Thursday, November 5, 2009

Probing Questions About Thermometers

One of the most important pieces of equipment in the kitchen is an instant read thermometer. Having an accurate, fast thermometer helps you cook perfectly done meat. Well, sure, that and it helps keep you from killing all of your family and guests with an e-coli infused chicken served with a salmonella reduction sauce.

But there are so many options out there, what one is the right one for you? I can't tell you that. But I currently own 9 different ones and several different types, so I can give you my feedback on them. This isn't a comprehensive review, rather just some general info and my thoughts about the different types.

Analog Instant Read Thermometers
These are what most people think of when they think of instant read thermometers. It's the standard dial type thermometer that you see stuffed in a chef's sleeve. Temp range from 0-220f.

Pros: Inexpensive ($5), easily available, no batteries needed. Can be calibrated.
Cons: Slow to come to temp, instant is relative.

Digital Instant Read Thermometers
As of today, the government has NOT phased out analog thermometers for digital and you do not need a special coupon for a converter box.
Pros: Generally easier to read and faster.
Cons: More expensive than analog ($15 up to $90) Batteries can die at inopportune times and finding replacement batteries can be a PITA. Cheap ones can't be calibrated, so if they lose calibration, you have to buy a new one.
Some examples include:

Big Green Egg (~$30)
It's no secret that I absolutely LOVE the Big Green Egg smoker/grill. But their thermometer? No so much. It looks like a Porsche (Thermapen) but accelerates like a city bus (see comparison below).

Thermapen ($90, temp range -58 to 572f)
The benchmark in thermometers. These babies are fast, accurate, and have the best reputation out there. These use a thermocouple instead of a thermistor to register temperatures. You can calibrate a Thermapen.

Taylor Weekend Warrior ($18, temp range -45 to 450f)
Not as fast as a thermapen, but based on the price and performance? Hard to beat this one for value.

Remote Probe Thermometers ($16 - $50)

These use separate probe and reading unit that lets you keep a constant eye on the temp of your dish without opening and closing the smoker/grill/oven door. The ones below are Taylor ($16 at Wallyworld), but I also like Accurite and Maverick brands. Read the directions carefully because ones with rubber coated sheaths are limited to oven/grill temps below 400f. The plain braided metal ones can go into higher temps.

Pros: Great for longer cooks, you can see how the dish is coming to temperature. You can set temperature alarms so you get notified when you hit a target internal temp.
Cons: Bulky, tangles up drawer space. The probe wires can go bad and getting replacements can be a pain. TIP: Covering the wire with a bit of foil protects it and extends the life of the probe.

I.....eerrrrrrr, the Labs at NMT did a quick little test to see how fast and accurate these meters read. I tried them all in a pot of rapidly boiling water, which given elevation and barometric pressure that day was a standard temp of 209f. (Boiling point calculator)

All of the thermometers were within 1 degree, so let's just call it even for accuracy.

But how long it took each thermometer to correctly register the boiling point varied greatly.
BGE - 19 seconds
Analog dial - 14 seconds
Taylor remote - 9 seconds
Taylor Weekend Warrior - 6 seconds
Thermapen - 3 seconds

Sixteen seconds of difference might not sound like a big deal. But consider fillet mignon for an example. I normally cook those at 600f for only 6 minutes. If I am cooking six fillets and using the slowest of these thermometers, it would take me almost two extra minutes of cooking time to temp check all six steaks. The steaks I wanted medium rare would now be cooked medium to medium well. So seconds can make a big difference.

So what are your thoughts? Do you use a thermometer or just go by times/cooking temps? Do you have any thermometer tips? Do you have a favorite thermometer brand or style?