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To thoroughly kill potentially harmful bacteria and other pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli in meat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the following minimum internal cooking temperatures:
Chicken and turkey: 165°F
Beef, pork, veal, and lamb: 145°F
Ground meat: 160°F
But how do you know if your roast or chicken has reached those temperatures?
Eyeballing the meat isn’t really adequate; chicken and turkey can appear beautifully browned on the outside yet be undercooked on the inside — particularly if you’re cooking over high heat on a grill. Overcooking meat “just to be safe” isn’t a tasty option, either. You may kill off bacteria, but you’re spoiling your dinner.
Luckily, there’s a simple solution: a meat thermometer. These handy kitchen gadgets keep your family safe from potential food poisoning and your dinner safe from overcooking.
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So if you’re ready to purchase a meat thermometer, check out our five picks in the matrix above. You can click on any of the product links to find out more about them.
And if you’d like to learn more about choosing and using a meat thermometer, please read on.
Meat continues to cook for about 10 minutes after removal from the grill, stove, or oven.
Although it’s a simple tool, there are actually several different kinds of meat thermometers available for today’s cook.
These old-fashioned dial thermometers remain in the meat while it cooks. While inexpensive and easy to use, they’re also difficult to read without removing the meat from the oven — and sometimes they read higher than the actual meat temperature.
Inexpensive and readily available, these dial-top thermometers require a minute or less to provide a temperature reading once you insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat. It can be difficult to read the temperature, however, and you’ll get a false reading if you insert the thermometer incorrectly. Instant-read analog thermometers do not remain in the meat while it cooks.
An instant-read thermometer is fine if you mostly cook burgers, individual chicken breasts, steaks, or small cuts of meat. For a large roast, an entire chicken, or a turkey, however, a leave-in probe is your best bet.
Just push the probe into the thickest part of the meat, wait a few seconds, and read the temperature. Digital instant-read meat thermometers don’t stay inside the oven while the meat cooks.
Shaped like a large, two-prong cooking fork, these thermometers are especially useful for outdoor grilling. They provide a nearly instant reading at the end of cooking time.
These thermometers provide the best of both worlds: the probe remains inside the meat as it cooks, while the base unit sits on the nearby counter where you can easily read it. A cord, which is thin enough not to break the oven door’s seal, connects the two. These are accurate, easy to use, and often have additional features such as timers and alarms.
A leave-in digital probe thermometer has a very thin cord that connects the base unit to the thermometer. It is so thin that you can close your oven door on it without breaking the door’s seal.
You’ll most often use these in whole turkeys, and some meat packers sell their turkeys with the pop-up indicator already in place. The indicator should pop up when the bird’s interior reaches the recommended temperature of 165°F, but they aren’t always reliable.
These thermometers are similar to the digital leave-in probes mentioned above, but they transmit wirelessly to the base unit. That makes this type of thermometer a great choice for both outdoor grilling and indoor cooking.
If you’re into high-tech cooking gadgets, consider a wireless meat thermometer. This type of thermometer transmits data wirelessly, allowing you more freedom to do other things while your meat is cooking.
Some meat thermometers do nothing more than indicate temperature; others have lots of bells and whistles. Every meat thermometer, whether simple or fancy, should provide accurate, easy-to-read results in a timely manner. If you prefer something beyond basic, however, here are some of the handiest features to look for.
A beep, flashing light, or combination of the two alerts you when the meat reaches the recommended or programmed temperature.
A beep lets you know that your instant-read thermometer has reached a stable temperature reading.
Counts down your cooking time.
These thermometers are preset with the USDA recommendations for safe cooking temperatures.
For ultimate control, choose a meat thermometer with a programmable target temperature feature.
You can choose your own target temperature.
High Temperature Alert
You’ll receive an audible alert or flashing light if the meat’s temperature goes above the programmed setting.
One probe goes into the meat; the other monitors the temperature of your grill.
