Order The Award Winning AmazingRibs.com Temperature Guide Magnet
This unique guide shows you both USDA recommended temperatures for all your favorite meats as well as the temperatures recommended by chefs (they are not always the same). This 8.5" x 5.5" magnetic card won the prize for "Best BBQ Tool" at the 2012 The National Barbecue Association! Click here to see more of of the information packed into this indespensible guide.
Magic happens within the meat at different temps. Click here to learn some basic meat science.
Click here to learn the thermodynamics of cooking.
Click here for a cooking log that will make you a better cook.
The first thing to do is season and calibrate your grill or smoker by doing a few dry runs without food.
Grommets (but no Wallaces)
One of the problems with a lot of grills is that you have to thread thermometer cables under lids and hoods and then find a way to attach the probe to the grates without letting the tip touch the metal. The lids often crimp or cut the cables.
On a Weber Kettle or Smokey Mountain you can dangle them through the vent hole, but you're never quite sure where the tip of the probe is and if it is touching meat or metal. Then you forget about it, lift the lid, and you thermometer goes flying into the neighbor's yard.
I put this problem to the folks at Maverick. I told them it would be nice if I could drill a hole in the side of a grill, like a Weber Kettle, and insert a probe. They now sell two temperature resistent silicone grommets, little silicone rings, perfect for the job. Just drill a hole in the grill, insert the grommet which fits snugly to the inside of the hole, and then push the tip of the probe through the hole. It will stay in place and hover above the lower grate at just the right height. Click here to order two grommets, one for each grate on a WSM.
Our science advisor, Dr. Greg Blonder, says "The steel is very hard. Create a dimple to help center the drill by hammering a concrete nail or center punch into the side. I also cut a small block of wood to fit behind the spot you are drilling, clamped or held tight. Helps prevent shredding on the inside of the drilled hole, and drops vibration while drilling. Use a newer, sharp high speed bit."
There are hundreds of good digital thermometers out there and I have not tried them all. Many I have tried and do not recommend. Below are the ones I have tried and that I do recommend. If you don't see it here, I have either not tried it or I don't like it.
The "Lamborghini of instant read thermometers" is what Harry Soo of SlapYoDaddyBBQ calls the Thermapen, and he should know because he is one of the winningest competitors on the BBQ circuit.
This is the thermocouple thermometer you see all the cooks on TV using. I highly recommend it for anyone serious about cooking meat or baking bread properly. It reads meat temp in three seconds, is extremely accurate, has large easy-to-see numbers, and a long probe for getting into the center of a large hunk of meat like a ham. The thin probe will not open a gusher when you pull it out. It is on a pivot so it can reach into awkward places. The heat sensor is extremely small, so you know you are reading just where you put it. It is water resistent, reads from -58 to 572°F (-50° to 300°C), and switches between F and C.
Although it was designed to read food temps, it can even read air temp if you insert it through a hole in your grill or smoker, but it can take up to 30 seconds to give a good reading and you want to make sure you place it at the so the plastic body does not melt and the tip is near the food. It comes in a variety of colors.
Another nice thing about the ThermaPen is that the company stands behind it. My first (an older model) began to malfunction after eight years. Probably had nothing to do with the fact that I had dropped it half a dozen times. I called them, gave no indication that I was a writer, described my problem, and rather than hit me up for a repair bill, they told me how to fix it. My only real complaint is that it is hard to read at night. Made in England.
Here's a video that demonstrates the Thermapen's speed compared to the competition:
Click here to order Thermapen.
Click here to order a glow-in-the-dark silicone rubber boot with a magnetic back that protects your Thermapen from drops. The transluscent silicone will mute the color of your Thermapen and it does not fit older models.
Click to order a padded vinyl pouch that fits your Thermapen with or without a silicone boot.
ThermoWorks RT600 Super-Fast Pocket Thermometer
This is a very good inexpensive food thermometer. It is not for measuring oven temp. It has a thin tip with a tiny thermister and it gives an accurate reading in six seconds.
It is small, lightweight, clips in your shirt pocket, waterproof, dishwasher safe, has a range of -40 to 302°F (-40 to 150°C). The waterproof part really got my attention. More than once I have dropped a thermometer in a pot of custard or bowl of chocolate, and then I get to lick it off before I throw it away. Not this one. Best of all, it is only about $20!
ThermoWorks RT301WA Super-Fast Pocket Digital Thermometer
The specs on this nifty thermister are pretty much the same as the RT600 (above) with a couple of interesting differences.
Instant Read Thermometer with Meathead's Award Winning Meat Termperature Magnet. This recent release of the PT-100 is significantly improved over the previous version.
It is clearly inspired by the industry standard, the ThermaPen (above), but it is a little larger because it takes three AAA batteries (included) rather than the coin size battery in the ThermaPen. It comes only in gray and looks a bit more macho than the ThermaPen with black no-slip treads.
The manufacturer claims the temperature range is -40 to 450°F (-40° to 230°C). There is a switch for switching from C to F. The one thing it does better than the ThermaPen is the LCD screen that is backlit and bright enough to read easily in total darkness, and it can be very dark inside a big pit late at night. There is also a small meat temperature guide on the side with which I have a few minor quibbles. Just as important, Maverick gets good marks for customer service in my book and from what I hear from readers.
This thermometer is bundled with my Award Winning Meat Temperature Magnet only through the Amazon link here. Beware: DB Tech is an imitator publishing a lower quality knockoff magnet that is not by Meathead, and does not have all the info on the mine. You can ONLY get the Meathead temp guide with this thermometer by clicking this link Maverick Pro-Temp PT 100.
Maverick ET 732 Wireless Remote 2-Probe Thermometer with Free Meathead's Temperature Guide Magnet
Two thermometers in one, this very cool tool and I highly recommend it. It is best of breed, but there is still room for improvement.
