The Best Instant-Read Thermometer for the Home Cook
Knowing the temperature of the inside of your steak, the hot water for your pourover coffee, or molten sugar can make you a better cook by making sure you don’t overcook things. To get that temperature in 5-7 seconds and be certain it's accurate, you should reach for the $30 ThermoWorks ThermoPop. It's the fastest, most versatile, and most convenient instant-read kitchen thermometer you can get for less than ~$100. It was two to three times faster than the other models we looked at, it has a higher working temperature range and an easier-to-read screen than our previous budget pick , and its easy battery replacement also makes it better than other models we looked at.
A researcher and I spent more than a dozen hours researching and testing the best-reviewed and most-recommended kitchen thermometers to update our previous pick, the $17 CDN DTQ450X, sometimes labeled the “ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer.” Our two new recommendations are faster and more accurate in arriving at both hot and cold temperatures than the CDN, can be read more easily, and are built with a less-fragile-plastic feel to them. This adds to the 12 hours of research and interviews with chefs and serious cooks that went into our original post. I tested our original picks against six new contenders in both ice baths and boiling water, and considered the range, features, and convenience of each.
It was a tough call between the two best options, but they are both a notable improvement over what was available during our last sweep. The Polder Stable-Read Digital Thermometer was our runner-up choice: It’s a relatively cheap thermometer that delivers a good combination of speed, accuracy, and a beep that tells you when it’s reached a stable reading. It can also hold the reading on the screen after you’ve removed it so you don’t have to put your face over a hot pan to read it. However, it has a smaller working temperature range (up to 392° Fahrenheit) than the ThermoPop’s top temperature of 572° Fahrenheit. That makes it a poor choice for deep-frying, when oil temperatures can exceed 400°. It also lacks a probe cover and backlight, which make the ThermoPop more versatile and grilling-friendly. If you don’t fry with oil or do much grilling at night, and you can find it in stock for around $20, it could be all the thermometer you need.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to spend a lot more than $35 for a better thermometer, our upgrade pick and the undisputed champion of digital thermometers is still the $95 Thermapen. The Thermapen gets closer to the true temperature in about 5 seconds on average and measures down to tenths of a degree—it’s the culinary industry standard for accuracy. As for its design, the Thermapen has a folding probe that can stab into more kinds of foods and containers, and it can last a very long time with occasional calibrations. If you regularly barbecue, take water temperature for tea, fry in oil, proof dough, make candy, roast big sides of meat, brew beer at home, coddle eggs, or try to cook fish just up to the sweet spot, a Thermapen is well worth the $95 investment.
Table of contents
Should I get this?
Digital thermometers tell you what’s going on inside of your food, where your eyes can’t see and your instincts might fail. With their thin metal probes, they can tell you when meats are cooked just enough to be safe or when steak has reached optimal doneness without having to cut your food open.
Any working thermometer will eventually report the right temperature, or at least catch it as it rises or falls. What matters most in a good kitchen thermometer is how little friction there is between you and that temperature and how little it interrupts the cooking.
You want quick stabilization, an easily visible display, and minimal damage by the probe to solid foods (and to your fingers). Beyond that, little things, like a splash-proof display, a calibration option, and buttons that are easy on all hands, mean a lot for a tool you should be able to use for many years.
If you’ve been cooking a long time and you have great instincts for when your well-worn recipes are done, you don’t need an instant-read thermometer. But even professional chefs like to take the guesswork out of the equation. For beginners in the kitchen, a good thermometer is nearly a legal mandate for avoiding overcooking things. And though it may technically work, a hand-me-down analog thermometer can take a very long time to reach its reading, exposing your meats to overcooking or hasty removals.
How we picked
As noted, a good instant-read thermometer should be fast, accurate, convenient to use, and not abusive to your food or your hands. You need more than a ballpark “medium-rare” guess, but less than a research laboratory data point. The price should reflect that middle path—while you can spend up to $100 on a kitchen thermometer and as little as $10, most will probably wind up costing less than $40 and compromising on a few less-essential features.
