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How to Choose and Use a Food Thermometer

25,February, 2015

Our recent article about why thermometers are important for food safety may have gotten you thinking about getting one or using the one you have more often. If so, here’s some advice on how to select and use one.

If you’re in the market for a new food thermometer, there are a lot of options out there from the $6 dial thermometer to the $99 digital thermometer that sends alerts to your smartphone from the grill.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-checking-meat-image3197530Any food safety educator you ask will probably tell you about a particular instrument that’s their personal favorite, but in general, they recommend that consumers pick a digital one because it’s tip-sensitive.

From there, the choice to spend $20 or $90 probably depends on how much you cook.

“It’s a tool just like a frying pan,” says Benjamin Chapman, associate professor of food safety at North Carolina State University. “The more you cook, the more investment you put into your tools.”

An inexpensive thermometer makes sense for someone who doesn’t cook a lot of raw meat and poultry.

The different prices for digital thermometers typically have to do with their durability, their speed, and special features such as a smartphone connection or being fully dishwasher-safe.

“You’ll generally pay more for a faster response time,” says Tom Woodbury, chef and national account manager for Thermoworks.

He advises people to be careful with thermometers labeled “Instant Read.”

“Some thermometer manufacturers use that term to describe the frequency with which the display is updated, but not necessarily the speed that the thermometer display reflects an accurate temperature,” Woodbury notes.

As for dial thermometers, or bi-metallic stems, they’re “not great tools,” Chapman says. “They’re fine in a jam, but they do have to be calibrated.”

Over time, the expansion and contraction of the probe’s metal housing can cause the mechanical works inside to shift and then show an incorrect temperature.

To calibrate a thermometer, you place it into either ice water or boiling water and adjust the dial accordingly.

Woodbury recommends that people check the accuracy of their dial thermometers at least one a month, prior to a big cooking event such as Thanksgiving, and if it’s been dropped or possibly damaged in some way.

Chapman says you can also calibrate digital thermometers and that he checks his once or twice a year — typically around Thanksgiving.

“Everyone who’s cooking or eating food should probably have a thermometer,” he says, “but how often you use it is definitely going to dictate how much you would want to invest in it.”

Once you’ve got a thermometer that works for you, you’ll want to use it to find the “cool spot” of whatever you’re cooking. If it’s meat or poultry, try to get the thermometer’s sensor into the thickest part of the muscle, away from bone. This is where it takes the heat the longest to penetrate.

Woodbury says that most digital thermometers have a sensor an eighth of an inch away from the tip, but in dial types, they can stretch up to an inch away.

If you take a reading and find out the meat you’re cooking is at less than the minimum temperature, be sure to wash the thermometer before you take another reading. If the food is contaminated, washing the probe helps to keep from reintroducing any pathogens to the meat.

Chapman adds that it’s a good idea to take the temperature at multiple spots of your food item since the heat could be unevenly distributed, especially when cooking ground meat products and microwaving.

And thermometers aren’t just for omnivores. People who are immunocompromised — those going through chemotherapy, for example — and need all their food to be thoroughly cooked can use a food thermometer to ensure that their fruits and vegetables are safe to eat.

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