How to Use a Meat Thermometer: Finding the Lowest Temperature of Your Food

Using a meat thermometer to check the temperature of a bratwurst properly
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You might think that knowing how to use a meat thermometer properly is pretty straightforward. It can be. However, you would be surprised by how many cooks still follow outdated advice.

Using a meat thermometer is more than just poke the meat once and you’re good to go. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not rocket science, but like a lot of things in life, the difference is in the details.

There are a lot of details. What type of meat thermometer do you have? What food are you cooking? Are you cooking in the oven, on the stovetop, on the grill, or in the back of your truck in a football stadium parking lot? These are all the little details that matter because every meal is different.

And just as every meal is different, every piece of meat, fish, soup, casserole, and bread is different in shape and size. Yet, they all share one thing in common that will help you determine when they are cooked to your specifications.

So, what is that one thing?

Pork tenderloin registering 141 degrees Fahrenheit with an oven-safe digital meat thermometer

Pork tenderloin registering 141 degrees Fahrenheit with an oven-safe digital meat thermometer

The Goal of a Meat Thermometer: Finding the Lowest Temperature of Your Food

Most guidelines for properly using a meat thermometer include inserting it into the thickest part of the food. While this is generally a good starting point when measuring your food’s temperature, there are other things to take into consideration.

Are you cooking something that is irregularly shaped? Does what you’re cooking having a bone in it? Is there excessive cartilage and fat in one area and lean meat in another? Do you have one side of your food closer to the heat source than the other side?

These are just some of the different factors that come into play when checking the temperature of food with your meat thermometer. Measuring the temperature of whole poultry is especially tricky. A whole chicken has lean breast meat along with collagen-packed legs and thighs that are better at different temperatures.

Monitoring the temperature of chicken breasts and chicken thighs simultaneously

Monitoring the temperature of chicken breasts and chicken thighs simultaneously

A standard example would be a whole chicken cooking breast side up in an oven with the heat coming primarily from the top. There is a good possibility that the temperature of the breasts could read 165 degrees Fahrenheit way before the thighs are cooked to the proper temperature.

The goal for you as a cook is to find the lowest temperature of your food while you’re cooking it and then adjust your food and heat accordingly.

That’s why taking temperatures in multiple areas of your food will give you the best indicator of how it’s cooking and what you need to adjust to get the most flavorful result.

Yes, starting at the thickest point of a piece of meat is a good start, but I’ve seen the underside of a turkey measure 40 degrees cooler than other areas because of the lack of airflow in the roasting pan.

The best way to find the lowest temperature of whatever you’re cooking is to insert the thermometer not only into the thickest part but as far as the meat thermometer will go into the food.

Then you want to slowly pull the meat thermometer through the food while trying to find the lowest temperature. This will give you a good indication of how evenly your food is cooking.

Checking the temperature of rare steak at 122 degrees Fahrenheit

Checking the temperature of rare steak at 122 degrees Fahrenheit

How Do You Properly Use a Meat Thermometer?

Having the right type of meat thermometer for what you’re cooking plays a big role in using a meat thermometer properly. For instance, with large pieces of meat such as roasts or turkeys, an oven-safe meat thermometer that you leave in the meat is recommended.

For roasts, place the thermometer probe in the thickest part of the meat first and then continue to check for the lowest temperature

As far as poultry is concerned, you’ll want to take temperatures in three places. The thickest part of the breast, at the joint where the thigh attaches to the body, and the joint between the thigh and the drumstick.

Why is it necessary to use an oven-safe meat thermometer for large roasts and birds you might ask?

Examples of oven-safe digital meat thermometers

Examples of oven-safe digital meat thermometers

If you tried using an instant-read meat thermometer to constantly check a turkey you would be opening the oven a lot. This would bring the oven temperature down and extend your cooking time by a good amount.

There are three main types of meat thermometers. There are the classic bi-metallic or analog dial meat thermometers that have been around for decades. These dial-type analog thermometers can come in both oven-safe and instant-read varieties. If you aren’t sure if your analog glass dial thermometer is oven-safe, don’t use it. A glass dial thermometer that isn’t rated for the oven will shatter.

Next, there are the more accurate digital instant-read meat thermometers that have supplanted the old analog thermometers in the foodservice industry.

And finally, there are digital probe thermometers that are oven-safe and connected by a cord to a separate unit with a temperature display. The probes of these types of thermometers are oven and grill safe up to certain temperatures.

