The Best Instant-Read Thermometer for the Home Cook
A fast and accurate digital thermometer is all that stands between you and dry steak, unsafe chicken, and many other slight but crucial cooking missteps. For the vast majority of home cooks, the CDN DTQ450X, or ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer, is a sturdy, efficient, and reliable tool that's capable of handling just about any job.
Digital or “instant-read” thermometers tell you what’s going on inside of your food, where your eyes and instincts are not as reliable. With thin metal probes and sensors, these thermometers tell you when meats are cooked just enough to be safe, but still tender and juicy. They confirm that dough is warm enough to proof yeast, that the water for your coffee is just right, and that oil is heated perfectly for fried treats. Thermometers are a bulwark against uncertainty—provided they can give you a reliable reading in short order.
Every thermometer made with any competence will eventually report the right temperature, or at least accidentally catch it. What matters in a good kitchen thermometer is how little friction there is between you and that temperature. Quick stabilization, an easily visible display, minimal damage to solid foods and your fingers, and the ability to calibrate if you find your readings have veered from true temperatures are solid helpers.
Who is This For?
This is for someone who does a lot of cooking and doesn’t want to screw it up, especially beginners. A few degrees can often be the difference between a tender steak and chewy, unpleasant mass of protein. The only way to accurately measure that is with an thermometer of some sort. Once you’ve had enough experience, you can rely more on your sense and less on precise readings, but for the rest of us, $15 is not a lot to pay for peace of mind.
But how much is one of these things worth? That depends on how serious you are about cooking. We would recommend most people spend about $20, which will net an accurate and precise digital thermometer with a wide temperature range that gives readings in about 5 seconds. Spending significantly less will net you a slower, less accurate analog model or a much slower, less precise digital model. Spending more is where things get interesting.
$100 will buy you a Thermapen, which gives consistently accurate readings across an even wider temperature range in just 2 seconds. We’ll talk more about this in the step up section, but needless to say, it’s a bit excessive for most home cooks.
Amazon has nearly 900 digital thermometers available under $25 as I write this, so a starting reference point is mighty handy. Cook’s Illustrated reviewed seven inexpensive instant-read thermometers (subscription required), specifically because of the Thermapen’s somewhat intimidating price point. Tied for first was the CDN DTQ450X, as it “received top marks for speed, accuracy, and temperature range.” One might simply stop there, as those three points are what thermometers really do, but it’s worth noting how a thermometer feels when you’re in hot, stressful, or uncertain situations.
The CDN DTQ450X is currently the best-selling instant-read thermometer on Amazon. It comes recommended by the Man Made blog, one very active home brew gear tester, and by a barista gear site, among other specialty sites and blogs.
CDN is overly modest in their product description, claiming a 5-6 second response on Amazon, or just 6 seconds on the retail packaging. In testing throughout the cooking of a roast chicken, along with a few tests with ice water and an electric tea kettle, I found that the ProAccurate can sometimes return a solid temperature in something like 5 seconds, especially when poking into the thicker parts of a chicken, or inserted into a fairly solid mass of mashed potatoes (not that you would normally need to). What’s more, the other digital thermometers I tested, including a different CDN model, could almost never beat the ProAccurate to a reading: in a chicken, in ice water, or in water just off the boil.
There were definitely temperature checks that took nearly 10 seconds for the variations to reach a steady, certain range, but that was the case with all the thermometers I tested. Another helpful point was the ballpark temperature the ProAccurate showed the moment you switched it on, as opposed to the 1.5 or 2 seconds of test characters and blank read-outs of some other thermometers. Even if that first number is off, it’s instant feedback that could be helpful—as in, “Whoa, this roast is at 158 degrees already, kill the heat.”
Three other differences really set the CDN ProAccurate apart. One is its range of -40 to 450 Fahrenheit (-40 to 230 Celsius), uncommon at this price point. That notably covers the ranges needed for deep frying and candy making and outdoor grill checking. The other is calibration, meaning that you can dip your CDN in an ice-water slurry, press the CAL button for two seconds, and teach it that this is what 32 Fahrenheit feels like. You can’t accidentally calibrate, either, as the CDN only responds when the temperature reads between 30 and 34 Fahrenheit.
