Here’s a secret you wouldn’t know from watching celebrity pit masters cooking on TV. Everyone who takes barbecue and grilling half seriously uses a thermometer.
Two identical looking steaks sitting side by side on the grill can cook at different rates. Even if you have years of experience around the grill, the only sure fire way to deliver perfectly cooked meat to the table is by using an instant read thermometer.
So if you’ve been guessing, estimating based on time and weight, or using ol’ poke it with your hand test then this guide is for you. We break down the best instant read thermometers across a range of price points.
Click to jump straight to each topic
- The Best Instant Read Thermometer – ThermoPop
- Best Budget Choice – Lavatools Javelin
- The Best High End Instant Read Thermometer – Thermapen Mk4
- Why You Need an Instant Read Thermometer
- Instant Read vs Leave in Style Probe Thermometers
- What We Look For in an Instant Read Thermometer
- How to Test Your Meat Thermometer
- What to do if Your Thermometer is Inaccurate
The Best Instant Read Thermometer – ThermoPop
The makers of the ThermoPop, Thermoworks, are all about thermometers, and have a large range of temperature measuring tools available. Years of experience in this industry shines through in the clever and thoughtful design of the ThermoPop.
Design features include a rotating screen to make reading the display convenient from any angle, a backlit screen, design to accommodate both left and right handed users, and the ability to switch between °C and °F.
What We Like:
- Thoughtful design which takes into consideration ease of use. Features such as the rotating display, ergonomic design and backlit screen for use at night might seem like minor details, but make this thermometer a winner.
- Really long battery life, and the ability to get replacement batteries.
- Large temperature range.
- The unit is splashproof, which is a huge plus when you consider that you will be working with sprays, sauces and marinades when cooking. It also makes cleanup easy.
While all those features I just mentioned make life easy, the all important questions to consider when choosing a thermometer center around speed, reliability and accuracy. The ThermoPop will give you a reading accuracy of +/- 2°F. You can expect the reading to appear in around 4 seconds.
It also boasts a lithium battery (which is included) that will last around 5,000 hours. And if you manage to chalk up that many hours of use, you can easily replace the battery.
The unit is also splashproof — a great feature which makes it easy to clean. The probe is 4 ½ inches in length, meaning you will be able to get into the middle of bigger cuts of meat without a hassle.
The temperature range of the ThermoPop is impressive. It is able to measure temperatures from -58 to 572°F.
The ThermoPop comes in 9 choices of color, from candy pink to classic black.
There are a great deal of features that have been packed into this thermometer, which is conveniently sized to fit in your pocket.
Get the latest price from Thermoworks
Best Budget Choice – Lavatools Javelin
The Javelin comes with a lot of features similar to the ThermoPop, perhaps with just a few less conveniences such as the backlit, rotating screen. It is still a great thermometer, and worthy of consideration if you are in the market for an instant read thermometer.
The Javelin does come out on top in terms of accuracy. It promises a temperature read accuracy of +/- 0.9OF. In terms of speed, it will deliver a reading in around 4 seconds.
The battery life of the Javelin, while not as impressive as the ThermoPop, is still nothing to be sniffed it. The Javelin’s battery should last around 4,000 hours before it needs to be replaced.
The probe is a little shorter than the ThermoPop, meaning it might not get right to the middle of some bigger cuts of meat.
The probe has a tapered design, which means the puncture in your meat should be minimal. The probe is also coated with a silver-ion antimicrobial coating. This means that bacteria should not grow on the surface on the probe.
Another handy feature of the Javelin is a magnetized cover, which means you can whack the thermometer on your fridge to save it getting lost in the bits’n’bobs drawer. The probe also folds in neatly to make this thermometer really portable and easy to store.
The Javelin boasts a -40 – 482°F temperature range. While not as broad as the ThermoPop’s range, there are not many foods I can think of that would require you to be measuring temperatures outside of this range.
What We Like:
- A reliable, accurate thermometer at a very reasonable price.
- Small and compact. This thermometer can be folded up for easy storage, and the magnetized cover means you can even use it as a magnet on the fridge.
- Accurate to +/- 0.9°F.
- Similar to the ThermoPop, this unit is splashproof, which is a big plus when working around water and other liquids when cooking.
- Good temperature range, which should be more than sufficient for any temperatures a home chef would need to be checking.
What We Don’t Like:
- Missing a couple of really handy features such as the rotating, backlit screen that the ThermoPop boasts.
- The probe is short. This could be a little annoying if you plan on cooking large cuts of meat.
While there are a couple of areas in which the Javelin comes up a little short when pitted against the ThermoPop, we don’t think any of them are deal breakers.
Get the latest price on Amazon.
The Best High End Instant Read Thermometer – Thermapen Mk4
If you consider yourself a serious home pit master, there’s really no other choice than the Thermapen Mk4.
Manufactured by Thermoworks out of Salt Lake City, this is the Rolls-Royce of instant read thermometers.
