Thursday, February 3, 2011

Meat thermometers: should you spend $10 or $100?

How much should you spend on a meat thermometer?

I bought my first meat thermometer 9 years ago.  It was a fancy one with remote probe and cost about $40 (they sell for $20-30 now).  The idea was that you could stick the probe into the meat, clip the thermometer on the door of the oven, and program it to beep when the meat reached a certain temperature.  At least that's how it worked in principle.  Here is what happened in practice.  The probe didn't stay in the center unless it was a really big hunk of meat.  The wire made the probe awkward to work with and wash.  The probe broke after less than a year of use since it was always jammed by oven door and grill cover

I tried a few more thermometers of this type, but had the same problems, and an added one of the user interface getting more and more complex.  

Finally, I gave up and switched to a basic Taylor digital thermometer that you can't put in the oven.  It cost around $15 (now it sells for $10).  I loved it.  It was easy to stick into the meat, easy to read, and easy to wash.  This thermometers has lasted me close to 5 years now, but you never know when you might drop it into water, so I bought 2 back ups -- Maverick (recommended by Cook's Illustrated) and Tru Temp (available at Target).  

A few weeks ago, I noticed some discrepancy in my thermometers while testing a roast chicken recipe.  Maverick and Taylor where within 1 degree, but Tru Temp (made by Taylor by the way) was 15 degrees off!  15 degrees is a lot.  It was particularly disconcerting since I started using these thermometer for sous-vide preparations and needed accurate readings.  I threw Tru Temp away, but now I was starting to doubt my other thermometers.  After all Tru Temp and Taylor were made by the same company.  

That's when I finally decided to splurge on Thermapen.  $100 did sound a little freaky.  I don't believe in expensive kitchen equipment and rarely spend more than $50 on any kitchen toy.  But with Jason's encouragement, I finally gave in and bought it.  The guy has a thing for lab equipment, so he couldn't help himself.  What can I say -- it's good and it's fast.  I can get a close enough reading in 3 seconds rather than 20 I am used to waiting.  It also allowed me to test my Maverick and Taylor thermometers for accuracy and speed of coming to temperature.  I was testing them all on 130 degree water.  All three thermometers were within 1 degree of each other.  The main difference was in how long it took to get a stable reading.  Thermapen (the Ferrari of all thermometers) was of course the fastest.  Taylor was a lot slower and Maverick was a snail.
  • Thermapen -- within 2 degrees after 3 seconds, stabilized after 7.
  • Taylor -- within 2 degrees after 17 seconds, stabilized after 20.
  • Maverick -- within 2 degrees after 22 seconds, stabilized after 30.
But wait!  Don't spend $100 on your thermometer just yet.  Here is a little practical matter I haven't considered until my last meat class.  A thermometer is only as good as your ability to insert it into the very center of the meat. Just stick it 1/4 of an inch too high or too low and it will throw your reading off.  It's not like the other thermometers don't have the same problem.  They do.  But is it worth paying $100 for perfect accuracy and speed when there is such a huge margin for human error?  

It depends on what you are using your thermometer for.  For testing meat and poultry, I'd stick with the $10 thermometers.   I would just suggest buying 2 different brands and staying away from Tru Temp, so that you can check them against each other once or twice a year.  The most important thing to remember when testing meat is to insert the thermometer sideways.  If you reached the desired temperature, insert the thermometer into 2 more spots trying to aim for the center of the meat to make sure that what you got was indeed the minimum temperature.  The same principle applies no matter how accurate your thermometer is.  

But if you are using your thermometer for sous-vide, thermapen might be worth it.

Here is a continuation of this discussion.


Anonymous said...

But how about the thermometers that have a probe and stay in the meat while roasting? I figured it was worth the cost considering the price of prime rib roasts, and the disappointment with a dry Thanksgiving turkey. And it has the advantage of not requiring that the oven be opened or the item removed. For me -- no other way!

Anonymous said...

I also use the cable type thermometer a lot for things like stews and cooking beans. I want to have the water at around 185-195F which is hard to guess by just looking. I use my oven to get even heating, and set the probe in the liquid (with the lid slightly ajar) and bump the oven up or down until I'm maintaining the right temp.

Stephanie said...

I've got the cable kind too - and it consistently turns out moist meat and poultry. Very important to someone who didn't eat meat growing up as my mother cooked out every teeny molecule of moisture! She was an excellent baker though.

sewa mobil said...

Very nice, thanks.

compression fittings said...

Insert the meat thermometer into the inner thigh area near the breast of the chicken or turkey but not touching the bone.