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Probe Thermometers: Can They Take the Heat?

Fine Cooking Issue 70
Photos: Scott Phillips
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No sooner did instant-read thermometers become standard issue in any serious cook’s tool kit than a whole new line of meat thermometers— called continuous-read, or probe thermometers—began to flood cookware catalogs. We decided it was time to evaluate them.

Probe thermometers consist of a thin metal rod (a probe), that’s connected by a wire to a digital display. The probe is inserted into the meat and stays there throughout cooking; the display unit sits outside the oven and sounds an alarm when the preset temperature is reached.

Probe thermometers aren’t perfect. One of the first strikes against them comes from the manufacturers themselves, who promote the “set it and forget it” approach—suggesting that once you set the target doneness temperature, you can walk away until the alarm sounds. In our experience, there’s no substitute for checking on roasting meats visually, tactilely, and—as they near doneness—frequently. But the real Achilles’ heel of these instruments is that most of them aren’t intended for roasting in an oven hotter than 392°F. We think this is a major limitation since many of our favorite methods for cooking meat involve high-heat roasting.

After putting fourteen probe thermometers through a battery of tests, we found three models to recommend (all of which can be used above 400°F). And despite some quibbles, we’ve concluded that probe thermometers actually help make you a better cook by showing how and at what pace the internal temperature of roasting foods increases. The key is to use these thermometers as tools rather than to rely on them to make judgments for you.

Getting the best results from probe thermometers

• Many probe thermometers come with preset target temperatures for meat. We caution against blindly following these because they’re based on conservative USDA recommendations and are not in accordance with many people’s taste. Instead, consult a reliable cookbook for a more realistic listing of meat doneness temperatures.

• When cooking large cuts of meat, set the temperature for 10°F lower than your actual target. When the alarm sounds, try the probe in a few different spots to ensure that you haven’t inserted it too near a bone or in a fatty spot. Either of these may throw off the reading.

• Always use a towel or potholder when adjusting the probe. The metal gets extremely hot.

Polder Preprogrammed Cooking Thermometer & Hour-Minute-Second Timer (361)$19.99 at Amazon.com

This thermometer performed well in all of our tests for accuracy, response time, and readability, but what we liked most is its rubberized cord and straight probe that can withstand high oven heat (up to 450°F) and even go in the dishwasher. The rubbery cord is also less awkward to use and to store than the woven metal cord on most other probes. An on/off switch and an automatic shutoff when not in use save battery life. The preset doneness settings for meat can be easily reset, and there’s an “other” category that allows you to ignore them altogether.

Drawbacks: The rubbery buttons have a nice feel, but they sometimes stick. The overall operation and programming can take getting used to. There’s no way to disable the alert, so the thermometer will always sound when a target temperature is reached.

CDN ProAccurate Digital Cooking Thermometer and Timer (DTP482) $29.99 at Cdnw.com

This compact, well-designed thermometer is suitable for high-heat roasting (up to 482°F), as well as for candy-making and deep-frying thanks to a metal clip that suspends the probe near the side of the pot. We also appreciate the fact that the temperature alert can be disabled, allowing you to use it as a simple continuousread thermometer with no alarm. This model performed very well in tests for accuracy and readability.

Drawbacks: Mastering the toggle buttons and programmable features require a careful reading of the operation manual and a little practice. The response time was one of the slowest we encountered, but once the unit gets within range, it’s extremely accurate and responsive to small changes in temperature. When using it as a candy or frying thermometer, you need to manipulate one of the preprogrammed meat settings (e.g., beef, pork, chicken) since there’s no “other” category.

Polder Dual-Sensor Thermometer/Timer (894-90) $29.95 at Surlatable.com

In addition to providing an accurate read on the internal temperature of foods, this probe also monitors the oven temperature—a handy feature since many ovens aren’t properly calibrated. The heavyduty metal cord and probe have the highest heat-tolerance rating of any thermometer we tried: up to 572°F. We also like the absence of any preprogrammed temperature settings, the presence of an on/off switch, and the helpful quick-reference instructions printed on the back of the unit.

Drawbacks: This thermometer has a considerable annoyance factor: when setting the target temperature, you can only go upward. So if you mistakenly bypass the temperature you’re after, you have to go all the way past 572°F and start over from 86°F.

Two more contenders

In addition to the thermometers featured above, we tested eleven other models, most of which are not intended for use above 392°F. Of these, we found two that we liked for their simplicity, fast response time, and ease of use: the Acu-Rite Digital Meat Thermometer (00724) and the Pyrex Professional (17019). We’d love to see upgraded versions of these units to withstand higher heat, but if you only roast meats at lower temperatures, either of these models would be a good choice.

How we tested

To evaluate the probe thermometers in this review, we used them to monitor the temperature of an ice bath, boiling water, oil for deep frying, a large roast, baking bread, and thin chops and burgers. We left the probes in the food as it cooked, and we used them as instant-read thermometers to check response time. We ranked the units based on their accuracy, readability, response time, temperature range, ease of use, and general feel.

One trait we couldn’t fully test was durability, and for probe thermometers this is a concern. We’ve heard reports of probes failing, and while several manufacturers confirm that this occurs frequently, they attribute it more to misuse (such as using at too high a temperature) than to product flaws.

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