Rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well or well-done? One of the only ways to tell the true state of meat, in an oven or grill, is with a thermometer. “Sometimes meat feels done when it’s not done, or it doesn’t feel done when it’s way overdone. Especially with poultry or a large piece of meat,” explains Elizabeth Karmel, author of cookbooks including “Pizza on the Grill” and “Taming the Flame.” The North Carolina native is such a stickler about her thermometers that she made her own once, making sure the numbers on the face were large and glow-in-the-dark for nighttime cooking. She says a good thermometer is readable with “pertinent information, but not too much information.” All you need to know is the goal temperature and how hot it is right now; the name of the food you’re cooking and how long it will take to get to the goal temperature are unnecessary distractions. A single, tapered probe is nice for saving the meat juices. Consider whether you need a waterproof thermometer, too, since it’s easy for them to fall into the sink and get ruined. And remember, meat isn’t the only food that requires heat precision. Grace Elkus, senior food editor at the Kitchn, uses a thermometer
year-round to fry doughnuts and make candy. If you don’t already have a temperature-taker in your cooking kit, here are five recommended by Karmel and four other food professionals to help you determine a food’s doneness this grilling season and beyond.
OXO’s Chef’s Precision Digital Instant Thermometer is one of Karmel’s budget picks ($19.99, oxo.com). “It has a very large face, so the digital read comes out very, very large,” she says. “Even when it’s dark outside, it’s easy to read.” The on-off button is easy to find and use, and the narrow probe tip helps make the smallest of holes in the meat. “And you want to make as few holes as possible, because the more holes you make, the more chances for the juice to run out,” explains Karmel, who also runs an online barbecue shack called Carolina Cue To-Go.
Nearly everyone we talked to recommended the Thermapen by ThermoWorks. Aaron Hutcherson, blogger at the Hungry Hutch, explains that its digital nature, clean design, compact shape and big numbers are winning points for this thermometer. “I’m a fan of those with a folding probe, as it’s much easier to insert at the proper angle than with linear pens,” he says. Hutcherson uses the Classic Super-Fast Thermapen, but Thermoworks also has the updated Mk4 version, in which the display rotates right-side-up when turned, preventing cocked necks and upside-down readings ($79-$99, thermoworks.com).
Michelle Smith, author of “The Whole Smiths Good Food Cookbook ” and a proponent of the Whole30 regimen, makes a lot of meat-centered recipes for her family. She finds that Lavatools’ Javelin is always fast — with a four-second response time — and accurate, “not to mention compact” ($24.99, lavatools.com). It features a large display, magnetic back and a water-resistant, antimicrobial construction.
When Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson, co-authors of “The Campout Cookbook: Inspired Recipes for Cooking Around the Fire and Under the Stars,” cook a “medium-rare ember-grilled rib-eye” over a fire, Hanel says they use the ThermoPop ($29, thermoworks.com). “It’s lightning-bug fast,” Hanel says. “Its backlight is helpful for cooking after dark, it comes in an array of colors unlikely to get lost in the woods and, most importantly, it’s less expensive than many similar-quality thermometers.” She keeps a separate one with her camp-cooking supplies so that she always remembers to pack it.
Even during grilling season, recipe developer Elkus uses her Candy and Deep Fry Thermometer to make sweet treats ($17.99, oxo.com). “It clips easily onto the side of a pot, making it perfect for frying doughnuts or making homemade caramels,” she says. “It’s also very easy to read.” A large opening at the top is perfect for sliding a wooden spoon in to lift the thermometer out of hot oil.