Cooking Tips

How to Use a Digital Thermometer and Never Overcook Meat Again

The only things standing between you and a perfectly cooked steak are a must-have kitchen tool and some invaluable kitchen knowledge.

Published Mar. 8, 2017.

We’ve all overcooked a piece of meat or poultry. The last thing you want is for that gorgeous (and expensive) strip steak—the one you’re planning on searing in a cast-iron skillet—to go from a perfect medium-rare to boot leather sitting on your plate beside those potatoes (potatoes that you roasted in duck fat, no less). Or what about that whole chicken you've been salting all day and planned to cook for dinner after work? Overcook that bird and you'll be chewing on some majorly chalky chicken.

But it doesn't have to be that way! The best way to prevent overcooking your steak and chicken is to invest in an instant-read thermometer and learn how to properly temp your food. Fortunately, we can help with both.

How to Temp Meat

If you’ve never taken the temperature of meat before, don’t worry: it’s an incredibly simple task. 

Whether you’re cooking burgers or roasting a tenderloin, you should always take the temperature in the area of the meat that will be the last to finish cooking (the thickest part, or in some cases the direct center).

Bones are heat conductors, so if you’re temping meat on the bone, be sure your thermometer isn’t touching the bone—this will provide an inaccurate reading. And if you’re roasting a particularly large piece of meat, take multiple readings to confirm it’s reached the right point of doneness.

temping a roast

How you temp a piece of meat differs depending on the kind of meat you’re temping. When taking the temperature of thin steaks or pork chops, use tongs to lift the meat from the pan, then insert the thermometer sideways into the center (again, watch out for any bones!). Watch Julia Collin Davison demonstrate in this video, after pulling a cast iron steak out of the pan:

TEMPING BURGERS: For burgers, leave the patty in the pan or on the grill, and slide the thermometer into the burger at the top edge, pushing it toward the center. You won’t have any bones to navigate (we hope!), but be sure to avoid touching the thermometer to the surface of your pan or grill grates.

temping burgers

TEMPING POULTRY: Temping poultry can be a bit more tricky than temping steak or pork because white meat and dark meat cook at different rates, and must be cooked to different temperatures to ensure food safety. Birds are also full of bones and cavities you’ll have to avoid to ensure an accurate reading.

temping chicken thigh

For thigh meat, insert the thermometer at an angle into the area between the drumstick and the breast, taking care not to hit the bone. You’re looking for a reading of 175 degrees. For breast meat, insert the thermometer from the breast end, holding the thermometer parallel to the bird. Here, you’re looking for a reading of 160 degrees.

temping chicken breast

How to Calibrate an Instant-Read Thermometer

You’ll also want to know how to calibrate your thermometer to ensure it’s giving you accurate readings. (No one wants to eat underdone chicken!) Follow your thermometer's manufacturer's instructions, or follow this simple technique:

1. Fill a tall, straight-sided glass with ice and add just enough water to fill in the cracks. Allow the mixture to sit for a few minutes so the temperature can stabilize.

2. Put the thermometer’s probe into the slush, being careful not to touch the sides or the bottom of the glass.

3. On your digital thermometer, press the “calibrate” button to 32 degrees. It’s as easy as that.

The Best Digital Thermometers

Now that you know how to use a digital thermometer, it’s time to shop for one. Our all-time favorite digital thermometer is Thermapen’s Mk4 model [Buy Now]. In this video, our gadget expert Lisa McManus explains why we love it so much:

The one drawback of the Thermapen Mk4 is that it’s expensive (but worth it, in our opinion). If you don’t want to spring for it, there’s a less expensive option called the ThermoPop [Buy Now] that is almost as fast, accurate, and easy to use:

We’re fanatical about thermometers in the test kitchen, and we think you should be, too.

Do you use a digital thermometer in the kitchen? If so, what for? Let us know in the comments!

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