To find the thermometers worth testing, we looked at what was highly rated on Amazon and a few other online stores. We then turned to publications that test and rate products: Consumer Reports, Cooks Illustrated (both require subscriptions), Good Housekeeping, and a selection of cooking and product review blogs.
A researcher and I culled these sources to create a list of more than 21 thermometers for this update, on top of the dozen thermometers closely considered for the original. We tossed out most thermometers whose range prevented them from checking too-hot frying oil or grill temperatures, along with models that had dealbreaker flaws, terrible reviews, bad availability, or seemingly no warranty or support.
How we tested
To test thermometers, I used the tests that thermometer makers ThermoWorks, Polder, and CDN all uniformly suggest to calibrate their devices (PDF links: ThermoWorks, Polder, CDN): ice cubes in a thick and heavy container, with just enough water not to cover the cubes, well-stirred, and a pot of boiling water, made as stable as possible.
I put new batteries in the thermometers we didn’t buy or request, and I tested each thermometer five times each with the ice bath and the boiling water. I timed and wrote down how long it took each thermometer to reach a very narrow range of reading or something within 2 degrees of the frozen/boiling target temperature.
For the most part, I verified the temperature of the ice bath (32° Fahrenheit) and boiling water (212° Fahrenheit) regularly with the Thermapen. This was easier with the ice bath than the boiling water, the latter being a more volatile target temperature.
Of course there’s a major gap in performance between cheap $15 thermometers and the nearly $100 Thermapen, but I found that there is a more notable gap between sub-$20 thermometers and $30-40 thermometers. The mid-priced models were more than twice as fast and notably more accurate than the sub-$20 models. From what I can find, the two slightly pricier thermometers we’ve chosen as our pick and runner-up did not exist when we first published this guide last year; it’s great to see such a dramatic improvement in quality in thermometers under $50.
The ThermoWorks ThermoPop is a new, lightning-fast, easy-to-use thermometer that doesn’t make any sacrifices in accuracy for speed. Made by the same company behind the best-rated and highly beloved Thermapen (our upgrade pick), it offers the same core reliability for a third of the price—it’s just slightly less precise and a touch slower. With a broad temperature range that covers everything in normal kitchen use and an interface that’s easy to read and use, it’s a huge leap forward compared to the $20 pocket thermometers we considered the last time we published this guide.
The ThermoPop’s range covers -58° to 572° Fahrenheit, a range that covers everything you can realistically cook in a home kitchen or backyard barbecue. You won’t often need those higher temperatures, but for double-checking frying oil or ensuring a grill is hot enough for serious searing, that can be useful. The accuracy is stated as within 4 degrees Fahrenheit above 248 Fahrenheit, but most thermometers scale in similar fashion as temperatures move up. Many thermometers, though, cut off earlier: 392° Fahrenheit, in the case of the Polder, 450° with our prior pick, the CDN DTQ450X, and at 302° with some cheaper models.
In my ice and boiling water tests, the ThermoPop was absolutely the fastest-reading—faster sometimes than the Thermapen.
It must be noted that the ThermoPop only shows integers: 212 Fahrenheit, not 211.8 or 212.3. So on the whole, the Thermapen is doing more work to get to its readings, which can slow it down in more rapidly changing circumstances.
Relatedly, the ThermaPen’s tenth-of-a-degree accuracy also makes it tough to pinpoint its stability point in boiling water, hence its absence from the speed test below.
But, still, the ThermoPop was two or three times faster than all the thermometers we didn’t pick. And its very narrow loss to the Polder Stable-Read is certainly within the margin of error inherent in a human running a timer.
Because of its integer-only readings, the ThermoPop doesn’t look like a winner when charted against the competition. But keep the context in mind: There is one Fahrenheit degree between the “most accurate” and “least accurate” thermometer, and the ThermoPop gets to its temperature three times faster than the four theoretically most accurate models.
From the tests, the ThermoPop and Polder Stable-Read stand out as close competitors in reading speed and accuracy. What puts the ThermoPop ahead of the Polder are its design and features.
