After sticking more than 24 instant-read digital thermometers into pork chops, ice water, sous vide water baths, and frying oil, we still think the ThermoWorks ThermoPop provides the best speed and accuracy value for its price. It gets within 2 to 3 degrees of your food’s temperature in less than 3 seconds, and has a long, thin-tipped probe that can get deep into whatever food you’re uncertain about.
On top of its many primary pluses, the ThermoPop is also waterproof, works for right- or left-handed cooks, and easily switches between Celsius or Fahrenheit temperatures. Its display has a backlight and rotates in four directions, and its digits are large and can be easily read at most angles. It’s not the absolute fastest thermometer we tested, but it will comfortably cover most needs in home kitchens. And it is far, far better than the bulk of digital thermometers sold for less than $30.
If our top pick is sold out, or you don’t want to fit a stick-like gadget in your kitchen drawer, the Lavatools Javelin is probably the next-best thermometer for less than $50. It averaged less than a half-second slower than the ThermoPop in our tests; factor in human finger-on-a-timer-button error, and that’s very close. Its probe is notably shorter than most thermometers, it’s not as waterproof, and its display does not have backlighting or rotate. But it’s easy to fit in any drawer, or stick to a fridge, and you can add it onto an Amazon Prime order for about $25.
The Lavatools Javelin Pro Duo is the midpoint purchase between our top pick and the reigning $100 best-in-class thermometer. The Javelin Pro Duo is nearly 1 second faster at reaching a true temperature than the ThermoPop in our tests, and its folding probe style can keep your hands away from high heat or steam. It has a few features the ThermoPop lacks, like a stabilization alert (beep), a button for holding temperatures or tracking minimum/maximum temperatures, and tenth-of-a-degree display. It also has a magnet that lets you keep it on a nearby appliance, rather than loose in a drawer.
Most people don’t need to spend $100 on the best instant-read thermometer. But if you’re the type who cares, deeply, about the difference between meat cooked to 125 degrees Fahrenheit versus 130 degrees Fahrenheit, or have other cooking projects that demand to-the-degree accuracy, the Thermapen Mk4 is the easy choice. It was on average 1 second faster than our mid-level pick, the Javelin Pro Duo, at temperatures in the mid-100s (where most cooking happens). The long probe makes you confident you’re getting readings from deep within your food, and it is recommended by just about every serious culinary reviewer.
Every kitchen that sees regular cooking should have a reliable thermometer for food safety and better cooking. If you have only a slow, analog (dial) thermometer, you need to upgrade.1 Digital thermometers quickly inform you of what’s going on inside your food. With their needle-like probes, they can report when dishes have reached safety temperatures, or optimal doneness, without their being cut open and losing juices.
If you’ve been cooking a long time and you have great instincts, you don’t need an instant-read thermometer for most of your meals. But even professional chefs like taking the guesswork out of dishes, especially meats, on occasion. For beginners in the kitchen, a good thermometer is a necessity to avoid overcooking steaks, undercooking fish or chicken, and learning the baseline timing of their stove and skillet. While dial thermometers may technically work, the best analog thermometer only scored about as well as the worst instant-read thermometer in Consumer Reports’s tests (subscription required). Analog thermometers are also harder to read accurately and contain mercury, which is harmful to you and the environment.
If you want a thermometer you can leave inside your roast in the oven or attached to your grill or smoker, you’re looking for a probe thermometer. We recommend the ThermoWorks ChefAlarm in our guide to party gear.
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 speed and clarity: how quickly you can turn it on and clearly see a steady reading of the temperature inside your dish. This requires a thermometer to quickly jump toward the final temperature, rather than slowly rise and leave you guessing.
The probe on a thermometer should be thin at its point to minimize juice-leaking punctures, and long enough to reach the center of roasts or deep pots. Your hand and fingers should be able to avoid heat or steam while holding it. A good thermometer covers the whole temperature range of home cooking, from below ice water (32 degrees Fahrenheit) up past very hot frying oil (400 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperature display should be readable at different angles.
All of that―based on research, home cooking experience, and interviews with chefs―is what we’re looking for in a digital instant-read thermometer: speed (both to approximate temperature and a precise reading), probe performance, temperature range, features and interface, and the feel of the thermometer in your hand. Other features are nice to have, but not as important.
When we started this guide in 2013, we looked into more than 100 thermometers that had notable reviews on Amazon and other online stores. We considered guides by respected testing publications Consumer Reports and America’s Test Kitchen (both require subscriptions), and a selection of cooking and product review blogs. Nearly 100 thermometers have been considered in three distinct updates to this guide. We tossed out models whose range didn’t reach 365 degrees Fahrenheit (decent frying oil temperature), and took a dim view of those that couldn’t go past 400 (for peanut and other high-smoke-point oils). Other models had dealbreaking flaws, terrible reviews, poor availability, or seemingly no warranty or support.
With some exceptions, we find every year that thermometers retailing for $20 and less were slow and felt cheap, and were often barely distinguishable copies of one another. Thermometers with faster-reading thermocouples and accuracy-adjusting electronics cost more than thermometers based on smaller, cheaper thermistors. Since our first tests in 2014, many more thermometers have filled in the space between $20 and $100, which is a good thing.
The models we tested for our 2016 update to this guide include two thermometers suggested by readers, both made by Maverick: the PT-50 and the PT-100. We also tested updated versions of models made by ThermoWorks (the ThermoPop) and Lavatools (the Javelin and the Javelin Pro Duo), alongside our standing pick for serious home cooks, the Thermapen. No other new thermometer, especially at a price lower than $50, met our basic criteria or impressed us with its features or reviews.