Let’s go into more detail and discuss each type of thermometer, what type of cooking they are best suited for, and how to properly use each one in terms of placement and temperature monitoring.

How to Use an Analog Dial Meat Thermometer

Analog dial meat thermometers come in two varieties, instant-read thermometers and oven safe models that you leave in the meat. How to properly use an analog dial meat thermometer depends on the food of which you are measuring the temperature.

Examples of an instant-read analog meat thermometer on the left and an oven-safe analog meat thermometer on the right

Examples of an instant-read analog meat thermometer on the left and an oven-safe analog meat thermometer on the right

For large cuts of beef, pork or lamb, the thermometer should be placed in the thickest part of the meat, avoiding bone. If the meat is unevenly shaped, take temperature readings in different areas.

Don’t worry about losing moisture from all the probing. The moisture loss is negligible to the potential amount the meat could lose from overcooking.

For whole poultry such as chicken or turkey, the thermometer should be inserted into the thickest part of the thigh and the deepest part of the breast. 165 degrees Fahrenheit is the USDA’s minimum safe temperature.

And for thin foods like sausages, steaks, pork chops and hamburgers, the best place to insert an analog instant-read meat thermometer is in the side of the food.

Why into the side of the meat? I’m glad you asked.

The Flaws of Using Analog Meat Thermometers

Analog meat thermometers have been around for a long time and still use the same basic configuration. They are also known as bimetallic thermometers. This is because there is a coil consisting of two different metals inside the probe of the thermometer.

The two metals (usually steel and copper) expand at different temperatures causing the coil to turn, which turns the needle on the thermometer’s display.

Why is any of this important?

Well, it is because the temperature that is being displayed is an average of the temperatures the coil inside the thermometer is sensing. So it is the average temperature across the probe’s length, generally over two inches.

Instant-read analog meat thermometer with hard to read numbers on the display

Instant-read analog meat thermometer with hard to read numbers on the display

This pretty much rules out using an analog thermometer to take the temperature of anything thinner than a roast or large turkey or soups.

The other drawbacks to these thermometers are that they take a lot longer to give you a temperature reading than a good digital instant-read meat thermometer.

The sluggishness of these types of thermometers can ruin a meal.

Let’s say you have a turkey and you want to check the temperature with your instant-read analog thermometer. You open the oven and stick your analog thermometer in the turkey.

Then you have to wait for it to slowly rise to its final temperature readout (anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute) while your oven loses fifty percent or more of its heat.

You just added more cooking time, not to mention hungrier guests.

Even the slowest digital meat thermometers take about 5 seconds to get a temperature reading. And if all of that weren’t enough, analog meat thermometers need to be checked for accuracy and calibrated more often than good digital meat thermometers.

Digital meat thermometers are far superior and are what I’m going to examine next.

How to Use a Digital Meat Thermometer

Digital meat thermometers are ultra-sensitive to temperature and are capable of accurate readings within 1 degree Fahrenheit in 2 to 3 seconds.

The Thermapen MK4 and the ThermoPro TP-19 digital meat thermometers

The Thermapen MK4 and the ThermoPro TP-19 instant-read digital meat thermometers

Unlike analog meat thermometers that measure the average temperature across the length of the probe, digital meat thermometers give you an accurate reading at the tip of the probe. It is this pinpoint accuracy that makes them superior in measuring temperature in all foods. They are a necessity when measuring thin foods such as sausages, hamburgers, steaks, and chops.

The probe’s sensitivity to the temperature at the tip allows you to get fast readings in multiple places in the same amount of time that an analog thermometer would take to perform the same task.

Like analog meat thermometers, there are two main types of digital meat thermometers. There are instant-read meat thermometers that consist of a digital display on the main body with a probe directly attached underneath. And there are digital probe thermometers that consist of a main digital display body with a detachable probe connected by a cord.

How you properly use a digital meat thermometer depends on whether it is an instant-read or a leave-in digital probe thermometer. Each one works best in different cooking situations.

How to Use a Digital Instant-Read Meat Thermometer

Digital instant-read meat thermometers are best used to measure the temperature of fast-cooking thin foods and to spot check the temperature of larger foods that take longer to cook. Again, all cuts of meat aren’t going to be evenly-shaped so the idea is to find the lowest temperature point.

A good place to start is the thickest part or the visible middle of the meat and then continue to insert the thermometer in different places until you find the lowest temperature.

