The crucial tool you need for perfect Memorial Day grilling (besides a grill!)

Memorial Day grilling
Alexander Shalamov /
By Casey Barber
Alexander Shalamov / Today

You might have the most tricked-out grill on the block, the finest hardwood briquettes, and an arsenal of tongs and spatulas at the ready, but have you remembered the most important grilling tool of all? A meat thermometer is absolutely essential for safe and successful cookouts this Memorial Day weekend and all summer long. Here's why you need one, plus tips on which type to buy:

It takes the guesswork out of cooking anything—from beer-can chicken to pork shoulder to steak

"Meat is an investment," says master butcher Kari Underly, author of "The Art of Beef Cutting" (Wiley). And nothing ruins that investment like overcooking meat to the point of dryness. With a thermometer, you also won't risk undercooking the meat below the safe recommended temperature. A meat thermometer doesn't rely on sight, smell or touch. If you know the target temperature—145˚F for pork, fish and steaks cooked to medium, 160˚F for ground meat, and 165˚F for poultry—you'll end up with a perfectly done result every time.

Analog thermometers like this one get the job done, but consider a faster digital or probe version instead.Mark Rasmussen / Today

You'll get an accurate measurement quickly

Digital meat thermometers improve on the old-fashioned analog version, which relies on a needle and a dial to relay temperature. The pinpoint accuracy of a digital version gives you an instant assessment of how close your meat is to being done. "The meat continues to cook even when it's off the heat or the grill's open, so the quicker you can take that temperature, the closer you are to a perfect steak," Underly says. "And if your steak or roast is thicker on one end than the other, you can test a couple of points to make sure it's completely cooked through." Underly loves the digital, professional-grade Thermapen for its lightning-fast accuracy, but there are a number of other quality digital options on the market.

You won't forget about what's on the grill

Probe thermometers have a thicker point than removable digital thermometers, and the rigid probe stays in the meat as it cooks; meanwhile, a heat-safe wire connects the probe with a base that stays outside the grill and beeps loudly when the meat reaches a preset temperature. The "set it and forget it" functionality of a probe thermometer ensures accuracy even when you're running around putting out (metaphorical) party-hosting fires. "This way, you're not constantly poking at the meat, and you can set a reminder a few degrees before the meat's done," Underly says. (Hint: This method is great for Thanksgiving turkeys, too.) Invest in a good-quality thermometer, and you'll thank yourself long after grilling season is over.