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.

Our Pick

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.

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.

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

Also Great
Nearly universally beloved for its speed, accuracy, and design among those who can justify its nearly $100 price with a professional need or monthly rib roasts.
As previously mentioned, the Thermapen is nearly universally beloved for its speed, accuracy, and design among those who can justify its nearly $100 price with a professional need or monthly rib roasts.

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.

The Competition

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.

Also Great
If you cannot see yourself using a top-reading thermometer, the RT600C is a very good option.
The RT600C was also recommended to me by serious meat and barbecue nerd Chuck Falzone, and it was, as noted, tied for first with the CDN model in Cook’s Illustrated review. Cook’s Illustrated praised the extra-thin probe, the side display, and the simplicity of controls, but dings it for lack of calibration, and a shorter temperature range: -40 to 302 Fahrenheit. The model they reviewed also lacked an automatic shut-off, but that has since been added to the RT600C (although, strangely, the shut-off is at the one-hour mark, purportedly to help track minimum/maximum temperature marks). If you cannot see yourself using a top-reading thermometer, the RT600C is a very good option.

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.

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Sources

  1. Inexpensive Instant-Read Thermometers, Cook's Illustrated, March 1, 2010
    "The other winner maxes out at 450 degrees and turns off after 11 minutes."
  2. " Recommended: CDN DTQ450X ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer [$17.50]"
  3. " 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."
  4. 3Twenty Wine Lounge, 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.
  5. Jill Santopietro, 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!)"
  6. J. Kenji López-Alt, 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."
  7. Michael Chu, 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"
  8. Oliver Hulland, 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."
  9. 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."
  • http://www.jordangolson.com jlgolson

    At 6500 feet in altitude, where I live, water boils at 200 F. I believe ice melts at a non-32F temperature as well. I wonder what effect that has on calibration?

    • Rodalpho

      Ice always melts at 0C, air pressure does not affect this.

      If you know water boils at exactly 200F at your altitude (which would be 6600 ft above sea level), you stick the thermometer in water, heat it up, and confirm that it says 200F when it starts to boil.

      • http://www.jordangolson.com jlgolson

        Ah, great. Physics!

  • Rodalpho

    I strongly disagree with this recommendation. I actually have a Thermapen, and while it’s a really neat piece of tech, everything you say it is, works perfectly and incredibly quickly, it’s just not very USEFUL for day to day cooking. I keep the Thermapen in the drawer most of the time and only use it for spot checks.

    What I actually USE most of the time is a thermometer with the probe on the end of a long wire. I stick it in my roast or whatever, set the desired temperature (say, 120F for rare pre-carryover), put the roast in the oven, then walk away. When the roast hits 120F, it beeps and I take it out, perfectly cooked.

    I have this one and like it, but would love to see you guys evaluate this much more useful product segment.

    http://www.amazon.com/Polder-Original-Cooking-All-In-One-Thermometer/dp/B0000CF5MT/

    This is a TRULY useful piece of equipment. It costs seventeen dollars.

    • Meg Muckenhoupt

      It’s only useful if you’re doing roasts or baking bread. If you’re making candy, custards, or egg-based frostings, the lengthy time delay on these sorts of thermometers can be maddening, and make the difference between creamy desserts and a curdled mess. Also, the silicone coating on the wires tends to wear away over time if you leave them plugged in when you open and close the oven, rendering the thermometer useless.

      • Rodalpho

        Yep both of your comments are completely true. They’re no good for candy, etc, and the cables do tend to die after a year or two.

        I roast meat all the time and never make candy. If your use pattern is the opposite, go with one of these.

  • John Miller

    I’ve been using the Taylor model you linked here for about 2 years, without issue, but I guess the reading is a little slower. It’s got a smaller head than the ProAccurate, which makes it a little easier to carry around in my pocket back and forth to the grill or stove. I could never justify the price of the Thermapen.

  • eaadams

    I really like my Thermapen. I like the angled and lateral display, I can keep the food lower to see, the angle helps get my hands further away and the big display makes it easy to see.

    *Also* Thermapen just rolled out a backlit model. I really want one (can’t justify the cost quite yet) but would be excellent for night grilling as I find holding tongs, thermometer, and flashlight impossible.

    Finally, if you keep an eye on Thermapen’s website, they often have some pretty good deals. I got mine for 20% off without much effort.

    One thing about the acuread, I used to have one and found the sheth difficult. What do I do with it? How do I clean it? Can’t put the thermometer into it between uses, really just for storage. However, $15… if I had read this prior to getting a Thermapen, I probably wouldn’t have. $85 can buy a lot of better things.

  • tricky2000

    What about reviewing remote grill thermometers? The “stick it and forget it” kind with wireless remote alarms. The quality on those seems to vary wildly.

  • http://www.oshaughnessy.org/ Bob O’Shaughnessy

    Most excellent! I purchased three of these to be primary instrumentation for the division B (Middle school) Science Olympiad thermodynamics event that I coached this year.

    The Keep the Heat event requires a significant testing of water temperatures for preparation and quick, accurate instruments in-event. The CDN DRQ450X thermometers performed extremely well in both arenas.

  • http://morningtableaux.blogspot.com/ Benquo

    Ugh. I bought a ThermaPen on the strength this recommendation, and got about 10 uses out of it, if even that. First, the temperature was just fluctuating wildly. Somehow that got straightened out, but today when I tried to pull it out of its case to use it today, the big display part simply broke off from the long probe.

    • http://morningtableaux.blogspot.com/ Benquo

      Sorry, I meant I bought the ProAccurate, not the ThermaPen!

  • Litterbuggy

    Funny, for years I’ve been perfectly happy with cheap instant-read analog dial thermometers picked up from local grocery stores. They’re accurate, reliable, take four or five seconds to reach temperature in everything from cakes and breads to roasts, can be left in the oven to watch cooking meat more closely, and don’t require tiny little batteries or electronics. I also like being able to stand the thermometer on the flat glass that tops the dial between readings. Better yet, a dial is easier on my middle aged eyes even when it’s fogged up or a little greasy. I did try a few random digital thermometers a few years ago, but neither of them performed better or were easier to use than my old standby. I love gadgets, but when something bombproof does just as well as something fussy, I’ll go for bombproof every time.

    • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

      Longevity. You get what you pay for. But yes, on occasion, cheap products do tend perform just as well or better than the more expensive product. Basic example – paid $4 for the cheapest most basic clear iPhone case ever – and it’s 10x better than the $30 one I bought that got stained from my blue jeans (that now occupies a tiny space in a desk somewhere in my house).