Not having a trusted thermometer in your kitchen drawer is like NOT having a speedometer in your family car.
If you just trust what you see, you might think you’re going the speed limit? But maybe everyone around you is speeding too?
You might think your roasted chicken is done? But what if your oven isn’t calibrated correctly? Maybe 375 F is really 335 F? Maybe the recipe said one hour, but it presumed your chicken was really cold when you put it into the oven.
Maybe yours was room temperature. Maybe your chicken was a bit bigger.
And in this case, the consequences of undercooked poultry can be more serious than a speeding ticket. Even more serious than a traffic accident.
Before you drive, you get auto insurance. The answer here? Get some cook’s insurance in the form of a trusted thermometer.
Like a GPS, a reliable and accurately calibrated thermometer can immediately tell you where you are, how much longer there is to go and when you’ve gotten there.
Nowadays, if a car doesn’t come equipped with a GPS, most people go out and buy one. It’s worry-free security that you’ll get where you want to go. Thermometers are like that.
Granted, some conventional and even some microwave ovens come with thermometer probes, but few people use them on a regular basis.
They’re cumbersome, so many people don’t bother to use them. Instead, many cooks rely on what the pilots call “dead-stick reckoning.”
It looks done, smells done, seems done?
I don’t recommend it.
What I recommend is the best $10 investment you can make for your kitchen, your cuisine, and your health. It’s an insta-read thermometer.
An insta-read thermometer, unlike the old-fashioned type that you stick in the meat and leave in the oven while the product roasts, has many advantages.
The stem is typically less than ½ the diameter. Usually 1/8”. Making a smaller hole in the meat while checking its temperature means less juice is lost. Less juice lost means a moister piece of meat. That’s good.
Like the name implies, “Insta” is fast. You’ll typically get an accurate reading in less than 10 seconds.
They’re cheap. For under 10 bucks, you can insure a $50 roast is cooked correctly–over and over and over again. That’s money well spent.
They’re easy to calibrate to make sure (unlike your oven) that what your reading on the dial is the actual temperature (and doneness) of your product.
They’re digital. If you can’t tell where the dial needle is, you can buy a digital one. They read to the 10th of a degree!
Using Your Insta-Read Thermometer
First, make sure it’s calibrated, meaning 32 degrees Fahrenheit is really 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
How? Simple. Just fill a glass with lots of ice and cold water. Wait a minute. Remove the thermometer from its plastic guard and place it in the ice water. Wait 15 seconds. The temperature should read 32 degrees.
If it doesn’t, nearly all thermometers have an adjustment nut on the opposite side of the thermometer. Just take a pair of pliers and turn the nut (or hold the nut and turn the dial) until the needle reads 32 degrees.
For the digital thermometers, it’s even easier, and no tools are required. There is either a reset button, or you hold the on-off button down for a moment. Just check for the directions on the package.
In either case, its best to check the calibration before you use it for the 1st time and occasionally afterwards. You can also use boiling water as your measurement temperature. If you’re near sea level, however, you could be in trouble with this type of testing. Elevation and atmospheric pressure affect the boiling point of water. In Denver, for example, at 5000+ feet above sea level, your calibration would be off by 9 degrees because there, water boils at 203 degrees. 9 degrees doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s pretty much the difference between Medium Rare (140) and Medium Well (150F).
For this reason, and because it’s a whole lot easier and safer, I use ice water.
Lastly, where you test your meat for doneness can dramatically affect the reliability of the results. Be sure to follow these simple rules:
Place the thermometer in the middle or thickest part of the product (meat or roast). It’s the part that will take the longest to cook, and therefore, the last to be done.
Don’t place the thermometer next to a bone. It will give you a false (higher) reading. By as much as 10 F.
In a chicken (or whole bird), the most reliable place to check for doneness is between the breast and the thigh. It’s the last place on the bird that will finish cooking. Again, just watch out for the thigh bone.
Most chefs have an insta-read thermometer on them at all times–and for good reason. Properly cooked (and chilled) foods are essential for great results (and public safety).