There are two probes and cables, one to insert into the meat and leave it in, and another to leave in your oven/grill/smoker. Both probes plug into a transmitter module that sends temperatures to a receiver module that you can take into the living room with you and place on the coffee table next to the beer and chips. That's right, with the Maverick you can monitor your grill and your meat while you watch the game or cut the lawn. You can also set the timer to remind you when to start the side dishes or wake you up if the game is really boring, or set it for a target temp, and an alarm will let you know when the meat is ready.
It is supposed to have up to 300' range but that's only through clear air. When I move indoors, the range is much less, and your distance will vary depending on what your walls are made from and how many electronic devices you have running. There is an alarm that tells you if you've gotten out of range of the sender, and there is a synch button in case the two units lose their link. Keep the manual handy in case you can't remember which button to push. The interface is fairly easy, but it's no iPhone.
You can set it to read either Fahrenheit or Celcius. The probes can withstand up to 572°F. There is a backlight so it can be viewed in the dark, both the sender and receiver have stands for easy viewing, and it also comes with a nifty clip that holds the oven probe just above the grill grates so it isn't misled by the tip touching metal. You can easily pop open the battery compartment of the receiver, but the sender's battery cover screws down over an o-ring to make it more water resistent so you will need a tiny Phillips head jeweler's screwdriver to insert the batteries, they did not include one. Many eyeglasses screwdrivers will work.
CAVEATS. I need to warn you that there are some problems and the reviews on Amazon are not all favorable. As near as I can tell these are almost all a result of improper handling although a little better engineering would help.
The first issue is that sometimes it doesn't work right out of the box. This is apparently due to the fact that the mini-jack on the end of the probe cables seems to click into place with normal pressure. Normal pressure is not enough on this device. You need to jam it in or it will not work. By simply pushing harder on the jack, this problem goes away.
The other problem is that the probes occasionally fail. This comes from improper washing. Proper washing is easy. Please read the intro to this page, especially the section subtitled Common malfunctions, troubleshooting, and some important warnings. Please click this link before you buy this very good thermometer.
Alas, the meat probe is not instant read and it is pretty thick. It can take up to a minute to correctly read the temp in a piece of meat, so you will still want something like one of the Thermapens for checking meat temp on steaks, chicken, fish, etc.
Maverick has good tech support. When my old receiver began to malfunction, they told me the problem sounded like a bad backlight and told me to ship it back for a replacement. No question about when I bought it. I never identified myself as a writer, so I am confident I got the same treatment as you would. Cables sometimes fray or malfunction, and the manual cautions you not to submerse them and the probes, so you should consider buying a spare set.
Beware, there is an older model, the ET73 still on the market. It is decidedly inferior. Don't buy it.
This thermometer is bundled with my Award Winning Meat Temperature Magnet only through the Amazon link here. Beware: DB Tech is an imitator publishing a lower quality knockoff magnet that is not by Meathead, and does not have all the info on the mine. You can ONLY get the Meathead temp guide with this thermometer by clicking this link Maverick ET 732.
What a really cool idea!
The iGrill is a thermometer with a probe that can be used for meat or oven/grill/smoker temp. Switch it on, and it sends a Bluetooth signal to an app on your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad so you can watch the game while the roast is cooking, cut the lawn, or take a nap because you can set it to beep when one of the probes hits a target temp or time. It will only pair with one device at a time.
There is a jack for a second probe so it can measure both your meat and your cooker or two dishes at once. Some come with one probe some with two. The one with two is a better bargain. This device uses the type of probe that can be ruined if submerged. To clean it, just wash the tip and wipe it clean. For more on this, scroll up to the section on Common Malfunctions.
The bigger problem is that I and others have had occasional problems getting it to pair with devices. They sent me a new one and it works like a charm.
The website has troubleshooting instructions that involves turning Bluetooth on your phone or pad off, rebooting, turning it back on, turning off the iGrill, removing the batteries, and rebooting by holding all the buttons down at once. That usually works.
The base unit, a little larger than a deck of cards, is available in white or black, and has a convenient way to wrap the probe's cable around its body and store the probe so the cable doesn't kink and break and you don't stab yourself, both issues I have had with other thermometers. It runs on two AA batteries (included) and has a built-in display so you don't need to pair it with an Apple device, but the white model I have is almost impossible to read in bright daylight. I suspect the black will be easier to read. The manufacturer claims it works up to 200 feet, but actual distance will depend on the thickness and material in your walls.
It has a folding stand that doubles as a hook so you can hang the unit from the side table on your grill or a nearby hook. It will only go from 32 to 400°F (0 to 204°C), so you need to be careful that you don't put it in a really hot grill. I have tested it against a lab instrument in a smoker and it is pretty close to precise.
The body does not have any buttons that protrude, it has three touch sensitive hotspots, so it can survive a light drizzle, perhaps even rain. Alas, the on off switch is slow to respond, and there is no click or feedback so you don't know for sure if it understood your command.
There is a free app that displays the temps of oven and meat, traces the temps on a chart, and exports the data to an email attachment in pdf or csv (spreadsheet) formats if you wish. The csv file has readings every 2 seconds, the pdf is not very helpful because it is a snapshot of only the reading at only one moment. When it was working, I found the csv download very helpful in developing recipes and I am sure that competition teams could use this to help perfect their methods and timing. You can also set temperature alarms, timers, and countdown timers. Alas, if you switch aps to check the score in the football game, the graph breaks while you were gone.
You can name your probes in the Pro app, name the alarms, switch from C to F, and you can set timers to remind you to add charcoal or to put the beans on. You can select preset temps for meats, but I disagree with some of the numbers. Fortunately you can enter your own preferences (click this link for a better meat temperature guide).