The final point is the display orientation, which faces up on the ProAccurate, perpendicular to the probe. Many other thermometers have their displays running flat, parallel with the probe. This is something of a significant preference, based on what you’re most often measuring (and, given the ProAccurate’s frying oil capability, something of a design necessity). It can be tricky leaning over the side of a roasting chicken while grabbing a core thigh temperature, but so can keeping your hands above boiling liquid with or hunching down after poking the top of a roast.
The major weakness of the ProAccurate, and a common refrain in reviews, is its clip-style sheath, which loses its tenuously snug fit and doesn’t clip well to all clothing. The sheath has a safety temperature guide in tiny letters, which is nice, but unless you’re carrying this thermometer around a professional kitchen all day, its sheath and clip likely aren’t deal-breakers.
Cook’s Illustrated testers did not appreciate the bulb-shaped, top-mounted display, which they claimed “felt awkward and cheaply made.” I would agree that the top edge of the thermometer is unattractively fastened to the body at two clip points, but the stainless steel body, waterproof battery compartment, and the point of probe attachment feel far more solid than most models at this price point. The ProAccurate also took a knock from Cook’s Illustrated for having buttons that are “too easy to hit…while gripping the head.” It’s a fair point, but I never found myself gripping this model with my palms flat against the top, or needing to push it into something so stiff as to require a fist-like grip. But, as noted, most of us aren’t getting into the core of hanging brisket, either. The probe itself is quite long (4 ¾ inches), and tapered at the end, allowing for minimal juice loss when measuring meats.
The Step Up
The Thermapen’s speed is “amazing,” as Cooking for Engineers relates: “one second for a ballpark value and two more for dead accurate.” The tip of the probe is so thin, and the sensor so finely calibrated, that it “can take a clear internal reading on a wafer-thin piece of sole,” Alton Brown writes in Gear for Your Kitchen. The LED screen features large, easily read numbers, the range of up to 572 degrees Fahrenheit is more than sufficient, and the casing relatively water and splash-proof.
Reviewers and writers are invariably near-evangelistic in their recommendations: the New York Times, the Serious Eats blog, research bunker Cooking for Engineers, Alton Brown (on television and in print), Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools blog, and many, many cookbooks and guides all vouch for the Thermapen. The venerable Cook’s Illustrated rates it “highly recommended” (subscription required), and would likely have it as its only recommendation, were it not for the $95 price tag.
It’s important to note that the runner-up, in my own deliberations and in those of Cook’s Illustrated, the ThermoWorks RT600C, is a very, very close runner-up. Chef James Roberts, a leading figure in the Buffalo culinary scene, recommended the RT600C to me. I visited his kitchen, where he described the RT600C as his “Yoda Wand,” and also admitted to being rough on his pocket thermometers. Junior chefs in the Park Country Club kitchen used their own picks, including at least one ThermaPen, but Roberts prefers a side-reading thermometer he won’t feel too bad about busting.
One of the best-selling digital thermometers on Amazon is the ES432 Ultra-Fast Water Resistant Pen Shape Stem Thermometer, which looks so much like the ThermoWorks RT600C that it’s either a coyly rebranded product or a remarkably brazen copycat. Its shape, length, button placement, and labeling are exactly the same as the RT600C, but it has a range of up to 392 Fahrenheit, and better Amazon reviews. A fellow Sweethome writer used the ES432 in reviews without problems. The ES432, however, lacks the RT600C’s thinned-out probe tip, is notably less sturdy where the probe joins the body, and comes without warranty from a company that seemingly cannot be located or contacted, for only 5 cents less than the RT600C. It also performed perhaps a bit less quickly than the RT600C and top-reading CDN in ice water tests.