Its backlight is a handy thing to have when you’re grilling in the winter or the evening or taking a reading in a darker region of the stove. So, too, is the seriously splash-proof design, with the screen and every button molded in to prevent malfunctions and make cleaning far easier. The automatic shut-offs on the backlight and the thermometer itself are, of course, very handy. And compared to thermometers like the CDN or the Taylors, battery replacement on the ThermoPop is a cinch: Turn a regular-size screwdriver a few times, pop in a new one, and go.
The screen of the ThermoPop is perhaps its most visible selling point. The unit’s numbers are big because it doesn’t have to cram in a decimal point. The number rotates to each cardinal direction at the push of a button on the back, which helps with side-sticking fish, top-reading hot liquids, and reading down at the ThermoPop when it’s reaching into a cooking vessel you can’t get too close to. Because of this rotation, too, the ThermoPop is equally easy for left- and right-handed use—not so with side-reading units that favor the right-handed.
The probe on the ThermoPop is relatively thin (down to 0.08 inches, or roughly 2 millimeters, at its tip), and won’t leave much of a noticeable puncture on most meats. It’s also long enough (4.5 inches) that you won’t be putting your fingertips or knuckles too close to hot or delicate dishes. The probe cover is nothing special, but the clip and the bulb-head design of the whole unit make the ThermoPop less susceptible to bump or drop damage when clipped to a pocket or apron.
ThermoWorks offers a 1-year warranty on its digital thermometers (PDF link).
We’re not alone in digging the ThermoPop’s small-package skills. J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director of food site Serious Eats, is effusive in his love for the Thermapen, but after a few months of ThermoPop use, he wrote it up as “the best inexpensive thermometer on the market.” A Newsweek reviewer in love with Thermapens found the ThermoPop “no sloppy seconds” and “a bargain at that price.” Good Housekeeping references Research Institute tests in recommending the ThermoPop in a travel cooking gear round-up, citing it as “super accurate.” Many cooking, (fancy) coffee, and barbecue blogs also endorse the ThermoPop, though most were also provided free models as part of an outreach program.
With 258 reviews as of this writing, the ThermoPop is averaging a 4.8 out of five star rating—no small feat at all.
One nice bonus that comes with the ThermoPop is a laminated guide to cooking temperatures. The guide covers not only food safety temperatures, but weekend projects like rich dough baking (170° Fahrenheit) “Hard Ball” candy (250°-266°), and every level of doneness for beef and pork (you can grab the PDF at ThermoWorks’ site). Finally, the ThermoPop comes in nine different colors, which is a nice choice to have. Stick with white if you’re not sure.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
What’s wrong with the ThermoPop? Mostly what ThermoWorks chose not to include in this $30 model.
Chief on the wish-it-could list: a beep to indicate it has reached, or is close to, a stabilized reading, like the runner-up pick. If you know that the ThermoPop generally takes 5-7 seconds to hit its temperature, you learn to wait just long enough before pulling the probe out. But an auditory cue is handy during a busy cooking session.
As we mentioned earlier, the ThermoPop reads in whole numbers, not to the tenth of the degree as most of the competition do. This level of accuracy should be sufficient for most cooks.
The ThermoPop also lacks a calibration option. Thermometers with calibration buttons (or screw heads) offer a hedge against a gradually drifting scale. Then again, having spent a good amount of time stirring ice water and adjusting boiling temperatures, it’s also hard to know that you are calibrating inside an exactly 32-degree cup.
The runner-up: Polder Stable-Read
The Polder Stable-Read ran right alongside the ThermoPop in speed and accuracy; in truth, it was a tad bit more accurate (although there is more to that, and I’ll explain later on), and slightly faster at boiling temperature. It has a long and reasonably thin probe (about 2.5 mm) and a very simple one-button design.
If you can’t imagine needing temperatures above 392° Fahrenheit, and you could live with a large character display you always had to read at a side—that is, you mostly used a thermometer for roasts or steaks you pull out and check—the Polder Stable-Read is far from a bad pick. It’s $10 cheaper than the ThermoPop, and the beep-and-hold temperature reading can be quite helpful for avoiding long waits over hot pans.
