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About the features, specs, and technical terms
Adjustable. Some thermometers' accuracy can drift and they can then be adjusted to bring them back to the correct reading.
Alarms. Some devices can be set to alert the cook when a high or low temp is reached either with an audible alarm, such as a beep, or a visible alarm, such as a flashing display.
App. BlueTooth and wifi enabled devices have a smartphone or tablet app that talk to the device.
Auto shutoff. If you don't use the device for a set period of time, it will shut itself off to save batteries
Backlight. Digital thermometers are hard to read at night unless they have a backlight.
Bi-metal dial thermometers. Most bi-metal coil dial thermometers mounted in grill hoods should be called heat indicators, not thermometers. We do not recommend them. They have round clock-like readouts and the sensor uses 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. Bi-metal meat thermometers can take up to 30 seconds to give an final reading and because the sensor can be 1/2" long or more they c annot read a specific location in meat. Most thermometers built into grills and smokers are bi-metal, but they are often low quality in order to keep the grill price down. They can easily become unreadable if they fill with smoke and or water. Also, these grill thermometers 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.
C/F Switch. Most thermometers have a switch to change the display from Centigrade to Fahrenheit.
K-Probes. Some thermocouple thermometers have a standardized spade-like connector for scores of interchangeable probes.
Liquid filled thermometers. Old-fashioned liquid filled thermometers are very small glass tubes filled with a liquid that sit in a bulb at the bottom. As the liquid warms it expands. They are slow but they can be very accurate. Because they do not need batteries, they make good refrigerator and freezer thermometers, but they cannot read a small area such as the center of a hunk of meat well.
Logging. Some thermometers can remember the readings taken over time and create a log that can either be printed or exported to a spreadsheet.
Margin of Error. Most thermometers are considered to be accurate if the are within plus or minus 3°F of the target tempderature. High end thermometers are more precise than this.
Min / Max. The minimum and maximum temperatures it is capable of reading. On some devices, especially those which use differnt probes, the Min / Max can vary with the probe.
Oven. We often refer to an oven to cover a range of cooking devices including grills and smokers, which are, essentially, outdoor ovens.
Popup thermometers. Popups 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 to prevent litigation. Pop-ups are why your turkey tastes like cardboard. Throw them out.
Price. Usually the manufacturer's suggested retail price. When that is not available we use the approximate street price.
Sensor. Thermocouple, thermistor, liquid, bi-metal. They are described in detail below.
Speed. We measure how long it takes the thermometer to go from 32°F to 212°F or from 212°F to 32°F. But you have to be careful about the time manufacturers quote. Often they use an industry standard called "time constant". That is the time it takes to get to 63% of a full reading, and a full reading is be five times that. So if they say the time constant is 0.6 seconds, as is the Thermapen, it will be precise in about 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 Thermoworks K-type 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 if you plug it into the MTC meter, which refreshes every 1 second, the probe is actually faster than the meter, and combined they are slower than the Thermapen. Another factor is the conductivity of the medium you are measuring, food, which is mostly water, reads faster than bread, which is mostly air, a poor conductor.
Thermistors. Thermistors are usually not as quick as thermocouples, they tend to be thicker, and they can be slightly less accurate, usually with a margin of error of 5°F. They are best for leaving in large roasts and oven for continuous readings. Thermistor units send a current through a wire in the probe with a resistor in the tip. Its resistance to the electrical flow changes with temperature and the meter measures the voltage across the resistor.
Thermocouples. Thermocouples are the best food thermometers because they're fast and precise, with a small sensor, ideal for rapid read thermometers. Their margin of error can be less than 1°F. Thermocouple probes have two tiny wires of different metals welded at the tip, most often nickel and chromium (called Type K). The heat causes a tiny voltage to appear across the dissimilar metals which are connected to a meter that measures the voltage and calculates the temperature.
Water resistance rating. Some manufacturers simply specify that a thermometer is "water resistant" but this is not a regulated description and should be taken with a grain of salt. Some manufacturers use a third party service, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). It rates devices using an International Protection rating code (an IP code). An IP code might look like this IP65. The first digit is protection against solids like dust, and the second digit is protection against liquids. They range from IP00 to IP68. If a thermometer was IP65, it was tested and found completely protected against dust as well as protected against low pressure jets of liquid from all sides, so it is OK in the rain, but NOT protected against a swim in the BBQ sauce.
Where to buy. We provide links to some suppliers, especially to those who pay us a finder's fee if you buy from them. In some cases, our links provide a Compact AmazingRibs.com Meat Temperature Guide with the product. You will only get the guide by following the link provided.
Best Value Awards
Gold Medal. Among the best of its type in its price category. A strong buy recommendation if this is your budget.
Silver Medal. A fine product among the best in its price category with only minor shortcomings. Recommended for purchase if a Gold Medal is not available.
Bronze Medal. A good product, better than average, but may be making in features or quality compared to higher rated products. Worth considering for purchase if you cannot find or afford a Gold or Silver Medal.
Not Recommended. These are products that we think are poor choices compared to competitors based on price, features, and construction quality.
Not Judged Yet. These are products that may be award caliber, perhaps even Gold Medal caliber, but we do not know enough about them yet to give them an award.
How We Test, Review, And Rate Thermometers
We purchase almost all of the thermometers we review. These are truly unbiased reviews. We do not make or sell anything, and our advertising is sold by third party ad networks. We are not involved in the process. Rest assured that when we recommend a product, it is really because we like it, not because someone has paid us to say so or because the company is an advertiser or sponsor. Manufacturers are never charged to have products reviewed or be included in the listings.
Bill McGrath, an electrical engineer, does all out thermometer testing, ratings, and reviews. He uses special National Institute of Standards & Technology rated and calibrated equipment to check the accuracy and speed of thermometers. He uses an ice and water bath and a boiling water bath to measure the time it takes each thermometer to go from 32° to 211°F and to go from 212° to 33°F. After we take objective measurements, we evaluate based on subjective criteria such as ergonomics, ease of use, flexibility, warranty, access to support, and build quality. Finally, we consider value when making our awards.
"The instant-read thermometer, used frequently, solves most issues." Mark Bittman, New York Times food columnist and cookbook author