The top-reading CDN ProAccurate shares most of a name and very similar model numbers with the CDN ProAccurate Quick-Read Pocket Thermometer, a side-reading model with a thin probe, a range of up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and another personal recommendation from Roberts. But as noted by Cook’s Illustrated, the short (2 ¾ inch) probe brings your hands quite close to sometimes very hot food, the buttons are crowded, and there’s no calibration offering. It seemed to make something like a “lucky guess” about the chicken breast temperature, but in ice water, there was definitely more fluctuation after 8 seconds than with the other tested thermometers.
The $12 Taylor 9842 is another Amazon best-seller and has the same temperature range as our pick, but it wasn’t mentioned in any of the published reviews we read and based on user reviews, takes about 10 seconds to get a reading. We’d rather not wait, especially when you’re only saving $5.
There’s also a number of analog models available for about $5 a pop, but it’s really not worth saving a little bit of money now to have to deal with a lot of waiting around for slow readings later.
Wrapping it up
In short, my pick for the person who uses a thermometer in their home kitchen, for regular meals that aren’t on a deadline, and who might also measure some liquids or frying oil occasionally, is the CDN DTQ450X ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer. The five-year warranty, accurate readings, and affordable price make it pretty easy to recommend for the average cook. If your food gets good enough that you want really precise reads on often thin or very sensitive meats or sauces, by all means: grab a ThermaPen.
Inexpensive Instant-Read Thermometers, Cook's Illustrated, March 1, 2010"The other winner maxes out at 450 degrees and turns off after 11 minutes."
The Essential Kitchen: The 15 Tools Every Man Needs to Cook Like a Pro, ManMade, March 28, 2013," Recommended: CDN DTQ450X ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer [$17.50]"
Hands On: CDN DTQ450X Quick Read Thermomter - now $12!, Homebrew Finds, Nov. 9, 2012" I used my usual one-one-thousand counting method. This thermometer settled in at around 4 seconds, faster than it's stated response time of 5 to 6 seconds. Comparing this side by side with my ThermoWorks RT600C, it consistently read, what seemed like a second, faster."
ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer (review), Seattle Coffee Gear, May 22, 2012,"I really like the product. If you purchase it, there is one word of caution to note: This product has a much faster response time than the analog thermometers. With analog thermometers, I would kill the steam at 125 and the temperature would creep up to 145. Here, you have to kill the temperature at around 135-140. More control is a good thing. It's easy to use and easy to clean.
Useful Gadget Dept. | Gift the Cook, New York Times, Dec. 11, 2009,"It measures from -52 to 572 degrees Fahrenheit with incredible accuracy, which means it can be both your meat and candy thermometer. It’s splash-proof and doesn’t need to be calibrated (hooray!)"
Gift Guide: Kitchen Gear over $50, Serious Eats, Dec. 13, 2012,"It's head-and-shoulders above the competition with a stunning range of -58 to 572°F (-50 to 300°C), 1/10th of a degree precision, unparalleled accuracy, and a read time of under three seconds. Because of its wide range, you won't need a separate meat, candy, or deep-fry thermometer—a singe tool does all three tasks, and how."
Equipment & Gear: Kitchen Thermometers, Cooking for Engineers, March 9, 2005,"(T)here is no comparison between the Thermapen thermocouple thermometer and any of the others. The speed is amazing - about one second for a ballpark value and two more for dead accurate. Three seconds is such a short amount of time that the time it takes to position the probe in the middle of the roast is almost the same time it will take for the Thermapen to take a reading"
Thermapen, Cool Tools, Dec. 2011,"It’s fast, accurate (within +/-0.7 F), and tough (the newer models are splash proof, just don’t fully submerge it). It turns on the instant the stainless steel probe is flipped out, and is ready to read in three seconds."
Instant-Read Thermometer, Cook's Illustrated, Jan. 1, 2010"Our favorite instant-read thermometer has been upgraded with a model that won’t turn off, even when wet. The screen remained lit when we checked the temperatures of ice water, chicken breasts, and roast beef. The ultimate challenge came when it was time to clean: We ran the thermometer underneath hot water—and the LCD screen stayed on."
Originally published: June 3, 2013