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Why a Meat Thermometer Is an Essential Cooking Tool

Prevent foodborne illness and dry or underdone meat with this simple device

Checking turkey in oven with meat thermometer
Foodcollection GesmbH/Getty Images

When it comes to important kitchen tools, a meat thermometer tops the list. It measures the internal temperature of cooked meat so you can determine whether it’s safe to eat. But it can also help you avoid that dry turkey breast or a steak that’s too rare, and help you get your meat to match your personal preference and tastes.

But with so many kinds of meat thermometers on the market, it’s hard to know exactly which one to buy and how to use it. Here’s what you need to know about this essential kitchen tool.​

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Prevent food poisoning

One in 6 people suffer food poisoning each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to FoodSafety.gov, adults 65 and older are more likely to be hospitalized or die from foodborne illnesses like salmonella and E. coliFood poisoning can cause vomiting, diarrhea and even kidney failure.

Checking roasted beef with digital thermometer
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How to Cook Meat at a Proper Temperature 

Here is the safe meat thermometer-read temperature for each cut of meat:​

  • Roasts, steaks and chops: Beef, pork, veal and lamb should be cooked until the internal temperature reaches 145°F, with a three-minute “rest time” after removal from the heat source.​
  • Ground meats: 160°F ​
  • Poultry: Whole, parts or ground poultry should be at 165°F. ​
  • Leftovers: Heat leftovers thoroughly to 165°F.​
  • Meat substitutes: Plant-based foods should be cooked according to package instructions. ​
  • Eggs and egg dishes: Cook eggs and egg-based dishes to 160°F. ​
  • Fish: Cook fish to 145°F. The fish should be opaque and separate easily with a fork.​

Credit: Partnership for Food Safety Education

A meat thermometer can help make sure you serve your guests meat that’s been cooked to a safe enough temperature to kill bacteria. That’s a big step in preventing foodborne illness.

Maybe you’ve just always cut into the middle of your roast to check whether it looks done. You might want to think again about that practice, says Britanny Saunier, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a public health nonprofit dedicated to helping U.S. households understand how to handle food safely.

“Looking at color and texture is not a reliable way to tell if food is safe to eat or ‘done,’” Saunier says. “Factors such as lighting can influence the look of your food, so sight is not a reliable indicator.”

Case in point: 1 out of every 4 hamburgers turn brown before reaching a safe internal temperature according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Safe temperatures vary by item (see chart below), but they generally fall between 145 degrees for roasts and chops, plus a resting period where the temperature continues to increase, and 165 degrees for poultry. A meat thermometer is the best way to determine the temperature of your food. ​

Cooking to taste

A meat thermometer will get you to the desired temperature every time, so it’s not just about undercooking but overcooking too.

“No more overcooked beef tenderloin,” says Joelle Battista, culinary director at Chefman, an appliance manufacturer. “A large piece of meat like that can be extremely expensive, so having a tool to ensure you don’t waste a high-quality piece of meat is key.”

Overcooking your meat will result in something that is extremely dry.

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“The process of roasting, by definition, is dehydration,” says Tim Kolanko, executive chef of Southern California’s Urban Kitchen Group. “That’s why you’ll often see recipes start off with a high temperature for larger roasts to brown the meat and then take it down to a much lower temperature for hours.”

Another thing you want to take into consideration is carryover cooking or resting your meat. You want to make sure you do this so the juices in the meat have time to redistribute (resulting in a juicier bird or roast), but you also want to keep in mind that the heat will carry over into resting and will raise the internal temperature.

“The hotter the oven, the more carryover,” says Kolanko. “If you pull something out at 138, by the time you slice it will get up to the mid-140s.”

Even if you are using a meat thermometer, if you are worried about something being under- or overdone, poking it and noting the color of the juices that run out is a good indicator.

“If the juices are still red or pink then it needs longer,” he says.

Use a meat thermometer for meat alternatives as well; most have instructions on the package.​

What kind of thermometer is best?

This partially depends on cost and storage, but most people choose oven-safe digital probe thermometers or instant-read thermometers. When taking the temperature of the meat, always be sure the probe is inserted into the middle of the meat. Stick the probe two to two and a half inches into the thickest part of the food while it cooks. ​

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​“You always want it to be in the part of the protein that will cook the slowest," Battista says. “The heating comes from the outside in, so in proteins with bones you must take into consideration the meat closest to a bone may cook slower.”​

Oven-safe thermometers: Digital probe thermometers are oven safe and come with a probe you put inside the meat and a wire that connects to a base that sits outside the oven to give you a temperature reading. This typically gives the most accurate reading and you can leave the probe in the meat as it cooks and track temperature without opening the oven, smoker or grill.

If you want to go with a wireless version, some will connect by WiFi to an app on your phone or to an external display. Some come with timers that will automatically shut off but they can cost more than the wired standard versions. These tools are best for thicker foods like roasts or thicker pieces of meat. It’s best not to use them on more delicate foods like fish.

A dial thermometer is the analog version of the oven-safe thermometer. It stays in the meat while cooking and shows you a dial (like a clock) indicating what the temperature of the meat is.

You do have to open the oven door to periodically check on doneness. If using a dial thermometer, make sure to calibrate it first according to the package directions. Just like a watch, if it isn’t calibrated it can lose accuracy over time.

Instant-read thermometers: These digital thermometers aren’t meant to be left in the food while it cooks. Use these to check your meat when you think it’s done. Place the probe in the deepest part of the food and, although the name says instant, expect a reading in less than 30 seconds. These thermometers tend to be smaller and easy to store in a drawer.

Thermometer-fork combination thermometers: These are great for a quick read of foods, especially when using the grill. Simply insert the fork a quarter of an inch deep into the thickest part or your meat to get a quick read.

Pop-up thermometers and disposable temperature indicators: These are onetime-use thermometers. If you cook sparingly these can be a decent option, but they are not always as accurate as a conventional thermometer. You can buy these at grocery stores or retailers like Amazon or Walmart. Again, they are really only recommended in a pinch or as a backup.​

Cleaning a meat thermometer

Although some meat thermometers are top-shelf dishwasher safe, the best way to clean a thermometer is by hand with a soft sponge and a little bit of dish soap. It’s especially important to clean after each use since you’re sticking it into meat that may not be fully cooked. ​