The manual is built into the app and they send updates, but this is not much help if you don't have an Apple device. They are promising an Android version in 2012 and version 2 in 2013. This is a great start to a promising device.
This thermocouple and timer combo is pretty handy. The thermometer works from 32°F to 392°F, and the timer can be operated with the thermometer or separately.
The probe is 7", deep enough for any clod of meat you will cook, and the cable is thin enough that it can be slipped under the lid of your grill or through your oven door.
The cables will withstand the heat of a hot grill, and you should not use this with grills or ovens running more than, say, 375°F, but most things you need to grill should be cooked less than that. It is also not waterproof, so you can't use it in the rain or snow. Best of all, it is cheap in price (but not build) at about $20 and replacement probes are under $10. I recommend buying a backup when you buy the unit. The whole unit can clamshell, and it has a magnet for mounting on the fridge or the legs of your smoker. I have mine stuck to the back of my kitchen oven.
It can fit in your shirt pocket and will hardly dent your rear pocket.
This stainless steel unit is said to be dishwasher safe, but I am reluctant to test that claim. Reads quickly and comes in a protective sheath. Recommended by Cook's Illustrated.
So I have been saying all along that I don't like bi-metal dial thermometers, but there is one brand that stands above all the others and it is accurate enough to be a good indicator, especially in offset smokers.
Infrared laser guns are really kewl looking, but they are not a necessity for the outdoor cook. They are designed to read the temperature of a hot surface like a griddle or a frying pan. They are not good for reading meat temp nor can they measure the temp of a grate or the air inside a grill. You point the gun at a surface like a frying pan, pull the trigger, and it puts a laser beam on the target. Don't let the laser fool you, it is only a targeting aid, the actual surface being read is larger than the laser, so it cannot measure something narrow like the grates on your grill.
This model measures from -58 to 1022°F and it is powered by two AA batteries (included). It works best on dark surfaces and doesn't always read accurately on shiny stainless steel pans or liquids. But because cast iron is slow slow to heat up, I use mine occasionally to determine if my cast iron griddle is the right temp and for frying occasionally.
Where it has really come in handy is for locating cold spots on exterior walls of my house and areas around my windows that leak. If you use a griddle or cast iron pan a lot, or an old house, then this is a useful tool. Otherwise, save your money.
This thermometer is bundled with my Award Winning Meat Temperature Magnet only through the Amazon link here. Beware: DB Tech is an imitator publishing a lower quality knockoff magnet that is not by Meathead, and does not have all the info on the mine. You can ONLY get the Meathead temp guide with this thermometer by clicking this link Infrared Laser Thermometer.
You need to keep your fridge between 35°F and 38°F to prevent frost buildup and keep your food safe. A liquid filled thermometer is the way to go here. They are pretty darn accurate, don't need batteries, and you don't need the speed of a digital. The CDN is low profile and has hooks to hang on the wire racks. Get two, one for the freezer, too.
I include this only because people ask me about it often. It is not recommended. With two probes, this thermistor is not suitable for barbecue although the promotional materials say nothing to that effect. It will probably work fine indoors.
The two cables attached to the probes are plastic coated, and although they are rated for 14 to 392°F air temp, they will probably melt if they make contact with hot metal on a grill. Also, this is one of those therms that has alarms set for different meats, and the alarm temps are waaaay to high. The minimum temp for beef is set to 140°F, well past medium rare. Pork is set 160°F even though the new USDA recommended is 145°F, etc. There is a program mode where you can set you own temp, thank goodness. You can set two timers, and it has a magnet so it can attach to your oven.
This is a nice unit that has a single probe for the meat. It does not go high enough to read a hot grill/oven. But it does have a remote that you can take with you into the house.
Maverick also makes a thermistor that has a probe that can be inserted into meat on a rotisserie and it can read remotely. Hooking it up can be tricky, there are many parts and options, but once you get the hang of it, it works. I found it to be more trouble than I wanted to put up with, so I just periodically switch off the motor and stick the meat with an instant read. If you do a lot of rotisserie cooking, this might be a good bet.
Cooking Thermometers: Buying Guide, Reviews, And Ratings. The Most Important Page On This Website
"The instant-read thermometer, used frequently, solves most issues." Mark Bittman, New York Times food columnist and cookbook author
A radio host once interviewed me and asked "What is the single most important advice you can give a barbecue cook?" My answer, without hesitation, was "Get one good digital thermometer for your cooker and another for your meat."
Only sissies think thermometers are for sissies. They are as important as knives and forks. Proof: Of the thousands of barbecue teams competing for prize money every weekend across the nation, I have never ever seen one that didn't use a digital meat thermometer, and the majority also use digital oven tehrmometers.
Most grills and smokers come with bi-metal dial thermometers, and they're usually crap. Look at the picture above. It is not unusual for this design from the 1800s to be off as much as 50°F like the one above (on an expensive and otherwise superb grill). You cannot trust them. I have readers tell me that when they bought a good digital from my list below that they learned their grills were off by as much as 100°F! This is a recipe for well done steaks, late meals, cold food, embarassment, shame, and ostracism.
So-called "instant read" bi-metal dial meat thermometers can take up to 30 seconds to read accurately. Digitals can read in 1 to 6 seconds with much greater precision! Don't take my word for it. Alton Brown, Food Network Star, author of multiple cookbooks, and mypersonal hero says "Bimetal coil thermometers are about as accurate as a sniper scope on a nerf gun."
Cooking without good digital thermometers is like driving at night without headlights. Spend the money for good thermometers. Right now! They will pay for themselves by saving your meat and your face.
Without good digital thermometers there's a good chance you'll be making lame excuses for overcooked meat, undercooked meat, or, worst of all, apologies at bedside in the hospital as your guests recover from food-borne illness.