Amazon reviewers generally like the Stable-Read, with a 4.5 out of five average rating. Consumer Reports really, truly likes the Stable-Read (subscription required), technically tying it with the Thermapen in its overall score; that seems slightly off, but it is an endorsement nonetheless. Polder makes many, many thermometers and probes, so individual reviews of this one unit are somewhat scarce.
The Polder Stable-Read loses ground in usability. The switch between Fahrenheit and Celsius is under the back battery cover; I could never get to it without popping out one of the two batteries. There is no backlight. The side display is not as convenient as a top or rotating display. There is no probe cover, so this is not going in your pocket or apron. Sourcing the Polder Stable-Read, too, can be tricky; it comes in white/red (model number THM-379) and pure white (THM-389) configurations, usually sold by third parties on Amazon, ranging in price from $20 to $40. You might be better off buying from Polder directly.
Finally, that quick temperature and certain beep-when-ready may come at the expense of some accuracy, at least at first. Serious barbecue cook and electrical engineering graduate Bill McGrath took the Stable-Read to task in an equipment review at AmazingRibs.com. McGrath noted that Polder’s seemingly predictive algorithm “extrapolate(s) the reading based on the rate of change of temperature,” and that the Stable-Read “frequently holds a value that is below the actual temperature.” This did seem to happen to me once in six boiling water tests, as the Polder stopped just short of 209.
You can release the hold and get a new reading by pressing the only button. But that slight uncertainty makes the Stable-Read a bit less accurate overall. Still, it is plenty quick to get within pitching distance of a good temperature.
The serious upgrade: Thermapen
As noted many times already, the Thermapen is nearly universally beloved for its speed, accuracy, and design. It costs nearly $100 and is best appreciated by those who really enjoy the science of cooking or the pursuit of kitchen perfection. If you’re on the edge, try mentally adding up the cost and frustration of food you served that needed to go back in the oven.
The LED screen features large, easily read numbers. There is an auto-off function, but it’s simpler to open the probe when you need it, then close it to turn it off. The range of up 572° Fahrenheit covers everything you might fry, grill, or cook. The accuracy is ±0.7 degrees for most cooking temperatures. The speed is, while not always the 3 seconds touted by ThermoWorks, about 4 seconds to get within a very close range of its final reading. The casing is splash-proof, the battery easily replaceable, and you can calibrate the Thermapen if it starts to seem off—or have Thermoworks’s NIST-traceable lab do it. Other settings inside the sealed battery case allow for rolling back to integer-only readings, changing Celsius/Fahrenheit, and disabling the auto-off feature for tracking projects over a long period.
The major technology difference between the Thermapen and its cheaper competitors has to do with its thermocouple: A sensor that runs the length of the probe, rather than combining all its sensors into a nodule a half-inch up the probe length. This matters if you’re trying to get sideways into hamburgers or thin fish fillets or if you’re trying to pinpoint the temperature on the surface of something.
Consumer Reports gave the Thermapen a second place finish in its (updated since we first published this post) September 2014 ratings, behind a slightly cheaper model that is certainly modeled on it (more on that in a bit). PCMag gave the Thermapen a surprisingly thorough examination for an off-topic product, and gave it an Editors’ Choice badge, finding that “its speed, accuracy, and large, clear display make it an essential kitchen tool for serious cooks.”
The Thermapen’s speed is “amazing,” as Cooking for Engineers relates: “one second for a ballpark value and two more for dead accurate” (slightly exaggerated, by our findings, but only slightly). The tip of the probe is 2 mm thin (slightly thinner than the roughly 3-mm ThermoPop), 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. Reviewers and writers are invariably near-evangelistic in their recommendations: the New York Times, the Serious Eats blog, 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), they keep it in their test kitchen at all times, and would likely have it as its only recommendation, were it not for the $95 price tag. Add to this list that essentially every review we cited on the ThermoPop mentioned the Thermapen, like we do, as the true step-up for smart home cooking.
Many of the thermometers we looked at—culled from Amazon reviews and purchases and editorial write-ups—were dismissed at the start, due to their limited temperature range (often with a top range around 300°F). Not everybody cooks with super-hot oil or makes candy, but we believe a good thermometer should be able to check that your frying oil is not too hot or that your grill is ready for steaks. Other thermometers that were hard to find or buy were also set aside. Analog (speed-gauge-style dial) models, too, are quite slow, sometimes giving readings that are open to interpretation.
