Cooking Tips · Techniques

Instant Read Thermometers

All of us have many different tools in our kitchen. One tool all of us should seriously consider adding to our tool chests is a good instant-read thermometer. It has so many uses to improve your cooking from ensuring meats are safe to eat but not overcooked to monitoring critical temperatures in candy making to helping to achieve a wonderful custard. I was recently asked how to know which thermometer to buy and which ones are accurate. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

I have my favorite instant-read thermometer – the Thermapen from Thermoworks. As these are more expensive than many other thermometers, I also want to tell you how to ensure whatever thermometer you use is giving you accurate readings.

Whatever thermometer you use should be checked for accuracy, preferably by the use of an ice water bath. To be useful, though, this has to be a properly made ice bath. To achieve this, fill a container with ice all the way to the top. If possible, use crushed ice as there will be fewer gaps between the ice. Add water to this container so that it reaches to about ½ inch below the top of the ice. If the ice is floating off the bottom, pour off some water and add more ice. If you have water below the level of ice, it will not be accurate. Insert your thermometer probe and stir in the center. Allow enough time for the reading to stabilize. If you keep stirring, the probe will not rest against an ice cube, which may give an inaccurate reading. Similarly, do not allow the probe to rest against the sides or bottom of the container. Now, your thermometer should read 32°F. If it does not, you should first check the documentation that came with the thermometer to determine whether the reading is within the manufacturer’s accuracy specifications. If it is within that range, do not try to adjust it. If the reading is outside that range, refer to your instruction manual to adjust the thermometer. If you would like a printable chart that details these steps, email me.

Some ask if they can instead use a pot of boiling water to check the accuracy of the thermometer. One of the problems with this is that the temperature at which water boils varies by your elevation. At sea level it is 212°F but this drops approximately 2°F for every 1000 feet you rise in elevation. You need to know what the boiling point is at your location to use this method. For an easy-to-use online calculator, see this link.

Once you know your boiling point, you can use the following method. Fill a saucepan at least four inches deep with water. Place the pot on the stovetop and allow the water to come to a rolling boil. When it comes to a boil, insert your thermometer probe a few inches into the water and wait until the reading stabilizes. Do not let the probe touch the sides or bottom of the pot. Keep it suspended in the water in the middle of the pot. Take this reading and compare it to your locale’s boiling point.

Another theoretical problem with using this method is that impurities or salt in the water can affect the boiling temperature of water. Therefore, ensure your water is as clean as possible.

Once you have an accurately-reading thermometer, your next step is to use it properly. To do this, the tip of the probe should be used and it should be placed in the center of the thickest portion of the food. If the food item is large, be sure to take readings in several places. Insert the probe into the food and push past the center, watching how the temperature reading changes. Then, withdraw the probe, again watching the readings. Typically, the center will have the lowest reading and, therefore, is the best place to gauge doneness.

We are so blessed in our world today to have such great technological advancements that can enhance the results of our cooking endeavors. The food thermometer is just one of those advancements that I encourage all of you to consider.

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