Proteins like chicken and pork need to be cooked to a certain internal temperature (take it away, USDA) in order to prevent the possibility of foodborne illness, so being able to get a quick and accurate reading without cutting into them is crucial. Plus, in the case of meats like these, there’s actually a pretty narrow range between undercooking (read: unsafe to eat) and overcooking (read: dry), and unless you have some kind of culinary ESP (thrilled for you), you’re probably going to need a thermometer to remove the guesswork and make sure you’re in the meat temperature sweet spot.
Then there are the meats that can be cooked to a variety of desired temperatures, like a steak or duck breast. In these cases a good meat thermometer is the only way you can know for sure that the proteins in question are cooked to your ideal level of doneness. There’s nothing worse than shelling out big bucks for a fat rib eye or a bunch of lamb chops only to accidentally overcook or undercook them. Whether you like your meat medium-rare or well-done, a meat thermometer will help to ensure that you hit your target temperature every time.
But a meat thermometer has plenty of uses that go beyond, well, meat. I use mine to check the internal temperature of a loaf of just-baked bread to make sure that it’s done, or to find out if my pot of oil is ready for deep-frying, or to make sure that a Dutch oven full of soup cooling on the stovetop is ready to be safely stashed in the fridge. A digital instant-read meat thermometer is the kind of useful, versatile kitchen tool that once you have one, you simply can’t remember how you lived without it.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, but I already have an analog thermometer kicking around in the back of a drawer somewhere! Do I really need to buy another one?! The answer from us is an emphatic YES. There’s a reason that all of our recommendations are for digital instant-read thermometers. While the notion of a battery-free kitchen thermometer may be intriguing in theory, this type of thermometer is simply not fast or precise enough to be helpful in most situations. When so much of successful meat cooking comes down to brief moments and degrees, waiting 10 seconds for a ballpark reading—is the needle hovering over 125 or 130?—just isn’t going to cut it.
What can I use my meat thermometer for?
Not only is meat thermometer is a go-to for checking the temperature of beef, poultry, pork, fish, lamb, and ground meat, it can also be used to check the temperature of casseroles and baked goods, and come in handy during sous vide cooking. Depending on your thermometer’s range, it also allows you to check the temperature of heated water or oil temperature as you’re frying (all of our top picks have temperature ranges to accommodate this).