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Oct 10, 2009 10:04 PM

How to use a meat thermometer?

Hello, I purchased a meat thermometer which is the type with a round face about 2 inches in diameter similar to this one:

I first used it when cooking chicken legs in the oven and I can't tell you how amazing the chicken was! It seems I had been WAY overcooking it before - it was dry like cardboard. I forget the proper poultry off-hand, but I took the chicken out exactly when it reached that point.

A few days later, I cooked more legs and breasts but found that the readings weren't accurate: It read the target temp while still baking when I inserted it, then I pulled it out started eating the chicken and checked the temp again and it was way too low - around 130 or something. I got scared and put the chicken back in for another 10 minutes - which made it into cardboard again.

I can't really tell if the chicken is done or not and I absolutely don't want to get food poisoning from it. The first time I remember it was REALLY juice, I mean the chicken basically in a puddle of it's own juice and me and my friend ate it without trouble. The second time I guess it looked the same - juices seemed to be clear, maybe a bit bloody, I can't tell.

So for these types of thermometers, how should you use them so you can trust their readings? I already know where to stick them, but do you think it's because it was touching the bone that it was reading incorrectly? Or perhaps it was because it was touching/too close to the baking sheet that it read too high? Can I just leave the thermometer inside the chicken leg/steak/etc while it's in the oven? Or will that cause the air temp to affect the reading? Or should I play it safe and remove the meat from the baking sheet, onto a plate and then stick the thermometer in? Perhaps I should buy an instant read digital one instead?

Any insight is appreciated, I'm really excited about being able to pull meat out at the exact time it's done - I swear it tastes 10X better!

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  1. No way of knowing if you properly inserted your thermometer. However, any of the typical errors you list could have contributed to your error in temperature. If you don't have confidence in your thermometer, replace it.

    Unless your thermometer is oven safe (read the instruction sheet) you should not leave it in the meat during the cooking process.

    Here's some additional insight that may help you:

    1. I have a thermometer that has a long wire that goes in the oven, and the reading part stays outside. I believe most other thermometers are meant to insert, take a reading and then remove. Also it's a good idea to take readings from different parts of the bird anyway. The ones used in professional kitchens have plastic in them and will melt if left in more than a few minutes (which I found out the hard way). Don't know about yours, either touching the bone or something in it may have melted.

      1. Sounds to me like you need to take the reading and not hit bone or the hot sheet pan and let the meat rest. There is a principle in cooking that all line cooks know/learn the hard way called "carry over cooking" in which the meat will continue to cook after it has been removed from the heat because the super heated juices/liquids in the meat will continue to circulate for up to 10 minutes or more AFTER the meat has been removed from the heat source. This is also why you should never, ever, ever, ever cut meat that has not rested, all the juice will run out leaving you with dry and not so pleasant to eat meat.

        You should also periodically calibrate your themometer by either submursing it in ice water to get a reading of 32 celsius or place it in boiling water to read 212 celsius. I would recommend doing this at least once a week.

        And never, ever, ever, ever leave your themometer in the meat in the oven unless it is specifically designed for such use.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Bayard

          Nice reply Bayard w/ one correction; I'm sure you ment to say check it @ 32 degrees Fahrenheit & boil to read 212 Fahrenheit (not Celsius). The Celsius equivalents are 0 and 100. Otherwise, it's great advice.

          1. re: fastflyguy

            Yeah....long hours and little sleep don't help the old brain too much, thanks for catching that.

        2. Thank you all for your replies. The thermometer I have is:

          As far as I know and from what I remember on the original packaging is that it is over-safe, however I don't see any reference to this anywhere online.

          I like the idea of the digital thermometer with the wire probe so you can know the temperature without even opening the oven - this seems like the holy grail of checking for meat-doneness.

          I suppose I will practice using it, as well as perform the tests @Bayard mentioned to check for its precision and accuracy. However the idea of continually opening/closing the oven to probe the meat is a little discomforting to me. Do professionals actually do this?? It takes like 20 seconds for the needle to move to its final reading and actually slowly increases when it nears it. This basically results in having the oven door open for over a minute just waiting for a measurement! To me this is not a very good way of checking for temperature. Perhaps an instant read is better where I can quickly probe different locations of the meat. I was even thinking about submerging my thermometer into near-boiling water that is close to the target temp of the meat so the needle wouldn't have to travel so far.