And it’s got a (not quite) comparable price tag! While there’s no denying the price is steep, this is an incredibly valuable tool to have. Not just for smoking, but as a general kitchen tool.
The Mk4 is an upgrade over the original Thermapen. While it shares the same general shape and design, for a little extra cash you get some new new features like automatically rotating display, automatic motion sensing sleep and wake mode with the same crazy levels of precision as the original.
It’s the little details that you wouldn’t necessarily think about that make this a great thermo. If you want to check the temperature of a large brisket from a few different angles, the screen rotates automatically so you’re always easily able to read the temp.
What We Like:
- Crazy level of accuracy and super fast read speeds – When you’ve got the smoker loaded up it’s nice to be able to get an accurate temperature reading within ±0.7°F within 2-3 seconds. And if you find yourself grilling it’s even more useful.
- Automatic light and dark sensor – If your brisket is stuck in the stall it’s handy to be able to easily read the thermometer without any other light sources. The unit automatically shuts itself off to avoid wasting battery.
- Build quality and warranty– With it’s thick casing and IP67 waterproof standard this unit is incredibly durable and has easily with-stood a few knocks off my table. Thermoworks offer a generous two year warranty, and being based in the USA you get a bit of extra piece of mind that you can easily get someone on the phone if you need help.
You can choose from 10 different colors, and the unit comes included with a single AAA battery that the manufacturer claims will last for 3000 hours of use.
While you can get by with one of the cheaper options in this guide (especially if you only ever cook low and slow), if you’re at all passionate about grilling and barbecue then it’s worth saving up your penny’s for the Thermapen.
Get the latest price on Thermoworks.
Why You Need an Instant Read Thermometer
You might be thinking that a leave in thermometer is really all you need. And in cases where you are smoking over many hours, a leave in thermometer will do the job perfectly.
But there are some instances where an instant read thermometer is an essential piece of equipment:
- Even those most dedicated to the art of smoking low and slow will inevitably throw a steak on the grill at some point.
- When cooking these thinner cuts of meat, leave in thermometers will not work well. They take a longer time to read the temperature than instant read thermometers, and are best used to monitor temperatures over a long cook. We will talk more about the differences between leave in thermometers and instant read thermometers later in this article.
- Another instance in which you will be glad to have an instant read thermometer is when you have a few things on the go at the one time. At some point in the cook, you will need to do a quick check of where everything is at.
Because all barbecues have hot spots, your steaks/ chicken breasts/ burgers (or whatever you are cooking) will not all be ready at the same time. The only way to ensure you serve up perfectly cooked food is to have a quick check of the temperature in each item before you pull them off.
Another important consideration is safety. If you use an instant read thermometer to check the temperature of your meat, you can confidently serve your food up without worrying whether it was brought up to a safe temperature or not.
A good quality instant read thermometer can give you an accurate reading within 3 or 4 seconds. It is an invaluable tool to make sure you cook each item just right.
Instant Read vs Leave in Style Probe Thermometers
We have touched on this in the section above, but if cooking thermometers are new to you, then we will go back to basics and describe the differences from the top.
Instant read thermometers are designed to spot check the temperature of your food, and are best suited to thinner cuts of meat like chops. They come into their own when you are grilling over high heat.
They are usually a smaller unit, and easily fit in one hand. They have a metal probe and a temperature display. These days, the displays are usually digital.
To use an instant read thermometer, you stick the probe into the meat, and wait until you have the temperature reading. Most good instant read thermometers these days should have that reading back to you in under 5 seconds. Once you have the temperature, take out the probe and either keep cooking or take your meat off the heat if it is done.
Leave in probe thermometers are more suited to larger cuts of meat that need to be monitored over a long period of time, such as brisket, pork butt or turkey.
Even if you have a good dual probe leave-in style thermometer like the Smoke setup, it’s often handy to be able to quickly check the temperature at different points in a piece of meat.
They give you a reading of the temperature throughout the duration of the cook as the meat is coming up to temperature. By regularly checking this temperature, you can determine if the airflow or fuel needs to be adjusted to keep the temperature consistent.
Although the name gives it away; yes, you leave the probes of these thermometers in the meat throughout the cook. The information is then displayed on a separate unit that sits outside the cooker.
Often these units are a little more complex than an instant read thermometer. Quality units will usually have two probes, one that lets you know the temperature inside the meat, and the other lets you know the ambient temperature inside the cooker. You can also do clever things like set the minimum and maximum temps, and set an alarm if these limits are reached.
We have a guide to the best leave in style thermometers are on the market are at the moment.
As you have no doubt figured out by now, these two different types of thermometers fill two very different roles. Really, it is ideal to have one of each.
What We Look For in an Instant Read Thermometer
Accuracy and precision
If you can’t trust what your thermometer is telling you, you may as well toss it out and take a guess.
The good news is that even amongst more affordably priced units, such as the Lavaworks Javelin which we mentioned earlier in this article, you can expect a reading accuracy of +/- 0.9OF.
