© Denzil Green
A Meat Thermometer is used to gauge the temperature of meat being cooked, to see if it is fully and safely cooked.
They are very inexpensive and easy to use. Having one not only helps you be certain that you will serve properly-cooked and safe meat to your family and friends, it means you won’t have to overcook meat to be certain of that. It also allows you to cook stuffing inside a bird worry-free, and ignore all the killjoys and harbingers of doom who would have you cook it outside in a dry little dish.
There are two main types, “mechanically-speaking”, of Meat Thermometers: digital and analog. (Some mercury ones are also available.) The digital ones require batteries. The analog ones work by spring. They don’t have mercury in them, so they don’t look like a traditional Thermometer. Fancier ones are a probe that you insert into the meat before starting to cook, and cook with the meat. They either feed the temperature to a Thermometer outside the oven via a long cord that snakes out of the oven, or send the temperature wirelessly to a pager on your belt and “page” you when your dinner is ready.
Make sure you know what kind you have: the biggest problem people have with Meat Thermometers is putting an Instant Read one into the oven, and finding that it has melted all over their roast. Very few Meat Thermometers have on them whether they are Instant Read or oven, which is very silly. People very experienced with them can usually tell at a glance, but otherwise generally only the person who bought it and had access to the packaging knows. If a neighbour doesn’t have a Meat Thermometer and needs to borrow one from you, make sure that they understand what kind it is, oven or instant, and how to use it. If you are buying one, read the packaging to make sure you know what kind you have before you toss the packaging out. The oven types generally have larger dials.
If a recipe just calls for a “Meat Thermometer” and has you put it into the oven, assume they mean the old fashioned kind of heat proof Thermometers. You can use an Instant Read one instead — though not, of course, by putting it in the oven with the meat.
These have been around since the mid-1960s. They are one-time use items made of heat-proof nylon that’s approved for use with food. There’s a spring inside them, which is held in place by a substance (salt compound or metal soldering) which melts at the right temperature, releasing the spring and causing the stem to pop. They sound like something the London Underground should issue to its passengers in the summer. But I guess they’ve gotten used by now to knowing when the passengers are ready to pop from the heat, anyway.
There are a variety of pop-ups to suit various kinds of meat and various cuts/sizes of meat. For instance, a company may make 5 or 6 ones for beef, ranging from ones appropriate from steak thickness to ones appropriate for a large roast of beef, and within that range, more choices depending on whether it should indicate rare, medium or well done. There might be one for turkey breasts, another for turkeys under 25 pounds (11 kg), and another for turkeys over that.
They are generally sold to the trade to insert in meat being sold onto consumers. They are generally reliable to within plus or minus 2 degrees F, though some butchers advise their customers not to trust them. If you do use them, it’s generally advised to not rely on them, but to poke a few other areas of the meat with an Instant Read Thermometer to get the full picture.
In theory, the timers are re-usable: you put the tip into near-boiling water, and the metal remelts, enabling you to push the pop-up back in. You then stick it in cold water to let the metal re-solidify. This is iffy though: not only are they really designed to be single use, you also have to decipher a whole chart from that manufacturer to know what cuts of meat you can use it with.
Disposable Thermometers (aka Single-use Thermometers)
Disposable Meat Thermometers don’t give you exact temperatures but tell you what range you are in. Certain ones are for certain foods.
You take your meat out of the oven or off the heat, poke a sensor in and get your reading. You insert the sensor and wait anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds. The tip changes colour changes to tell you rare, medium or well-done. If meat needs more cooking, you remove the sensor, cook the meat more, then poke the same sensor back in. They are generally reliable to use two or three times cooking the same piece of meat. However, with some makes, once the colour changes that’s it: they can’t be used any further. They are definitely meant to be discarded after one cooking session. Don’t leave them in food while it is cooking.
They are made from materials that the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved as being safe. Some are cardboard and require you to cut a slit into the meat. The plastic ones are like long plastic toothpicks or skewers. Most kinds come in a small plastic jar. There are different versions for different meats: e.g. one for poultry, and one for all meat including poultry. The poultry ones read partially-done and done.
Insert Meat Thermometers into the deepest part of the meat, without inserting into fat or touching a bone (as both will give you a temperature higher than the rest of the meat actually is). If you’re doing thin food, such as sausages, then come in at them sideways in through the end.
Health authorities are now recommending that we use Meat Thermometers to check the temperatures of Hamburger Patties with. It’s difficult to decide, though, just how practical this recommendation is outside their ivory tower government offices.
The idea is that you are supposed to take an Instant Read Thermometer, insert it about 2 inches (5 cm) into the Patty through the side of it, and check the temperature. The problems with this are:
- Doing that is likely to split a whole bunch of all but the very thickest patties, causing lots of them to fall down in chunks through the barbeque grate and onto the coals, where they will no doubt be safe because no one will eat them;
- You have to leave the Thermometer in for about 15 to 20 seconds to get a reading;
- If it isn’t done (minimum 160° F / 71°C), then you have to race indoors and wash the Thermometer, as it may be contaminated and can’t be used again until it is washed with hot water and soap;
- Race back to the barbeque and repeat the procedure for the other 2 dozen hamburger patties that you’re currently in the process of cooking for the hungry crowd staring at your back.
To be fair, what they recommend using are flat, digital ones that might cause the patties to crumble a tad less easily. What’s really needed for barbeques, though, is some kind of Thermometer gun that you can just point at something on the grill, click a button to shoot and presto, there’s your temperature, with no surface contact needed. (The new infra-red Thermometers aren’t the answer: they only measure the surface temperature of food).
Even though your Meat Thermometer may tell you that meat such as chicken or pork is done, the meat may still look pink. You can do two things:
- Check the reliability of your Meat Thermometer via the boiling water trick (below);
- Put it back into cook, because even though it may be safely cooked, people have been trained that pink is undone, and may fold their arms across their chests and refuse to eat it.
You need to check your Meat Thermometers periodically, because over time they can corrode inside the stem and become inaccurate. To tell if your Thermometer is reading correctly, boil some water and stick the Thermometer in it. It should read 212 F (100 C) — or whatever the boiling temperature of water is for your altitude.
When meat is cooking, it takes at first forever for the internal temperature to rise, but towards the end of cooking, the temperature increases are by leaps and bounds.
Internal temperatures of thick cuts of meat can rise as much as 9 F (5 C) after you remove them from the heat.
Many Thermometers can be washed, but not soaked or put through the dishwasher. If putting it through the dishwasher is important to you (with all that poking of raw meat juices, you may want to make sure it is sterile afterward), then read the packaging before you buy and make sure it says dishwasher safe — don’t presume.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says 1 in 4 hamburgers is brown in the middle before it is actually safe to eat.