avoid contact with any bones. Stop cooking when you get to 160°F and rest the bird until the internal temperature hits 165°F.
For mixed chicken pieces, pick the biggest piece you’re cooking and place the thermometer probe right down the middle, avoiding any bones. Chicken legs and thighs have dark meat which can take a little more heat than chicken breasts; let them get to 170°F.
Test out your new meat thermometer skills on these chicken recipes:
How to use a meat thermometer for beef
Get the tip of the sensor probe into the thermal center of the meat to get an accurate reading, avoiding contact with any bones or pockets of fat. For thinner cuts, insert the probe from the side into the center of the steak before you start to sear. Larger cuts like prime rib and other beef roasts give you a little more volume to work with - aim the probe for the absolute middle.
The USDA says that all beef should be cooked to a minimum of 145°F - ground meat should be cooked even more. Cook your steaks to your preferred doneness: 125°F will be rare with a cool red center; 160°F is well-done and gray throughout.
Beef’s internal temperature will continue to rise as it rests after cooking, so you’ll want to stop grilling when the thermometer reads 5-10 degrees less than the final temp you’re aiming for.
Some recipes like braised pot roast or BBQ brisket require much higher internal temperatures for the fat and gristle to break down and become tender. For truly fork-tender beef, you may want to go as hot as 195°F internal.
Test out your new meat thermometer skills on these beef recipes:
How to use a meat thermometer for pork
Much of the advice on beef applies to pork as well. Go in from the side on thinner cuts like pork chops. Find the thermal center and insert the probe so it’s measuring at dead center on larger cuts like pork loin and pork roasts. Avoid contact with bones or pockets of fat which can skew the temperature reading.
Modern food safety says that cuts of pork are safe to eat when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F. Ground pork should be cooked through to 160°F. Tougher cuts can be cooked low and slow until they hit even higher temps - a pork shoulder, for example, becomes fall-apart pulled pork at 200°F or more.
Test out your new meat thermometer skills on these pork recipes:
How to use a meat thermometer for lamb
To gauge the doneness of a rack of lamb, place your meat thermometer probe into the thickest area of the rack right into the middle of the meaty chops, avoiding bones or pockets of fat. The USDA recommends cooking to 145°F for safety; people who like their lamb rare will want to stop cooking sooner - some recipes recommend taking out the rack at 120°F.
Test out your new meat thermometer skills on these lamb recipes:
How to use a meat thermometer for fish
The trick with gauging the doneness of fish with a probe thermometer is the same as with other kinds of protein - find the thermal center and aim your probe at it to get an accurate reading. Go in from the side of fillets instead of from the top to hit the right spot. Some fish are too delicate for this kind of treatment - flaky white fish like flounder may fall apart when poked. But sturdier fish like salmon or swordfish can handle it. Cook until they hit 145°F or turn flaky and translucent.
Test out your new meat thermometer skills on these fish recipes:
Looking for more?
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