Here's what the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says: "The color of cooked meat and poultry is not always a sure sign of its degree of doneness. Only by using a food thermometer can one accurately determine that a meat has reached a safe temperature. Turkey, fresh pork, ground beef or veal can remain pink even after cooking to temperatures of 160°F and higher. The meat of smoked turkey is always pink."
Dispelling some myths
You can't gauge temp with your hand. I don't care what the TV chef said, you absolutely positively definitively without doubt no way no how cannot tell anything about the temp of a grill is by holding your hand over the grate and counting "1001, 10002, 1003" until until your palm starts to smoke. Each of us reacts differently to heat, and the heat 1" above the grate can be significantly different than 6" above. Maybe an old pro who cooks 100 steaks a night can do this parlor trick, but most backyard cooks cannot.
You can't gauge temp by poking the meat. Likewise, you may have also heard that you can tell the doneness of a steak by poking it and comparing the bounciness of the meat to the tip of your nose or the flesh between your thumb and forefinger. As if everyone's hand has the same firmness and bounciness! As if a filet mignon has the same firmness and bounciness of a sirloin! Lookit, almost all professional chefs carry a meat thermometer in their chef's coat. There's a reason: Only sissies think thermometers are for sissies.
You can't rely on pop-up thermometers. They have a compound in the tip that melts at a determined temp and releases a spring that pops the stem up. Although they can be accurate, they can also stick, they read only one part of the turkey, and they are usually set too high. Pop-ups are why your turkey tastes like cardboard. Throw them out.
Using a thermometer will not make your meat dry. Meat is about 75% water. It is not a balloon. When you stick in a probe a few drops of juice may escape but it is nothing compared to the total amount of juice. In an 8 ounce steak 6 ounces are water. If you lose 1/4 ounce, and you probably won't, there are still 5 3/4 ounces of juice left. That's 95%. Stop worrying.
To be a good outdoor cook you need three thermometers:
#1 - You need an oven/grill/smoker thermometer
Can you imagine cooking indoors if your oven did not have a thermometer? Then why do you try to cook outdoors without a good oven thermometer? If you hope to be king of the grill, you've got to know what the oven temp really is. And this may come as a shock, but your indoor oven is probably waaaay off too. It probably needs adjusting, so when you buy a good digital you can calibrate and adjust your indoor oven. So if you buy a good oven/grill/smoker thermometer, you can improve your indoor cooking too. I recommend the the Maverick ET-732, described below, because it is both an oven thermometer and a leave-in meat probe. Two for the price of one.
#2 - You need a food thermometer
The difference between a medium rare and well-done steak is pretty narrow. The diff between moist tender fish and dry chalky fish is even less. Seconds matter. And two pork chops sitting side by side can cook at different rates. The only way to deliver properly cooked meat to the table and protect against food borne illness is to take its temp. If you hate apologizing for overcooked meat or having to take chicken off your guests' plates and sticking it in the microwave, then you've got to get a good meat thermometer. There are two types, instant read and leave-in. I recommend you have both, but if you get only one, go for a good instant read.
1) Instant read. These babies are great for spot checking when you have 10 burgers on. They all cook at a different rate. Or a piece of salmon with a thin part and a thick part. Or a turkey that has dark and white meat that cook at different rates. Just open the grill, poke a thin probe into the meat, and in seconds it tells you the temp. A fast thermocouple is best for this task. I strongly recommend the Thermoworks Thermapen, which reads in 2 seconds, updates itself every 1/2 second, and is extremely accurate.
2) Leave-in probe. A leave-in probe is inserted into thick cuts of meat and left there throughout the cook. It lets you monitor the progress of the cook without having to open the lid and stab the meat. They are essential for pork shoulder, hams, whole hog, pork loin, beef rib roasts, tri-tip, and turkey. I strongly recommend the Maverick ET-73, described below, because they are both a leave-in probe as well as an oven thermometer. Two for the price of one.
#3 - You need a refrigerator thermometer
It is crucial for your budget and your health that your refrigerator be set properly. If your fridge runs too hot, food will spoil, need to be discarded too soon, and there is a risk of food-borne illness. Most fridges have a way to adjust the temp. The ideal temp is just above freezing, from 35 to 38°F. Below 35°F, frost may form and above 38°F, microbes grow too fast. Because the temp can vary from top to bottom and in the drawers, a good refrigerator thermometer that you can move around is important. A liquid thermometer is just fine for this task. It is pretty accurate and it will run forever since there are no batteries involved.
Thermometer shopping checklist
Here is a checklist of things to look for when you go shopping for a good thermometer:
Accuracy. Bad data is worse than no data, so it's important to know where the reading is coming from. For a food thermometer, you want the sensitive part of the meat thermometer to be small and in the tip of the probe. The temp just below the surface can be a lot different than the temp in the center of a chicken breast. For an oven thermometer, you want the temperature reading from right next to where the food is being cooked. A thermometer in the dome of your grill will not tell you the temp that the meat is experiencing 6" below the probe on the grate just over the coals. It can be a lot hotter down there. Dial thermometers are just not reliable and they are usually located way above the food (see the sidebar at right). Good thermocouples are usually accurate within 1°F, and thermistors are usually accurate within 5°F.
Speed to read. How long does it take to get a good reading? This is especially important for instant read meat thermometers. Five seconds or less would be nice. The best work in 3 seconds or less. Now you have to be careful about the time manufacturers quote on how fast they read. They are misleading.
If they quote a "time constant" that is the time it takes to get to 63% of a full reading, and a full reading is five times that. So if they say the time constant is 0.6 seconds, as is the Thermapen, it will be pretty close to done in twice that, but not precise for 3 seconds. Another factor is how fast the display refreshes itself. The Thermapen refreshes every 0.5 seconds. This means you can slowly insert it and remove it and it will give you a new reading every 0.5 seconds. The Fast Response Meat Probe #113-151 which can be plugged into different meters is slightly faster with a time constant of 0.5 seconds, precise read in 2.5 seconds, slightly faster than the Thermapen. But the meters in the kits I recommend refresh every second, so the probe is actually faster than the meter.