          Any thoughts or recommendations on GOOD thermometers is appreciated at this point. Since I will be getting into frying food - southern fried chicken, etc.. An all-purpose thermometer for meats all the way up to deep frying might be best for me!

          Thanks again!

          6 Replies
          1. re: classacts

            The one with the wire is great, not only that you can monitor it externally but you can set it to beep at any temperature you want, so if you have guests you don't have to stay in the kitchen obsessing over it. Just have to be careful cleaning the wire,if it soaks in water for too long you can wreck it, and they cost $30 or $4o0.

            This isn't the brand I have, but just to give you an idea


            They also have wireless ones, but I bet they cost a lot more.

            1. re: coll

              They were reviewed on America's Test Kitchen, which recommended the Polder and Thermoworks brands, but said that all of the dozen or so they tested were prone to inaccuracies and that the probe part (which costs around $10) needs frequent replacing, advising viewers to buy a few extra probes even when purchasing a recommended thermometer.

              1. re: greygarious

                Polder is the one I have (now I remember) the first one I left the probe in the sink and it died. Bought a new one and no problems in over 5 years, just have to be careful washing, water can get inside the wires, and also I think there is a max temperature like 400 degrees.

                1. re: coll

                  Nice, seems the Polder ones go to 400ºF while I think the hottest I wanna go is 350ºF for fried chicken.

                  How often do the probes seem to die? Do they die on their own or is it usually due to human negligence?

                  1. re: classacts

                    The only time I had a problem was my fault. The unit with probe I have now (used it tonight) is at least 5 or 6 years old. As long as you don't get it soaking wet, you shouldn't have a problem.

            2. re: classacts

              Your thermometer is NOT an instant read thermometer and should be left in the meat you're roasting, until it reaches the desired degree of doneness. It is specifically designed for this purpose. I'm not sure by your posts that you are aware of that.
              Using an instant read therm by submerging it into near boiling water before inserting it into the meat will not give you an accurate reading. Yes, professionals do stand with the oven door ajar, temping the meat but professional ovens are not like home ovens and instant reads, whether with analog or digital display, take much less than a minute to show the temp. Very few professional kitchens use leave-it-in-the-roast therms anymore.

              As far as choosing a deep fry/candy thermometer, some of the finer points to consider are: 100* to 400* temp range, which is normal for most, professional ones have a bigger range; clip-on capability, dual f and c temp range, stainless steel paddle-style construction, for sturdiness. You do not need a digital or insta-read for deep frying/candy and I don't like the glass tube models, they break much too easily. Polder doesn't make deep fry thermometers, BTW.
              I recommend you invest in a Polder digital with the probe, whatever model suits you, and the Taylor Elite deep fry/candy and you'll be all set:

            3. These digital thermometers look amazing! The idea of just setting it at the beginning and it beeps to let you know it's done is great. Wondering if all professionals use this method, as using the analog ones is so much trouble? I guess the only possible drawback of using a digital one is that the flesh is pierced at the beginning and perhaps some juices may escape?

              Can anyone attest to NOT using a digital thermometer for all purposes? From what I gather, any non-digital thermometer should be obsolete!

              2 Replies
              1. re: classacts

                Digital all the way.

                The Polder / Thermoworks / etc. probe thermometers are great. When the probe starts acting up, try deep-frying it (the probe end, not the connector end). Much of the time the problem is that water has gotten inside the probe and is shorting out the sensor. Hot oil will turn that water to steam and drive it out of the probe, and you're good as new again.

                If you want a big step up in quickness and accuracy (and price), a thermocouple thermometer is the way to go. The ThermaPen is the one you see most often. And for testing the temperature of a surface (eg a skillet or a pot of water), an infrafred thermometer is the bomb.

                I've been eyeing a combo infrared / thermocouple thermometer lately, but my wife just can't seem to understand that getting a $50 probe thrown in for free makes a $230 thermometer a bargain that shouldn't be passed up.

                1. re: alanbarnes

                  LOL. Great reply. I'm a relatively traditional person and not cooking in my spaceship yet to warrant holstering some some ray-gun pointing and shooting it around the kitchen.

                  I will stick with the Polder/Thermoworks for now.. Thanks for the probe-troubleshooting tip!