Speed of temp reading
Instant read thermometers that take more than 10 seconds to get a reading back to you are only going to cause you a headache in the long run.
For starters, you don’t want to be waiting for ages with the lid off your cooker while you wait for the reading. And I’m not really talking about heat loss here.
You will need to get up close and personal to the grill/oven to physically stick the thermometer into the meat. The sooner you can get a reading, the less time you will spend reaching into or over a stinking hot cooker!
While you may want to fork out some cash to get a hard core leave in thermometer with some serious functionality, a instant read thermometer is a smaller, less complicated unit. As such, you can get accurate, fast instant read thermometers at reasonable prices.
Why outlay loads of cash when you can get one that does the job well at an affordable price?
If you only ever use your instant read thermometer to check the temperature of meat, then a temperature measurement range of 32°F to 392°F will be adequate.
But we can tell you now, that once you have one of these, you will be checking the temperature of everything.
If you start to get adventurous in the kitchen (and why not) a wide temperature range is a must.
Like anything you purchase, you want it to last no matter how much you spend.
Instant read thermometers may be small, but they need to be built to withstand use around high temperatures and moisture.
How to Test Your Meat Thermometer
It is a good idea to check the accuracy of your thermometer when you first unbox it to make sure it has been correctly celebrated.
You should also check the accuracy of your thermometer every year, or after it has copped some abuse, such as if you drop it or get it wet (more than a splash).
There are a couple of ways you can check your instant read thermometer to make sure everything is working properly.
1) The Boiling Water Test
Before you start this test, there is some additional measurements you will need to take into consideration. Water boils at different points depending on the altitude you are at and the atmospheric pressure, which varies from day to day. If you like a bit of maths, then proceed with this method! Alternatively, use this handy calculator that will tell you your boiling point.
It is also worth noting that hard water will boil at 1-2OF higher than soft water, and that if you use a tall, narrow pot to boil the water for your test, the water will boil at about 1OF higher than if you boil it in a shorter, wide mouthed pot.
All that said, this is how to use this test to check your thermometer:
- Determine your boiling point.
- Pour 4 inches of water into a wide mouthed pot.
- Bring the water to a vigorous boil.
- Insert the thermometers probe about 2 inches into the water. Gently stir the water with the probe for about 10 seconds, and then take the reading.
Don’t forget to take into account the accuracy of your thermometer. If the temperature reading you get falls within the +/- accuracy limits promised by the manufacturer, you have a thermometer that is working well.
2) The Ice Water Test
This method of testing your thermometer is a little less complicated, as altitude and atmospheric pressure don’t come into play. If you have prepared your ice bath correctly, then the reading should always be 32°F.
The video from Thermoworks does a great job of explaining how to correctly setup an ice bath.
- Grab a tall glass, and fill it with ice cubes right to the top. If possible use ice cubes instead of crushed ice.
- Fill the glass with chilled water.
- Gently stir the water and ice for about 15 seconds, just to get the temperature even throughout.
- Place your thermometer probe about 2 inches into the water.
- Gently stir the water with the probe for about 15 seconds before you take the reading.
Be sure to keep the probe moving. Don’t sit it against the ice, the surface of the glass or leave it in the water below the ice, as this could affect the reading.
What to do if Your Thermometer is Inaccurate
Before we launch into this, we should qualify what “inaccurate” really means. Even high quality, industrial grade thermometers can be out by 1 or 2 degrees. So if you find this is the case with yours, there is absolutely no need to contact the manufacturer with a letter of complaint. This is normal, and you just need to take this difference into account when reading your temperatures.
If your thermometer is old, or a cheaper model, then you can expect a difference of up to +/-5°F. If this is the case, and this difference is bothering you, it might be time to upgrade! Take into consideration how accurate you need your thermometer to be and if you can justify it, you have just found an excuse to buy a new toy!
This advice from Thermoworks is solid:
As a rule of thumb, it’s always a good idea to keep track of your calibrations to monitor the performance of the thermometer over a period of time. Misuse can cause the instrument to fall out of spec more often, and a record of temperatures may help you take corrective actions to preserve the useful life of the thermometer.
If your thermometer is out by +/-20°F, then you might have some problems. If your thermometer is a high quality one, you should be able to contact the manufacturer and they may be able to re-calibrate it for you. Some models may allow you to re-calibrate it, so refer to the owner’s manual and see what your options are.
Unfortunately, if you purchased a cheaper thermometer, re-calibration may not be an option. But it is still worth checking the warranty to see if you have any recourse.
Wrapping it up
We hope you have found this roundup of instant read thermometers helpful. Understanding when and how to use these types of thermometers will take the guesswork out of barbecuing, and will also mean you can be confident that you have served food that was cooked at safe temperatures.
Do you use instant read thermometers? What make and model do you love? If you have anything to add, or any questions we have not covered in this post, be sure to leave a comment below. And if you found this article helpful, be sure to share!
Last update on 2018-05-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API