A good chef can press a piece of meat down with his finger and tell how done it is; a great chef can do the same just by looking. But absent years of kitchen experience, savvy home cooks rely on digital meat thermometers, which have become a ubiquitous presence in home and professional kitchens over the last five or so years.
The best digital meat thermometers ensure both food quality (no more overdone steaks!) and food safety (no more underdone steaks!). They also give amateurs the confidence required to try new things in the kitchen, whether that’s salt-baking a branzino or slow-roasting a whole pork shoulder.
Typically priced between $20 and $100, a digital meat thermometer also offers a clear return on investment. When a meal you would’ve overcooked or undercooked by guessing at its doneness instead comes out of the oven at the perfect temperature, the thermometer you used to check it has already paid for itself.
And, yes, old meat thermometers have an appeal. There’s the fun spinning bit and a certain vaguely steampunk industrial appeal. But they are, unfortunately, slow as hell and kind of hard to read, especially when you’re bent over an open heat source. Digital thermometers are simply a more effective product.
What the Experts Say
Chefs want the same thing at-home cooks need: speed and accuracy. Rod Gray doesn’t use a digital meat thermometer—he uses several. The CEO of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and former national barbeque champion says he accumulated about a dozen digital meat thermometers over a 20-year competitive barbeque career where having a backup to a backup to a backup was absolutely necessary.
Gray has used probe thermometers that stay in the meat as it cooks. They come in handy given the double-digit hour cook times in competitive barbeque. But he mostly relies on classic handheld thermometers, which are essential for spot checks throughout the process.
“Without a thermometer,” he says, “all I can do is guesstimate.”
And in the high-stakes world of competition barbeque, there’s no room for anything but precision. This is why Gray calibrates his meat thermometer regularly (ensuring it reads 32 in ice water and 212 in boiling).
Roger Sitrin, Lead Recreational Chef Instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, looks for ones that are well constructed, responds rapidly and is accurate. Jared Kent, a classically trained chef currently serving as the sous at Good Roots in Akron, recommends buying a thermometer with probes that tapers to the smallest possible point, keeping holes small and minimizing moisture loss. That said, the most important thing, according to Patrick Feges, owner of Feges BBQ in Houston, is to have something handy. He keeps a few Javelins at arm’s length because he kept breaking or losing his Thermapen.
This is the digital meat thermometer that Gray says “everybody on the barbeque circuit uses now” because of how durable, fast, and accurate they are. Thermoworks says that its flagship thermometer, which honestly doesn’t look all that special in any of its ten colors, can provide full readings in a second or less on its easy-to-read digital display with automatic backlight. And with a margin of error of half a degree Fahrenheit, it’s plenty precise for whatever you might be making at home.
The Thermapen is an ultra-durable thermometer with a ton of nice touches. The Thermapen has a five-year warranty and antimicrobial technology on the probe. It’s dustproof, shockproof, and IP67-rated waterproof. It wakes up automatically and shows the temperature right-side-up no matter how you’re holding it. And each Thermapen ONE includes a NIST-traceable calibration certificate verifying accuracy to national standards.
Thermopro TP20 Wireless Digital Cooking Thermometer
Sitrin says probe thermometers are great for when “you don’t want to keep opening the oven door or lifting the lid of the cooking vessel” because every time you do so you reduce the temperature, pushing dinner time back a little bit every single time. And if you enjoy having people over to taste your elaborate dishes, this thermometer allows you to monitor your meat from up to 500 feet away on a remote display that will also sound alarms when your target temperature is reached. In other words, you can entertain without neglecting the food that will make your party truly memorable.
Yummly Smart Meat Thermometer
Adding Bluetooth to a meat thermometer brings your cooking to your phone, where the Yummly app has plenty of preset options for different kinds of meat, recipes based on specific dietary restrictions and preferences, and timers and alerts you can manage from the comfort of your smartphone. It’s true that some smart kitchen equipment are mostly useless gimmicks, but this meat thermometer can actually make your life easier and your food tastier.
Lavatools PT12 Javelin Digital Instant Read Meat Thermometer
Feges might keep the Javelin around because of its relatively inexpensive price, but he and other professionals would rely on something that didn’t also deliver accurate results in just a few seconds. The Javelin has an integrated magnet so it can stick to your fridge, keeping it within arm’s reach and making it damn near unloseable for all but the most disorganized cooks.
Etekcity Lasergrip 1080
Infrared technology means you can simply point this no-touch at any surface and it’ll tell you what the temperature of that surface is. It’s the kind of tool that you’ll find yourself using for pleasure as much as for business, though it does do things that the other thermometers on this list can’t.
Gray says that grate temperature, which is exactly what it sounds like, is an important metric in barbeque. Ditto for pizza stones and griddles, which need to be the proper temperature in order to produce the most delicious results.
Like that fourth hot dog at the cookout, you probably don’t need a four-probe, wifi-extender-equipped, algorithm-aided meat thermometer. But unlike that hot dog, you won’t regret investing in something that makes it easier to make all of the right decisions as an amateur home chef thanks to clever touches like probes that measure both internal and ambient temperature.
Frequently Asked Questions About Digital Meat Thermometers
Are digital meat thermometers worth it for home cooks?
Definitely. They’re more accurate, faster, and easier to read than their analog counterparts. And you can find great inexpensive digital meat thermometers that get the job done nicely.
What can digital meat thermometers be used for?
As the name suggests, they’re great for cooking any piece of meat in any manner, from steaks on the cast iron inside to pork shoulder in the smoker in the backyard. And once you have one, you’ll find yourself using it for other purposes—measuring the temperature of oil for deep frying comes to mind.
Are digital meat thermometers more accurate?
Gray, who’s been cooking long enough to remember the analog days, says that digital meat thermometers aren’t necessary more accurate. But when you consider the bright digital screens that replaced small dials, they’re so much easier to use that they probably are more accurate in real-world conditions, particularly outside of professional kitchens.
Can a digital meat thermometer make me a good cook?
Nope, but they won’t make you a worse cook. And even if getting one doesn’t give you inspiration in the kitchen, it’s still nice to know just how molten the inside of those Pizza Rolls are before you burn your face on them.