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Why an instant read thermometer is a must-have kitchen tool

No need to worry about overcooked meat anymore.
Illustration of ThermoWorks ThermoPop in blue, A hand sticking a the Lavatools Javelin PRO in blue in a cake and the MEATER Plus With Bluetooth Repeater and a phone
TODAY Illustration / Amazon / ThermoPop / Meater

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Cooking steaks, roasts and other large pieces of meat and poultry to exactly the right temperature without compromising on juiciness can be challenging. While you can blindly estimate a correct cooking time during grilling or roasting, a better way to test for doneness is with an instant read thermometer.

This handy gadget is a lifesaver in the kitchen and takes the guesswork out of cooking large pieces of meat. The Shop TODAY team got some insight from Lisa McManus, executive editor of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews, on instant read thermometers and why every kitchen should have one.

What is an instant read thermometer and how does it work?

“A good thermometer [tells] you exactly what's going on inside your food, and an instant read thermometer means you won't have to stand around waiting,” said McManus. The best versions read the exact temperature in under three seconds, while others can take up to 12 seconds.

When it comes to construction, most instant read thermometers have two parts: a metal probe that you stick into your food, and a handle that displays the temperature.

How would someone effectively use an instant read thermometer?

You can use an instant read thermometer for just about anything you might cook from whole chicken and steaks to bread and hot oil. McManus explained that you’ll want to always place the probe in the center of the food where it’s the thickest. “For a whole chicken, you want to slide it into the middle of the chicken breast, but be sure not to go all the way to the bone. Then probe the thickest part of the thigh meat — again, making sure you aren't touching bone. For something flat, like a burger or steak, lift up the meat with tongs and slide the probe into the center from the side,” she said.

When taking the temperature of a liquid you’ll want to tilt the pan and put the probe in the middle of the liquid. This will help not to get the tip of the probe too close to the surface of the pan where the temperature could be hotter than the actual liquid inside.

What should someone look for when buying an instant read thermometer?

“Accuracy is the most important thing. If it's not reading accurately, what's the point?” McManus said. Outside of that, look for how fast the thermometer reads the temperature, the length of the probe (which McManus says should be at least four inches), an easy-to-hold handle and screens positioned near the probe with an easy-to-read display.

How do you clean an instant read thermometer?

When it's time for cleaning up, wash your thermometer by hand since their batteries can't handle being in the dishwasher. All you need to do is wipe the thermometer down with some hot, soapy water to kill any germs.

Expert-approved instant read thermometers

Habor 022 Meat Thermometer

This instant read thermometer can register temperatures ranging from -58°F to 572°F and will audibly tell you the temperature when it’s done reading. The switchblade probe is long enough to get to the middle of large cuts of meat or other dishes without letting your hands get too close to something hot.

Smartro ST59 Digital Meat Thermometer

If you’re a fan of the show "Good Eats," you might recognize this type of instant read thermometer as one that’s similar to the one Alton Brown uses. It features a long probe attached to a heat-proof, stretchable cord, so the digital screen can be placed outside of the oven or grill as your meat cooks. You’ll be able to see the current temperature of your food and be alerted when it's reached your desired temperature.

ThermoPro TP19 Waterproof Digital Meat Thermometer

The ThermoPro TP19 thermometer is a steal at just under $30. The device is waterproof, so getting some oil or sauce on it won’t be an issue. It’s also backlit, so it can be easily read on dark evenings or in a big oven with dim lights. Readings pop up on the screen in about two to three seconds, making it easy to know when your dish is ready.

ThermoWorks ThermoPop®

This long probe thermometer is great for candymaking and deep frying since temperature reads are displayed in just a few seconds. It also comes in nine different colors and features a rotating display.

Lavatools Javelin Pro Duo Ambidextrous Digital Meat Thermometer

In just one to three seconds, this instant read thermometer can give you an accurate temperature reading. The thermometer also features an integrated magnet, so it can be placed on an oven door or refrigerator for easy access while cooking.

Thermapen® Mk4

This instant read thermometer is a long-time favorite of America’s Test Kitchen. It reads the temperature in two to three seconds, is waterproof and has a backlight for easy reading. One unique thing about this thermometer is that it turns on the moment you pick it up and turns off the moment you set it back down.

Meater Plus With Bluetooth Repeater

For those who like to infuse a little tech into everything they do, consider the Meater Plus. This instant read thermometer uses a smart device app to let you set a desired temperature, then alert you when your dish is done and how long something should rest before cutting into it.

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