Another factor is the conductivity of the medium you are measuring, food, which is mostly water, reads faster than bread, which is mostly air.
Temperature range. If you're going to spend money on a thermometer, it would be nice if it could read the temperature of the meat, the oven, a hot grill, in your freezer, or in an ice bath, and in boiling oil.
Length of the probe. Meat thermometers need to be able to get the temp in the middle of big roasts such as hams and pork shoulders.
Adjustable. Some thermometers can be calibrated (see the info on calibration elsewhere of this page).
Water resistant and easy to clean. You don't need barbecue sauce and soapy water in the inner works. Braided cables can fail if they get wet or if they are crimped or if they are smashed by the grill lid.
Ease of use. Is it easy to read? If it has lots of buttons and settings, can you remember how to use them? Is there a backlight for night use?
Price. There are some decent units for under $20 and others can cost almost $200 with attachments.
Timer. Although not necessary, some digital thermometers also have timers with alarms. Very handy.
Warranty and customer service. What is the warranty? Does the manufacturer have replacemet parts and sell them at a reasonable price? Do they have a good reputation?
How they work:
Thermocouples are the best food thermometers because they're fast and precise. Some thermocouples can read accurately in fewer than two seconds, faster than any other sensor. They're thin: They have two tiny wires in the probe, so the tip can be very small and thin. The sensitive area is very close to the tip so you know just what you're reading and they can be used to check the temp in several locations easily. They're accurate: Their margin of error is usually less than 2°F. Some can be calibrated. You can get thermocouples that are great for instant metering, or others that can be left deep inside a roast like a pork shoulder or a ham for hours.
Thermistors: Good for continuous readings for large roasts and oven thermometers
Thermistors are digital thermometers with a small resistor in the tip. They are not as quick as thermocouples, they tend to be thicker, and they can be slightly less accurate, usually within 5°F. Some have a leave-in probe on a wire that allows you to insert it into the meat and get the readout from outside the oven so you can monitor the meat temp continuously.
Why most bi-metal dial thermometers are not reliable
Most bi-metal coil dial thermometers should be called heat indicators, not thermometers. These dial-and-needle readouts use two strips of metal bonded together and rolled into a coil. Each metal expands at a different rate, turns a shaft and this provides the reading on a dial.
They are slow and because the helix can be 0.5" long or more it is not as precise at reading a specific location as the tiny sensor in the tip of a digital. I don't recommend them for measuring food or air temp.
Most thermometers built into grills and smokers are bi-metal, but they are often low quality in order to keep the grill price down. Also, these grill themometers are mounted in the dome where the temp can be very different from the temp at the cooking surface making them both unreliable and misleading.
They can easily become unreadable if they fill with smoke and or water. If you get condensation or water under the glass of a bi-metal thermometer, put it in a zipper bag with a couple of cups of rice or dried pasta and seal it up. In about a week the grain will have absorbed the moisture and your thermometer should be back to normal.
Some bi-metal thermometers are rated as oven-safe and can be inserted into meat and left in during cooking, but the sensitive area may be up to one inch or longer, so they are useful only for meat thicker than 4", such as pork shoulders.
Now that I have slammed bimetals, I should tell you that there is one brand that a lot of the pros use on their big pits and they tell me it is pretty accurate. Tel-Tru. It comes with a wingnut, a range from 150°F to 700°F, 1.75" dial, and a 2.13" stem. As good as they are, that dial face is just not as accurate as a numeric readout that is precise to within a degree or two.
Other thermometers: Not recommended for cooking
Old-fashioned liquid filled thermometers are very accurate so they make good oven and refrigerator thermometers, but they cannot read a small area such as the center of a hunk of meat well, and they are very slow.
I'll tell you where to stick it
Most grills come with cheapo thermometers that are an afterthought to manufacturers and are usually bought bulk from cheap producers. To make matters worse, the probe is located high in the dome well above the food. Unless you plan to eat the dome, this is a bad place for the thermometer. You need to know the temperature where the food is. So put the probe about 2" to the side of the food (it is cold), and about 1" above the grate (it is hot).
Some thermometers, like the Maverick, come with a handy clip that does the job just fine.
If you don't have a clip, use a ball of foil. Make sure the tip, where the sensitive parts are, protrudes from the foil.
Listen to this email from a reader "I had been clipping the probe on the underside of the upper rack. That had the probe about 3" to 4" above the top of the meat. My food was taking much longer to cook than your recipes say. So I tried the probe in that location for about 1/2 hour and then moved the probe to the cooking surface, clipping it to the cooking grate about 4" to 5" below the previous location. The difference in temperature was about 25 to 30°F cooler at the cooking grate location! I never would have believed it! So in actuality, when I thought I was cooking at 225 to 230°F, I was actually cooking at 195 to 200°F! No wonder everything was undercooked!"
Just how hot is it?
When measuring the oven temp (remember, a grill or a smoker is just an outdoor oven that is poorly insulated, has no thermostat, and a lousy thermometer), put your probe near the food you are cooking! But keep it about 2" away from the food because tehre is a bubble of cold air surrounding it when it first goes on. Don't put your probe above the food in the dome, or below it close to the fire. Put it to the side.
When measuring meat temp, take the temp in more than one location because the composition of the meat and the unevenness of the grill can fool you. Insert the tip of the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat and go past the center. Slowly pull it out. Read the coldest temp. Test other locations. Here's are two other tricks for taking the temp of a thick cut of meat.