Our previous pick for the best instant-read thermometer, the CDN DTQ450X, or ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer, remains an accurate thermometer, with a wide range, a probe actually thinner than the ThermoPop at its tip (1.5 mm compared to 2 mm), a calibration option (which I used to check against some odd results), a relatively convenient top display, and a number of handy holding and temperature alert functions for a relatively low price of $18. But given the relative time to reach a close temperature and the pricing of the Polder Stable-Read at just a buck or two more, it’s hard to keep as a pick. Newer thermometers do the actual temperature job faster, and if you need more features, you can and should step up to a Thermapen.
The CDN ProAccurate TCT572 (or the “ProAccurate Folding Thermocouple Thermometer”) was Consumer Reports’ top pick for a non-probe thermometer. It is directly modeled on the Thermapen, with the same temperature range and fold-out probe. Its feature list is like a greatest hits of all the models we tested: auto shut-off, temperature holding, water resistance, calibration, large digit read-out, and more things, like preset meat temperatures and a “shatterproof” case. At $72-$75, you’re pretty close to Thermapen’s price point. Being relatively new and low-profile, it has 22 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4.2 stars of five; the themes of non-praising reviews are longer read times (6-7 seconds) and odd inaccuracies. We’ll keep an eye out for customer reviews and editorial reviews, but at this price point, it’s hard to recommend it over the Thermapen.
The $16 ThermoWorks RT600C was our runner-up among the affordable picks in our previous post. It came recommended by, among others, chef James D. Roberts, who bumps things and can’t afford to break a $100 thermometer; serious barbecue nerd Chuck Falzone; and Cook’s Illustrated, in a tie with the CDN DTQ450X. Its thin probe is useful, as are the splash-proof buttons, and it’s made by the same firm as two of our picks. The cons: The range is only to 302° Fahrenheit, the automatic shut-off is at one hour, and it lacks a clip to protect or pocket the probe. Not bad, but not a winner over our picks.
We originally set aside the Taylor 9842 Commercial Waterproof Digital Thermometer for a lack of reviews and history in our prior post. It now has 940 Amazon reviews and comes reasonably recommended by Consumer Reports. It has a good range (-40° to 450° Fahrenheit), essentially middle-of-the-pack speed ratings (although notably slower on ice water), a calibration screw, and an approving stamp from the NSF. It is the best thermometer you can get for $10, but for $10 or $20 more, you save a lot of reading time, get a bigger display, and have a bit more leeway in how you can read the dial.
The Taylor Ultra Thin/Ultra Slim Thermometer (technically the 9831 model) was the slowest with ice water and the slowest with boiling water, but it somehow kept close to the Thermapen’s readings at its own glacial pace. If you leave the oven open or the stovetop heating for 20 seconds while waiting for a reading, the temperature of your food will definitely have changed. Skip this one.
The Acu-Rite Digital Instant Read Kitchen Thermometer is a $12-$14 thermometer in the fold-out style of the Thermapen. It feels cheap to use, the buttons feel like you need to mash them, and the probe is not particularly thin. There is no calibration, or any other advanced features, aside from beeping when it stabilizes. It always took at least 10 seconds to get hot or cold temperatures, sometimes up to 19 seconds. It had the widest range away from the Thermapen’s readings. Get the Polder Stable-Read instead.
I kept my Taylor TruTemp pen-style thermometer around as a control for the tests. I bought it when I got my first real kitchen a few years back. It tied for the slowest at ice readings, and then it broke and refused to turn back on for the boiling tests.
For $30, the ThermoPop offers great speed, accurate temperatures as your food changes, and convenient features that are worth the price-per-reading. And if you are really doing some cool things in the kitchen, or want the best you can get at the non-science-lab level, your choice is easy: Get a $95 Thermapen. There are $10 and $16 thermometers we could live with—and we do recommend a $20 option in the Polder Stable-Read—but we think a fast reading on food you care about is worth the added cost, especially spaced out over years of good cooking.
Originally published: January 19, 2015