The digital readout rotates to accommodate different angles. This is a useful feature if you cook a wide range of meats.
The best meat thermometers have a wide temperature range. Some measure temps up to 600°F.
If you choose to eyeball your meat rather than measure its temperature, you run the risk of undercooking it, which could result in possible illness. You could also inadvertently overcook the meat, ruining its taste or texture.
It’s handy to have a backlight if you use your thermometer on the grill or want to be able to peer into the back of the oven.
The thermometer shuts off when not in use to preserve battery life.
Water-Resistant or Waterproof
Your thermometer should be able to tolerate cooking juices, splashes of sauce, and occasional dunks in water for washing or calibrating.
Some wireless digital probes don’t even require a base; they connect right to your smartphone via Bluetooth.
No need to break your budget on a meat thermometer. You can buy a good, albeit simple, digital thermometer for around $20. For a fancier model, expect to spend $50 or more.
Tired of squinting at small digital readouts or staying tied to your stove while you wait for the roast to finish cooking? Consider a talking meat thermometer that announces its readings in a clear, loud voice.
The key to accurate results with a meat thermometer is in placing it in the meat correctly. No matter what type of meat you’re cooking, the thermometer should not touch bone. Generally, you want the tip of the probe in the thickest portion of the meat.
If you’re cooking a turkey or chicken, check the temperature in the bird’s thigh right near the breast. It’s easy to find the perfect spot by pushing the probe in until it hits the bone, then drawing the probe back a couple of inches.
For a large, boneless roast or ham, slide the thermometer’s probe into the thickest section of meat, avoiding any gristle or fat.
When checking hamburgers or thin cuts of meat, push the probe in sideways.
Once the probe is positioned correctly, leave it in place until you have your reading. Even an instant-read thermometer takes a few seconds to reach peak temperature.
Remember that meat continues to cook for up to 10 minutes after you remove it from the oven or grill, so adjust your cooking time if necessary.
Meat thermometers aren’t only for meat; use yours to check casseroles, as well. Most casseroles should reach an interior temperature of 160°F for safe eating.
An inaccurate thermometer isn’t useful, but how do you know if yours is accurate or not? The answer: you should calibrate your thermometer before its first use and then at least yearly — or anytime the thermometer is dropped or otherwise treated roughly.
Start by dipping the thermometer probe into a glass filled with ice and water. You should get a reading within a couple degrees of 32°F.
Next, dunk your thermometer into a pot of boiling water. The reading should be within a degree or two of 212°F.
If your thermometer is out of calibration, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for recalibrating it. If your thermometer does not allow recalibrations, it’s time to buy a new one.
As you approach the meat’s internal center, your thermometer’s reading may dip down. This is normal. You want to make sure the coolest part of the meat is within the safe temperature range before you consume it.
A meat thermometer and a candy thermometer are two different things. If you want to use a meat thermometer to make candy, first make sure the temperature goes high enough for your candy recipe.
Just about every professional chef and top cooking website recommends digital meat thermometers over analog meat thermometers, as the digital devices tend to be far more accurate.
For accurate (and safe) cooking results, don’t forget to calibrate your meat thermometer when you first buy it and at regular intervals after that.
Sanitization is very important when it comes to meat thermometers. Sanitize your meat thermometer before use, after use, and in between uses if you’re switching the thermometer from one dish to another.
Salmonella is a foodborne illness that you can contract by eating undercooked meat. The CDC of the U.S. tells us that approximately 380 Americans die per year of salmonella poisoning.
Trichinella spiralis is a worm larvae found in some undercooked game and pork. Ingesting this larva causes Trichinosis, an illness that involves gastrointestinal issues and other symptoms. The severity of Trichinosis may be affected by how much of the larvae is ingested.
Wash your thermometer’s probe by hand with gentle dishwashing soap and warm water after every use. Few are safe for the dishwasher.
If you’re cooking stuffing inside a turkey, both the turkey and the stuffing need to reach at least 165°F before they are safe to eat.
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