1) Line up the probe tip on the outside of the meat (that's a brisket below) until the point is past the middle. Then slide your finger tip until it touches the top of the meat (top photo). Now slide the probe into the meat until your finger touches the meat. The tip will be past the center (bottom photo). Now pull it back slowly and read the lowest temp. If any modeling agencies need a hand model my wife is available. Ain't that a purty finger?
2) Another option is to insert the probe from the side as in the porterhouse below. Use your finger to locate the center of the meat as above. Stay away from the bone which heats at a different rate than the muscle.
Thermometers are essential tools. Buy good ones and take care of them. Here are some tips on caring for them.
Calibration. You should check a thermometer's accuracy soon after you buy it, then once every year, and again if you drop it. You can check your thermometer's accuracy with boiling water and with ice water.
Boiling water. Bring a pot with about 3" of water to a boil and insert the probe. It should read about 212F. Notice the key word "about". The exact reading can vary slightly with air pressure (factory calibration is based on one atmosphere, about 30" of mercury). Minerals in tap water can cause minor variations, so use distilled water if you want to be absolutely precise. I just use tap water. Remember that water boils at lower temps at high altitudes. The ThermoWorks website has a nifty calculator that helps you determine what your boiling point is.
Ice water. Fill a tall glass with ice cubes, not crushed ice, add cold water, and let it sit a minute. Insert the probe and make sure it is not below the ice or touching the ice. The temp below the ice can be several degrees above 32F (0C) and the temp of the ice can be below 32F. The experts at ThermoWorks say "Make sure the probe is in the middle of the ice water mixture and then gently stir for best results." The ice water test does not vary with altitude.
Customizing the Thermapen
You can personalize your Splash-Proof Thermapen by changing the factory default settings. Here are the instructions from the Thermoworks website on how to:
- change the display units from °F to °C
- change the display resolution from 0.1° to 1°
- disable the auto-off feature
To make any of these changes, open the battery compartment and, using the tip of a bent paper clip, flip the appropriate switch:
Switch 1: Display Units. The factory setting for your Thermapen display is for °F. To display °C, move the switch numbered “1” to the “off” position—towards the batteries.
Switch 2: Display Resolution. The factory setting for your Thermapen display is to show temperatures to tenths of a degree (0.1°) for both °F and °C. To change to whole numbers (1°), move the switch numbered “2” to the “on” position—away from the batteries.
Switch 3: Disable Auto-off. The factory setting for your Thermapen is with the auto-off feature enabled. This means your Thermapen will turn itself off ten minutes after you extend the probe and turn it on, to preserve battery life. Once off, you will have to close the probe and extend it again to turn the Thermapen back on. To disable this auto-off feature while taking lengthy readings, move the switch numbered “3” to the “on” position—away from the batteries. Remember, with auto-off disabled, your Thermapen will stay on and continue using battery power if you forget to close the probe.
Switch 4: Trim Adjust. This feature allows you to set an offset that will automatically add or subtract a number of degrees from your Thermapen readings. It should NOT be needed for normal use.
Lately I have been noticing comments on Amazon from disgruntled thermometer buyers complaining their units have failed. They are mostly about thermometers with flexible cables. As I read their comments carefully, I have come to the conclusion that most of the problems are because the owners did not read the instructions.
Failures are usually probe or cable failures rather than electronics failures. With proper care, probes should last years. I have numerous braided cable thermometers (I test a lot of thermometers) and only one has failed and then it was after several years of abuse. I was able to buy a replacement at a reasonable price.
I raised the subject with a bigshot at Maverick and he told me this story: "I had a consumer drive [to our office]. He advised he got HHH on his probe [an error message]. I assembled unit and turned on. I saw the HHH. I pushed the probe jacks into the meter a little harder to make sure they were making good connection. Solved problem. Consumer stood in my office with mouth open."
Apparently this is a common problem. Make sure you have crammed the jack all the way into the meter and twist them back and forth so they make better contact.
If the unit still displays an error or cryptic message like HHH or LLL, let the probe tip come to room temperature. The error may have been because you exceeded the range of the probe. If the problem still persists, remove the batteries and put them back in so the device can reset itself. If there is still a problem, it is likely the probe wire has shorted out, not a failure of the electronics.
Keep probes dry. Thermometer probes with braided cables like the ones on the otherwise excellent Maverick ET-732 occasionally fail if water gets into the place where the solid probe and the braided cable connect. That means you absolutely cannot submerge them when you wash them. The braid can get wet in a drizzle because the wires within are coated, but the junction between the braid and the solid probe is vulnerable.
Cleaning. If the probe has shorted out it is probably because you submerged it when washing it. After using a meat probe, get a sponge wet with soapy water and sponge off only the tip that was in the meat. Then rinse under the faucet or with a wet paper towel being careful to keep water off the braid and especially out of the junction. To clean a smoker probe, use a soapy sponge and focus only on the lower 1" since the sensor is usually within the lower 1/4". You don't have to clean the smoker probe after every use, just don't let it build up an opaque coat.
Order spares. Probes are like hard drives. They can fail and they will fail at the most inopportune times. Fortunately most are cheap. If you depend on your thermometers, and you should, keep a spare probe or two in inventory because you know for sure yours is going to die on Christmas Day when you are cooking a 16 pound Wagyu Prime Rib that cost you $400.
Don't drop them. DOH!
Don't smash or crimp the cable. If the lid on a grill smashes the cable it can break the internal wire. Crimping it can also break the internal wire.
Don't leave them out in the rain. Many of the best digitals are not water resistant, no less water proof. If it looks like it may rain, put your meter in a zipper plastic bag.
Stay within the temp ranges. Pay attention to the specifications in the manual. Each unit has a temp range. Don't go over it! You can damage the probe.
All this raises the question: Why can't manufacturers come up with a fully submersible probe and cable? And those manuals! Would you please hire a professional writer rather than asking your English major daughter to write it? C'mon guys! Get with it!
