When you’ve planned your holiday menu and paid a hefty price for your centerpiece roast, the last thing you want is to rely on guesswork or a nebulous range of cook times in a recipe (that don't factor in your oven's quirks or temperature faults) to determine when it’s ready to come out of the oven. If ever there’s a moment for precision, it’s now.
Enter the instant-read thermometer—a cook’s best friend for roasts, steaks, poultry, and so much more. You should use the best meat thermometer (or really, cooking thermometer) to test your baked goods for doneness, to make sure you don’t accidentally boil your poached salmon, to help you fry at the right temp for a crisp and golden result, and to avoid burnt caramel.
I tested six instant-read thermometers to find the one that will ensure your turkey isn't overcooked this Thanksgiving. It will come in handy the rest of the year, too. Read the winners below. For the details of the testing method, scroll to the bottom of the page.
The Best Meat Thermometer Overall: ThermoWorks Thermapen MK4
Often when you’re testing something for doneness, you’re doing it on a hot stove or with an open oven. That’s when the “instant read” part of a thermometer becomes important—the quicker it works, the less likely you are to get burned and the less time your oven spends losing heat. When I placed this model’s probe in a pot of boiling water, its display read 212º F in less than 3 seconds. When I stuck the thermometer into a bowl of ice water, it read 32.5° F in just under 8 seconds.
This thermometer has smart features I didn’t even realize I needed until I tried it. First, it's ridiculously simple to use: Turn it on and off by unfolding and refolding the metal probe. If you happen to accidentally leave it unfolded, it goes into sleep mode to save battery life. It’s pre-set to do this after 30 seconds, but you can manually change it to anywhere between 10 seconds and 3 minutes. All you have to do to wake it back up is move it. The thermometer can sense low light and automatically turns on a backlight feature that makes the display easy to read. (You can also activate the display light by touching the window.) The display rotates in four different directions as you turn the thermometer, which is handy for lefty cooks, testing in multiple spots, and for reading the thermometer when you have to insert it into a hard-to-reach item on the grill. Don’t like sleep mode and/or the display moving around? You can disable these features with a button inside the battery compartment (where you also can switch from Farenheit to Celsius or vice versa). The Thermapen uses a AAA battery, which is easy to find and replace. This thermometer is an investment at $99—but its ease of use, accuracy, speed, and incomparable extra features mean it’s well worth the money.
The Best Meat Thermometer on a Budget: Kizen Instant Read Meat Thermometer
This is a lot of thermometer for the price. The Kizen lacks many of the fancy features of the Thermapen, but it's an inexpensive option and it works. It accurately read 212º F in the boiling water in 4 seconds.
Out of the box, the Kizen requires a little bit more getting-to-know-you time—it doesn't have quite the intuitive design of the Thermapen. Similar to the Thermapen, it starts when you unfold the probe and turns off when you fold it back. It shuts off automatically after 10 minutes if you put it down unfolded. But while the Thermapen offers both automatic and manual backlighting, the Kizen has a button to activate it (so there's no tapping it with a knuckle if you have greasy hands, as is possible with the Thermapen). The Kizen's display doesn’t rotate, and you have to touch one of the buttons to turn it back on if it turned off automatically, whereas the Thermapen comes back to life automatically when moved and shuts off quicker, saving battery life.
There are some useful features, though: A button on the front allows you to toggle between Farenheit and Celsius. Another button allows you to hold the temperature reading and display the minimum and/or maximum recorded temperature (this is a feature we don’t see ourselves using, but it’s there if you want it). There's a chart with safe internal temps for poultry and ground meats as well as medium, medium-rare, and well-done temperatures for steaks thoughtfully printed on the front of the thermometer. And it has a magnet, so you can stick it handily on a knife block or the refrigerator instead of frantically rummaging through your kitchen drawers when you need it. Like the Thermapen, this model comes loaded with a battery and has an extra for later, though it’s a CR2032 3V lithium cell battery, which isn't as as simple to replace as the Thermapen’s AAA. Still, if owning the sleekest gadget isn’t important or worth the price tag for you, you’ll be happy with this accurate thermometer.
How We Tested
In order to ensure the therm accuracy, I tested their ability to detect temperatures I already knew. I dipped them in boiling water to see if they detected an accurate 212° F then I inserted them into an ice bath to see if they quickly registered 32° F. For more about why an ice bath and boiling water are appropriate ways to test the accuracy of a thermometer, read here.
Was it simple and intuitive out of the box?
All of the models came with instructions, which I read, of course. But I also evaluated whether you could take it out of the box and get started without reading a manual first.
How accurate is it?
This is the most important factor, since a thermometer that's off by a degree or two (or more) can really make a difference in the quality of your food, depending on what you’re cooking. By using boiling water and an ice bath, I knew what the thermometers should read, so I made sure they did.
How fast is it?
Once you’ve established accuracy, speed is another factor to consider. If you tend to have several things cooking at once that require attention, it's nice to get a temperature read as fast as possible. Though they’re called “instant read” thermometers, they do take a few seconds, and some were faster than others. In the boiling water, the reading times ranged from less than 3 seconds to 8 seconds. The difference for the ice bath was less pronounced, landing between 7 and 10 seconds.
Does it have any additional useful features?
All I really want out of a thermometer is accuracy and simplicity. However, I did take into account any extra features the thermometers might have that made them easier or more convenient to use.
Other Models We Tested
ThermoWorks ThermoPop: This model is far less expensive than its winning cousin at $34, and still offers some good features. It’s fast and accurate (it hit 212ºF in the boiling water in 5 seconds), the display changes direction in two ways at the touch of a button, the thermometer turns off automatically after 10 minutes, and comes in 9 colors. It doesn’t fold up, but rather has a sleeve to cover the probe, and you use an on/off button to start and stop. This would have been our choice for best on a budget, but for $8 less, the Kizen offered a fold-up design, automatic on/off upon unfolding, a magnet for easy-to grab storage, and temperatures for medium rare, medium, and well done on the display.
The Javelin Pro is impressive. It has a lot of the features we love (the display rotates automatically in two directions, a touchpad or a shake activates backlighting, there's an autosleep feature, and you can reawaken the thermometer by shaking it). The Javelin Pro also had the largest display of any of the models we tested, making it super easy to read. It’s a good higher-end option that’s less costly than the Thermapen. Still, Thermapen edged out the Javelin thanks to its automatic or manual backlighting and 4-direction display rotation.
The Taylor Dual Temp Infrared Theracouple Thermometer: Though the probe on this thermometer was fast and accurate, the scan feature—designed to read the surface temperature of items instead of the internal temperature—was off by several degrees. This model is also more complicated than the others we tested. It took me several reads of the instructions to understand how to use the buttons and features properly. This seems aimed at a professional kitchen environment rather than for a home cook—and at $85, we wanted it to be more intuitive.
The Habor Digital Cooking Thermometer took a bit longer to get the temps and was off a bit (it took nearly 8 seconds in boiling water and only reached 211.4ºF), and it has an on/off switch that you have to remember to flip so you don’t kill the batteries.
Once you start using an instant-read thermometer, you'll wonder how you managed without one. It's a crucial tool for Thanksgiving. After all the trouble you went to roasting that turkey, you want it to be perfect for your holiday guests. Beyond roasting season, an instant-read thermometer takes the guesswork out of baked goods and grilled foods. If you’re someone who cooks often, loves gadgets, and wants the whiz-kid version of everything, it’s worth the splurge to get the Thermapen. It does everything you want it to do, plus things you probably didn’t even realize you wanted. The Kizen is less-fancy workhorse that will meet your temp-taking needs quite nicely for a decent price.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious