Aside from a well-sharpened knife, few kitchen tools can deliver on the promise of taking your cooking to the next level like a quality digital thermometer.
We know what you may be thinking. Perhaps you’ve gotten by for years with a dial thermometer and have been happy with the results. We respect that. Ina Garten, who’s pretty much the living embodiment of our life goals, still uses a dial meat thermometer on her TV shows. And while we hesitate to second-guess culinary royalty, hear us out on why we think a good digital thermometer can take almost anything you make to the next level.
It works for all your temperature-checking needs
The difficulty with dial thermometers is that they aren’t one size fits all. Most dial thermometers for meats are only accurate over a very small range and can’t be used for deep-frying or candy making, and vice versa. But a good digital thermometer will cover a massive range (usually -58°F to 572°F | -50°C to 300°C) and give you accurate readings regardless of the temperature.
And when your thermometer can check any temperature, a whole world of new possibilities are open to you. While visual cues are incredibly important when cooking, they can sometimes lead you to undercook or overcook certain things. Your pumpkin pie may still look a little too jiggly at 170°F, but we promise it will set and be the silkiest pie you’ve ever eaten if you take it out of the oven then. Similarly, if your oven browns things too quickly you might think your brioche is done before it’s reached 190°F in the center yet later be disappointed when it’s not as airy as you’d hoped. Unsure what exactly constitutes a simmer? There’s a temperature for that, too (180° to 185°F). Soon you’ll be poking all your food, from cheesecakes to baked potatoes, and your results will be better for it.
That said, keep in mind it isn’t a miracle worker and still relies on you getting it in the right place for the best results. We always find sticking the probe in sideways for thin cuts, like a steak or a pork chop, yields the most accurate results of internal temperature.
It’s fast and accurate
Digital thermometers are frequently referred to as “instant-read” for a reason. They’re fast and accurate. Dial thermometers use coiled metal inside that expands and contracts with temperature changes, which causes the dial to move, a process that’s dependent on the metal taking time to heat. Digital thermometers accomplish this quickly by measuring the variance in an electrical current between two metal leads (details can be found here for those of you who are science nerds), which happens significantly faster, more accurately, and in a smaller package than an old-style dial thermometer.
Dial thermometers tend to have rather thick probes, similar in thickness to a wooden skewer, and the part that detects the temperature usually takes up the last two inches. When part of the temperature sensor can’t even be in the food you’re checking, this can make it hard to accurately detect the temperature of very thin meats, like fish filets or chicken cutlets. Digital thermocouple probes require very little space and typically live in the final half-inch of the probe, usually the thinnest part, making it easy to unobtrusively check temperatures without leaving a gaping hole in your chicken breast or cheesecake. The speed with which a digital thermometer works lets you get in and out of the oven in seconds to check on your roast without letting all the heat out, and you can be confident that you’ll always have accurate results.
Our favorite digital thermometers
Thermapen Mk4 Digital Thermocouple Thermometer
It will probably come as no surprise that the Thermapen easily takes our top spot, seeing it draws accolades across the internet, but we promise you this isn’t some giant expensive thermometer conspiracy. It outperforms the competition by a lot. The explosion of excitement from our recipe testers every time there’s a sale on Thermapens is akin to kids on Christmas morning. It truly is one of the most beloved tools in our kitchens.
The original Thermapen was an industry leader with the fastest read times (2 to 3 seconds) and hand-calibrated accuracy down to ±0.7°F (±0.4°C). The Mk4 improves on all the features that make the original a cult success, adding in a backlit display and water resistance up to 30 minutes if it accidentally falls in the sink. We especially love the motion sensitive feature, which automatically wakes the thermometer back up from sleep mode when we pick it up off the counter, preserving battery life and saving us from fiddling with buttons when concentrating on our caramel. If you decide to take the plunge, make sure to buy directly from Thermoworks as that’s the only way to get the 2-year warranty.
While we think everyone’s kitchen would benefit from a Thermapen, all that performance comes at a steep price. Thankfully, you can get many of the benefits of a digital thermometer without spending more than $10, including this model from ThermoPro. While temperature reads take noticeably longer (4 to 6 seconds), it’s an easy tradeoff to make in exchange for the price, especially since you still get similar accuracy and a backlight for outdoor/nighttime cooking.
How to test your thermometer’s batteries
Regardless of what model you choose, make sure you test your thermometer every six to 12 months for accuracy, which you can do using boiling water (212°F |100°C) and using a bowl of ice with a little water in it (32°F | 0°C). If your thermometer isn’t reaching these temps accurately, it could be one of two problems. Most likely you need to change the battery, since a failing battery can lead to inconsistent results. If you have a fresh battery inside and you’re still not meeting the mark, it’s likely your thermometer needs to be recalibrated. Some models, such as our favorite Thermapen, have the ability to be recalibrated by the consumer, but many do not and should either be serviced by the manufacturer or replaced when no longer accurate.
Already a digital thermometer geek? Let us know your most reliable or surprising use for it in a comment below!