K-Type thermocouples are the best for pros, competition teams, and really serious cooks
Thermoworks makes several excellent thermocouple gauges that can take a wide range of specialty interchangable probes called K-probes. The meters are inexpensive (the fast accurate Mini at left is only about $45), but the probes are expensive, $30 to $60. You can buy the parts a la carte, or order one of the package deal kits they assembled at my request, also below. A word of caution: Thermoworks sells a number of other probes that I have tested. These are the ones I recommend for barbecue and grilling. Cheap out if you wish, but it would be a mistake. Available from ThermoWorks.
It is a small splash resistant handheld meter that can work with more than a dozen plug-in K-type probes. The meter is accurate to within 1°F from -83°F to 1,999°F (-64°C to 1,400°C)! The probe can be removed and replaced with a probe on a cable for leaving in a roast, or a different cable for leaving in the cooking chamber for measuring oventemp. This is a very versatile inexpensive tool. Available from ThermoWorks.
Two-Channel Thermocouple Thermometer with Alarm #TW8060 (near left) is my go-to for reading smoker and grill temps in more than one location. Or you can put an oven probe on one slot and a leave-in probe on the other. It has an alarm that will go off if your oven or meat exceeds your prefered temp or drops below. It refreshes the reading every second. It does everything that the Maverick ET-732 does except transmit the temps to you on the couch, only it is more versatile and precise. Available from ThermoWorks.
Fast Response Meat Probe #113-151 is the probe shown far left on the Mini. It is almost hypodermic thin so it can be used for burgers and thin steaks and reads precisely in only 2.5 seconds and is almost precise within 1 second. Coupled with the Mini #MTC meter (at right) it is my fave. You can insert it into a piece of meat and slowly back it out and read the different layers as you go! But remember, it is meant for probing and removing. It cannot be left in meat while it is in the cooker. Max temp 482°F (250°C). Available from ThermoWorks.
Smoke House Penetration Probe #THS-113-178 can be left in the meat and the stainless cord is super heavy duty and will not fray. The probe is about three times the thickness of the Fast Response Meat Probe (above) but it is still not too thick. This cable is far sturdier than any I have ever seen. But it is thick and will not fit under grill lids without letting hot air out. You need to have a hole through which you insert it. It functions up to 662°F (350°C) so it can be used to measure hot air temp as well as meat. It reads Available from ThermoWorks.
High Temp Flexible Ceramic Fiber-Insulated Probe #WD-08467-64 can be used for measuring really high oven temp up to 2,500°F (1371°C). It is my standard for measuring the air temp in grills and smokers. Because it is flexible you can bend it and wrap it around things like grill grates. Available from ThermoWorks.
ThermoWorks Pro BBQ Kit: Perfect for BBQ competition teams, restaurants, serious backyarders
At my request, Thermoworks has put together a kit and a bargain with everything a BBQ pro, competition team, or restaurant will ever need. There are two meters and three probes. Both meters use the universal K connector (the yellow thingy with the two prongs) so both meters can take any of the three probes included, as well as scores more from Thermoworks and others.
The Pro Kit includes the TW8060 Thermocouple Alarm Thermometer, described above in detail. It has two ports for probes, so you can use the Armored Smokehouse Penetration probe to monitor the meat, and the High-Temp Flexible Ceramic Fiber-Insulated probe to keep tabs on the temperature of the oven, grill, or smoker. All are described above.
There is also a fast MTC Mini Handheld Thermocouple Meter with a very thin Fast Response Meat probe so you can spot check different parts of the food or use it on small cuts of meat. The kit is $30 less than the items individually. Click here to order from Thermoworks.
ThermoWorks Semi-Pro BBQ Kit: Perfect for the backyard cook
Also at my request, Thermoworks has assembled a kit and bargain for the serious backyard cook. It comes with a superfast Mini Handheld Thermocouple Meter (MTC) that you can plug into any of the three temperature probes in the kit.
Place the Armored Smokehouse Penetration probe in meat to monitor its progress, and place the High-Temp Flexible Ceramic Fiber-Insulated probe in the oven, grill, or smoker to keep tabs on it. You can move the meter from probe to probe and get rapid readings. And then there's the super thin Fast-Response Probe to spot check your meat or to use on thin cuts with precise readings in less than three seconds. The kit is $25 less than the items individually. Click here to order from Thermoworks.
With the introduction of the BBQ Guru in 2004, we entered the thermostatically controlled cooker era. Regardless of the weather outside, just set it and forget it has come to the back yard, just like in your kitchen. Originally expensive, more modestly rpiced models are appearing. They all are designed for charcoal and wood fired grills and smokers, but I predict thermostats for gassers cannot be far in the future. Every pellet smoker/grill has one and they are a joy to use.
They all work on a simple feedback principle. A thermometer in the cooking chamber tells a blower to turn on and feed more air to the fire when the temp drops below the target. It then tells the fan to turn off when the temp gets too high. Simple.
But the devil is in the details. You need a tight cooker so air doesn't leak in or out. Weber Kettles and Weber Smokey Mountains work well, as do most ceramic and kamado grills.
Introduced in October 2011, the PartyQ is a very clever inexpensive thermostat device made by BBQ Guru, the pioneering inventor of thermostat controllers for grills and smokers. Their high-end models are popular on the competition circuit, and I'm sure this one will catch on big with that crowd because it is simple and inexpensive. But it also belongs in your back yard. It is the perfect companion to any grill or smoker that can be close to leakproof near the coals, like a Weber Kettle, Weber Smokey Mountain, all Kamado Smokers, and many cabinet style cookers. Their website lists a number of grills it fits.