A good technique is to insert the thermometer as far as you can and then draw the thermometer back through the meat. That will give you the best indication of how evenly the meat has cooked.

You can then raise or lower the cooking temperature accordingly, rotate the coolest part of the meat closer to the heat, or move the entire piece of meat closer or further away from the heat.

Checking Flank Steak Temperature on the grill

Checking flank steak temperature on the grill

Here’s the proper thermometer placement for different types of food.

  • When cooking beef, pork, and lamb roasts, insert the thermometer into the thickest part first, then continue to check around until you find the lowest temperature.
  • For hamburgers, steaks, and chops, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, away from the bone, fat, and gristle, continue to check for the coolest temperature.
  • For whole poultry, insert into the thickest part of the thigh, right next to the joint where it meets the main body, as well as the deepest part of the breast, continue to check to find the lowest temperature. Avoid bones.
  • In the case of individual poultry parts, you insert the thermometer into the thickest area avoiding bone, trying to find the lowest temperature.
  • When cooking ground meat or ground poultry insert into the thickest area first, then continue to check for the lowest temperature.
  • For egg dishes and casseroles insert into the thickest part and continue to check for the lowest temperature.
  • For fish, start by checking the thickest part and then continue to check until you find the lowest temperature.

How to Use a Digital Probe Oven-Safe Meat Thermometer

Digital probe oven-safe meat thermometers are great at monitoring the temperature of not only large roasts and whole poultry, but smaller tough cuts of meat with an abundance of collagen.

Good examples of these smaller cuts that are full of collagen would be chicken thighs and tri-tip steaks. These tougher small cuts need to be cooked longer than leaner ones to transform their tough collagen into gelatin.

Checking the temperature of pork tenderloin with an oven-safe digital meat thermometer

Checking the temperature of pork tenderloin with an oven-safe digital meat thermometer

Here is the best placement for digital probe oven-safe meat thermometers.

  • For beef, pork, and lamb roasts insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, avoiding bone fat or gristle.
  • For whole poultry, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh right by the joint connecting to the main body of the bird, avoiding bones.
  • In the instance of smaller tougher cuts of meat insert into the thickest part, avoiding bones.

Some Common Questions About How To Use a Meat Thermometer

Here are some common questions that a lot of people ask about using a meat thermometer. Although some of these questions were answered already in this article, this section is for the people who like to skim through the topic headlines.

Can You Leave a Meat Thermometer in the Meat While It’s Cooking?

You can leave a meat thermometer in the meat while it’s cooking only if it is an oven-safe digital probe thermometer or an oven-safe analog thermometer. If you do have an analog meat thermometer with a glass dial display and aren’t sure if it’s oven-safe don’t risk it.

The best place to insert your oven-safe meat thermometer in large roasts is in the thickest part of the meat. For whole poultry, insert your oven-safe meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, right where the joint meets the main body of the bird.

How Far Do You Insert a Meat Thermometer?

You insert a meat thermometer into the meat while avoiding bones and fat until you find the lowest temperature. A good tip is to insert the thermometer into the meat as far as it will go and then slowly draw it back to see how the temperature changes. This will give you a good indication of how evenly cooked a piece of meat is and adjust it to the heat accordingly. Don’t be afraid to insert the probe in multiple areas.

How Do I Know When My Steak Is Done Without a Thermometer?

You don’t. There is a method that some people use and swear by but nothing replaces an accurate digital meat thermometer. However, if you are in a pinch you can use this trick. Feel the space between your thumb and index finger on the top of your hand. That is supposedly what a rare steak feels like when you poke it.

Rare steak cooked to 122 degrees Fahrenheit

Rare steak cooked to 122 degrees Fahrenheit

You then go in order by touching your index finger to your thumb. The space between your index finger and thumb tightens up and that is supposedly what medium-rare feels like. Thumb to middle finger feels like medium. Thumb to ring finger feels like medium-well. Thumb to pinky feels like you overcooked your steak!

Final Thoughts

Using a meat thermometer is easy if you remember to take temperatures in multiple places and not just in the thickest part and call it good. Having both an oven-safe meat thermometer and an instant-read meat thermometer is a good idea if you do a lot of cooking. This will have you prepared to cook any type of food regardless of the size or the amount of time involved. For more tips and information on meat thermometers and cooking food to their best temperatures click on the menu above. Thanks for reading.

 

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