Meat Thermometer Buying Guide
What the best meat thermometer has
- Accurate readings. Accuracy is paramount for any meat thermometer -- after all, your health is at stake if you eat undercooked meat, and eating overcooked meat isn't much fun either.
- Fast readings. The faster a handheld thermometer takes its reading, the sooner you can get your hand away from hot surfaces or close the oven or grill door, reducing temperature fluctuations in the cooking area. Speed isn't as important for leave-in thermometers, but still comes in handy for ensuring that the number you're looking at actually reflects what's going on in the oven or grill.
- A wide range of temperature capabilities. The wider the range of temperatures your meat thermometer can withstand (and accurately register), the more useful it is. The best models can withstand more than 500 degrees of heat, enough for use in an oven or grill. Many of them can also register temperatures well below freezing, so you don't have to buy another thermometer to monitor chilled foods.
- Automatic shutoff. Most experts agree that you should bypass analog, dial-style thermometers and go straight to digital thermometers, which are usually powered by AA, AAA or coin-style batteries. An automatic shut-off function helps save battery life, cutting down on the lifetime expense of the device.
- A backlit screen. Although not an absolute must if the digits are large enough, a backlit screen makes your thermometer easy to read in dim lighting or within the confines of a grill or oven.
- Clearly labeled controls. Today's meat thermometers are getting increasingly smart, with countdown or count-up timers, minimum/maximum temperature alerts and even, in one case, graphing software for your mobile device. But no matter how smart they get, thermometers are still only as good as your ability to control them -- so large, easy to press buttons and clearly labeled controls are a must. For wireless models that sync to your smartphone, look for an intuitive, easy-to-use app.
- Durable probes. The probe on the end of a meat thermometer is, by design, fairly delicate; most measure only a few millimeters across. The best probes can withstand high temperatures of 500 degrees or more and, for leave-in models, have equally tough cables that won't melt when exposed to the heat of an oven or grill. Probes and probe cables tend to be a weak point for most thermometers, so models with splash-resistant cables that can withstand exposure to water are an especially good investment.
Know before you go
Do you like to hover in the kitchen? If so, you can get a great instant-read thermometer for as little as $30. If you like to wander, multi-task or visit with friends, though, go for a leave-in thermometer that sounds an alarm when your meat hits the desired temperature. If you're prone to wandering out of hearing range of the kitchen, look for a wireless model that either talks to your smartphone or has a receiver handset you can take with you while you roam.
What's to come
With kitchen timers getting smarter than ever, it only makes sense that they'd want to talk to your smartphone. For example, our best-reviewed wireless meat thermometer, the iDevice Kitchen Thermometer (Est. $80), sends your smartphone a push alert once your meat hits the target temperature, and can even display a graph that shows temperature readings over time. Some users buy this type of tool for the cool tech factor, but if you're the type of person who always has a smartphone with you anyway, it's also a very sensible choice.
We expect to see the trend toward smartphone-compatible wireless thermometers continue, and we're eager to see just how user-friendly an interface manufacturers can create. With that said, we also predict that non-smartphone models won't vanish entirely, if only because their RF transmissions have greater range than the Bluetooth pairing usually used for a smartphone device -- and of course, even today, not everybody has a smartphone.