You place the thermocouple thermometer probe into the cooking chamber and attach it to the cooking grates with its alligator clip. The other end is attached to a controller that you can set for whatever temp you want. The controller is attached to a small blower that turns on and off depending on the air temp temp in the cooker. The PartyQ runs on four AA batteries. Its competitor, the iQue (below), needs to be plugged into a wall outlet.
On the Weber Kettle, the blower needs to go through a 1" hole that you drill in the grill. Their website and printed materials show it mounted at the bottom, below the charcoal grate, but that is on a Weber Smokey Mountain. I had problems with ash getting into the fan and with it blowing ash around down there. Since then I have drilled several holes in my old trusty 15 year old kettle testing locations (now I have an excuse to buy a new Weber Performer Kettle!), and, if your lid fits tightly, it can go pretty much anywhere between the cooking grate and the charcoal grate (right). I have had great luck with pairing this device with the Smokenator (right). The two make your cheap kettle into a serious smoker.
Important. When used with the Smokenator, do not place the Smokenator over the PartyQ, it could melt some of the plastic parts.
On a Weber Smokey Mountain the PartyQ fits into an intake hole in the bottom without drilling, you just have to block off the other holes with aluminum foil or the heat resistant tape they include in the box. Many ceramic grills have ports built in for this type of device. They have a deflector for the PartyQ that keeps ash out, but it requires drilling a much bigger hole.
Mounting it is a cinch once the hole is located or drilled, then all you need to do is switch it on, set the target temp on the LCD readout, and place the probe near your meat. Close the intake vents, but leave the exhaust vent open at least partially unless your grill is leaky, in which case you can close it. Set the temp you want in 1 degree increments (F or C), let it run for about 30 minutes to stabilize the temp, and you can put the meat on. You can read the actual temp with the LED. Once things are stabilized, you want to keep the lid on to keep excess oxygen from reaching the coals.
The PartyQ can be calibrated in case it ever veers from true. Just insert the probe in boiling water and push some buttons and it will lock in to boiling temp. It can also be set to read in F or C.
The only negatives: It is not water resistant, so if it is raining or snowing, you need to duct tape a plastic bag around it being careful not to block the fan. There is no backlight so you need a flashlight in the dark. You must keep the unit running so the fan keeps itself cool otherwise heat buildup could melt it. Leaving it run for long cooks will use up batteries, so rechargeables may be the way to go. You need to make sure the batteries don't die or your blower might melt and your pit could go out. Also, the installation instructions and manual look to be slapped together and could be better written, and it sure would be nice if they would make the type in the manual a little larger for old farts like Meathead. I actually needed a magnifying glass to read some of the instructions for the Setup Menu.
Best of all, the PartyQ sells for $129 plus $10 for special adapters for certain grills.
BBQ Guru also makes a number of more complex and feature-laden controllers. They have a dizzying list of features and options, some with the ability to read both the cooker and meat, multiple cookers and meats. Some can be programmed to start at one temp, rise to another, drop, and hold as well as change temps depending on the meat temps. They also sell adapters for practically any pit you can imagine, commercial, competition, and backyard. With optional probs, adapters, and accessories.
The best of the lot is the Cyber Q which has a built in Wifi web server to allow remote access from your mobile device or PC. It can even send you email alerts. It has a pit probe and three food probes that come standard with the controller. The range is 32 to 475°F range with +/- 2°F accuracy. Runs on 100-240v AC or 12v DC so you can run it off your car battery at competitions.
The Pitmaster iQue has a blower that puffs air through a 1" flexible tube. The tube attaches to a stainless steel bowl that covers one of the air intakes on the bottom of the grill. The thermometer probe has a gator clip that attaches to the cooking grate. The blower and controller must be plugged into the wall althoughthere is an optional adapter available to plug the unit into a car battery cigarette lighter.
The setup begins by removing all the ash from the cooker. On my ancient Weber Kettle I had to wipe the bottom outside to block two of the three air intakes with heatproof tape, a small amount of which is supplied. The tape must be removed after the cook if you want to use the grill for normal high heat grilling, so you'll probably want to buy a roll of tape. On my Weber Smokey Mountain the bowl covers one of the inlets, and the other two dampers can be closed in the normal fashion. The bowl screws on easily with a toggle bolt. For kamado or ceramic grills, there is an adapter that fits the intake on the bottom.
On the Kettle I was then instructed to place foil on 2/3 of the charcoal grate above the air inlet to keep cold air off the meat and the temperature sensor. This is a bit of a pain. On the WSM the setup was normal. The controller unit comes with a rope to hang it from the grill's handle, but the heat from the body of the cooker could melt the controller, so I lay it on a chair. It is not rain or snowproof, and because the blower is in the middle of the controller, there's no way to protect it with a plastic bag.
There is an adjustable intake damper so you can control inflow. Finally, you set the controller with a dial from 175°F to 375°F (F only). Unlike the PartyQ, there is no readout telling you what the actual temp is, but there are LED indicators that give you feedback. - Meathead
This device is an incredible hi-tech solution. It has a thermometer that goes into the cooking chamber and sends the info to a digital controller. The controller turns on and off a blower that regulates the airflow to the charcoal combustion chamber and thus controls the temp extremely accurately.
You can even insert another probe in the meat and plug that into the controller. You can program the controller to manage the temp on a variety of criteria. You can set it cook high for half an hour and then drop the temp or the inverse. Or you can have it cut back the temp when the meat hits a mark. It can even be connected to a wireless router and you can even control it with your computer or smart phone's web browser. The manual was clearly written by an engineer, and the settings and menus were decidedly not designed by a user interface expert from Apple, and you still have to make sure your grill doesn't run out of fuel, but thermostats are where it's at, Jack. I would give it a gold medal if the programming were not so difficult. Hey, this is the age of the iPhone, Rock, can you make this a bit easier, please?
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