Why Use a Meat Thermometer? Why Not Use One?

Using a meat thermometer to check the temperature of duck breast

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Why are you using that meat thermometer? I’m sure you’ve gotten that question before by your friend, the self-appointed Chef de Cuisine.

You know. The person we know that seems to know everything about anything. These are the people that are quick to mock or chastise others for using devices that make our life easier.

One such device is the digital meat thermometer.

You’ll see this lively debate crop up sometimes in online forums as well. Some (a small few) old-school cooks espousing the techniques of Sicilian grandmothers and their supernatural powers at determining the doneness of a leg of goat.

If you only cook the same piece of meat, at the same temperature, with the same cooking implement, the same way, each and every time, until you’ve got it down to a science, then you don’t need a meat thermometer.

Maybe that Sicilian grandmother has been cooking goat for 50 years, she should get a pass. However, for the rest of us, life is made easier with an inexpensive device called the digital meat thermometer.

She’s telling you she forgives you for using your demonic devices

Using a meat thermometer to make sure your food is not only safe but tastes delicious shouldn’t be an admittance of inferior cooking skills. It is taking your cooking skills to another, higher level.

Last time I checked, none of us have X-ray vision to see inside our food. Even if you could, what exactly are you looking for?

Don’t get wrong, the purpose of this post isn’t to disparage the cooking of years’ past, I’m here to celebrate the advancement of cooking to its glorious present-day state.

So, why use a meat thermometer? I guess we need to explore why people don’t want to use one in the first place.

Using a Meat Thermometer for Food Safety

According to a 2002 study conducted by the USDA, only 6 percent of cooks used a meat thermometer to determine the doneness of a cooked hamburger. This is troublesome considering that an earlier study by Kansas State University found that 1 out of 4 hamburgers turn brown before they reach a safe temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

People on Subway

I just spent 45 minutes on the subway, do you think I have an extra 10 seconds to use a meat thermometer on my chicken for dinner tonight?

The USDA even created a campaign to combat the pervasive attitude of “eyeballing” food to determine doneness. They called the campaign, Is It Done Yet? The whole campaign was based on raising awareness about the importance of using a meat thermometer to determine the doneness of your food.

And speaking of USDA studies, in 1998 they actually funded a focus group study titled “Focus Groups on Barriers that Limit Consumers’ Use of Thermometers when Cooking Meat and Poultry Products”.

Sounds like an exciting read doesn’t it? Actually, it is an amazing and comical look into the minds of consumers about whether or not they would use a meat thermometer for cooking.

Some of the participants’ statements are downright hysterical.

Although the study is a little bit old, I do believe a large segment of the population still holds some of the attitudes conveyed in this study. Let’s take a look at some of the awesome reasons people give for not using a meat thermometer while cooking.

What Would Keep You from Using a Meat Thermometer?

According to the focus group study, the number one reason for not using a meat thermometer was that it was inconvenient or a hassle. One such response was that it would take five minutes to go into a drawer to hunt down a meat thermometer and stick it in the food.

Five minutes? I could rearrange a whole kitchen cabinet in that amount of time.

Another participant in the study tried to pull the old busy family with kids in multiple sports excuse. One’s going to basketball practice, one’s going to this, one’s going to that.

I totally get being busy, but what are you feeding them to cut down on time in the kitchen? Hot Pockets?

If you are cooking them a healthy meal that includes a lean cut of meat all it takes is a quick poke of the thermometer to see if you’re serving your future NBA center overcooked food.

One person in the study claimed using a meat thermometer, especially one that goes in the oven, would be too labor-intensive. Now, this is where they were actually on to something. The person was referring to the old oven-safe meat thermometers that you stick in the meat to monitor the temperature.

The Good Cook Classic or "Precision" Meat Thermometer

What temperature is that on the dial? Better open up the oven!

They were worried that the process of opening the oven constantly to check on the temperature would lengthen the cooking process and bring the oven temperature down.

They are absolutely right. Opening the oven constantly to check your old dial thermometer will be a hassle and laborious. Not to mention it will extend your cooking time. That’s why they invented oven thermometers with probes attached to high-temperature resistant cords.

Oven thermometers like the ThermoPro TP-17 with dual probes. Stick the probe in the meat, set your temperature alarm and go about your busy day.

If anything, oven-safe meat thermometers with probes actually save you time by freeing you from constantly checking on your food.

More Excuses Not to Use a Meat Thermometer for Cooking

The focus group was divided into smaller sub-groups and I will just say if there was a group that lived off of microwave burritos it would be the group labeled “R2”.

And now, some of the excuses given for not using a meat thermometer by the R2 group for your reading pleasure:

  • Never gotten sick from not using one, so why change? (That is some sound microwave burrito logic)
  • The thermometer is an added expense. (A decent thermometer will cost the equivalent of a couple of boxes of microwave burritos, so they got me there)
  • They would use one if it required “no thought”. (or just their normal state of being)
  • The only way they would ever use one is if it were as convenient as not using one. ( the same logic a lot of people give for not exercising)
ThermoPro TP20 Wireless Remote Digital Cooking Food Meat Thermometer with Dual Probe for Smoker Grill BBQ Thermometer

I could go on and on but you get the point. The perception by some people is that using a meat thermometer is a useless hassle. The logic being that they’ve never gotten sick not using one so why start now?

Well, that tells me one of two things. Either they always overcook their food or they have an amazing talent for judging when their meat is done every time.

This brings me to the main point of this article, why use a meat thermometer? Other than obvious safety concerns, what would convince someone that doesn’t use a meat thermometer to start using one? The answer is better tasting food.

alt=”Duck breast

cooked to 140 degrees Fahrenheit” width=”720″ height=”480″ /> Using a meat thermometer helps you not overcook your food, such as this duck breast cooked to 140 degrees Fahrenheit

Why You Use a Meat Thermometer: Better Tasting Food

You should use a meat thermometer if you want your food to taste its best. Without using one the chances of overcooking your food increase rapidly. Especially if you are cooking something in the oven.

It’s easy to forget when something is cooking in the oven. Out of sight, out of mind. Uh oh, my chicken is dry. Why? Because you pulled it out of the oven after it cooked for an hour. Why an hour? Because that’s what the recipe said.

Recipes don’t take into account every cook’s situation. Your oven might run hotter than mine. You might have a gas range that will burn hotter than an electric one. That is why when recipes use time as an indicator of doneness things often turn out overcooked.

Do you know what never lies? The internal temperature of your food. If you are cooking something in the oven, use your digital oven-safe thermometer probe, set your preferred temperature and go about your business.

alt=”Flank steak cooked to 135 degrees Fahrenheit” width=”720″ height=”400″ /> Flank steak cooked to 135 degrees Fahrenheit

Another thing to take into account is carryover cooking. When you pull food that has been cooking away from a heat source the food itself retains heat and will actually rise in temperature still.

The only way to adjust for this extra amount of temperature increase is to use an accurate meat thermometer. Chicken breasts are done at 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Why not pull them off the heat at 150 or 155 degrees Fahrenheit and let them rise to that temperature? This would result in a juicier, more flavorful end result than if you just eyeballed it.

Final Thoughts

Using a meat thermometer is ensuring that your food is not only safe to eat but also cooked to its best temperature. There is no better way to tell when something is done than checking the internal temperature with an accurate meat thermometer. You will find that once you get in the habit of monitoring the temperature of your food you won’t overcook things anymore. Not only will your food taste better you will become a better cook as well.