Instant-read thermometer features
A thick ceramic mug full of ice, topped off with water, is what thermometer makers ThermoWorks, Polder, and CDN (pdf) all suggest for testing and calibrating thermometers. It’s also a good way to test how thermometers handle the low end of the temperature spectrum. We timed how quickly each thermometer reached within 1 degree of the ice-water’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit, starting from a room temperature of about 65 degrees. We timed each thermometer four times like that, averaging out three of the results, and tossing out the most uncommon timing (whether fast or slow).
We did the same thing with canola oil that was heated in a cast-iron pot to 365 Fahrenheit, although those timings were far slower and more unpredictable (10 to 20 seconds instead of 2 to 5). Measuring frying oil did give us a sense of which thermometer best protected your hands, however. The most useful test involved water heated with a sous vide circulator in a stock pot and kept to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the internal temperature of what many consider a medium-rare steak, and it is inside what seems to be a sweet spot for thermometers―they all reached this temperature much quicker than in ice water or frying oil.
Finally, we used each thermometer to actually cook and prepare food. We used all six test thermometers on chicken thighs and drumsticks broiled in an oven, and pork chops cooked in sous vide water for an hour, then browned and finished in a cast-iron skillet. We also used the thermometers to measure the temperature of water inside an electric tea kettle, to accommodate a finicky AeroPress coffee recipe. These temperatures were too varied for timing, but gave us a sense of how easy it was to use each thermometer, try out its more advanced features, and read it from different angles.
After three rounds of tests over two years, the ThermoWorks ThermoPop remains our pick, because it provides the fastest results on nearly anything you can cook at home and comes with an excellent price. The newest version of the ThermoPop, released in 2016, is faster than its predecessor, getting within range of most cooking temperatures within 2 to 3 seconds and landing within 1 degree in less than 4 seconds. The large, rotating, backlight-equipped display can be read from almost any angle. Its long and thin probe and small bulb body get into most roasts and liquids without exposing your hands to heat. In addition, the ThermoPop has a huge reading range (–58 to 572 degrees Fahrenheit), a splash-proof body, one-button switching between Fahrenheit and Celsius, and an easy-to-access battery compartment.
The 2016 model of the ThermoPop read the temperature of 130-degree water in an average of 3.49 seconds, and was usually within a few degrees of that temperature in 2 to 3 seconds. In prior tests, the older model of the ThermoPop could get a stable reading on a USDA-safe chicken thigh (165 °F) in 3 to 4.5 seconds. For most people, who just want costlier meats and delicate dishes to be safe but not overcooked, the ThermoPop does the job, and getting faster reading times by 0.7 or 1.7 seconds, from our other two picks, will not be worth it.
The screen of the ThermoPop is, besides speed, its strongest feature. The numbers are big and easy to read because it doesn’t cram in a decimal point. The number rotates 90 degrees at the push of a button on the back, which helps when the probe is inserted sideways or diagonally into a hot or spattering dish. Because of this rotation, the ThermoPop is equally easy for left- and right-handed use—not so with many side-reading units that favor the right-handed (our other picks also rotate).
The backlight on the screen is activated with a button on the top front of the ThermoPop. A backlight is a handy thing to have when you’re grilling in the evening or taking a reading in a darker region of the stove. The whole thermometer is rated IP66 resistant: completely impervious to dust and withstanding “high-pressure water jets from any direction.” The automatic shut-offs on the backlight and the thermometer itself are handy. Compared with most cheap thermometers, the ThermoPop’s battery replacement is a cinch: put a regular-size screwdriver into the back and twist, pop in a new watch battery (CR2032), turn the cover back on, and go.
The probe on the ThermoPop is 4½ inches long, relatively good-sized compared with most of the thermometers we tested. The round head unit also lets you get a few fingers firmly around it. You can stab the ThermoPop into many sections of a roast or dish and never worry about getting your fingertips or knuckles singed or steam-burned.
The ThermoPop covers temperatures from –58 to 572 °F (–50 to 300 °C). It has the widest range of any thermometer below $50 that we’ve found. While that only really helps if you have a home cooking project that takes you beyond frying oil—checking the temperature inside an ultra-hot outdoor grill, perhaps—it could be handy for some people.
One nice bonus that comes with the ThermoPop is a laminated guide to cooking temperatures. The guide covers not only food safety temperatures but also weekend projects like rich dough baking (170 °F), “Hard Ball” candy (250 °F to 266 °F), and every level of doneness for beef and pork (you can grab the pdf at ThermoWorks’s site). It’s a handy thing to stick inside a cupboard door or keep in a drawer.
Finally, the ThermoPop comes in nine colors, which is a nice bonus.
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 the Thermapen found the ThermoPop “no sloppy seconds” and “a bargain at that price.” Good Housekeeping gives the ThermoPop its top rating.
Because of its stick-style design, you can’t get the ThermoPop’s probe into meat or a pot at a 90-degree angle and hold onto its edge, entirely avoiding the heat. Most dishes won’t require you to get that close to measure, but a friend who long-term tested the ThermoPop noted that he and his wife sometimes wished they could get farther away from their hot food. A review of instant-read thermometers by Wired similarly dings the ThermoPop for a “placement of the readout … (that) makes it difficult to read no matter how you’re using it.” The Wired post also gets the number of buttons wrong and does not note the rotation feature on the ThermoPop’s screen. Still, there are certain angles where a bent, side-sticking thermometer might be more useful, like meat directly under a broiler.
On the device itself, the water-resistant buttons are a little small and require deeper pressing, especially for big fingertips. Every so often, I wasn’t sure if a switch had been activated; sometimes I would have to press a button twice.
The ThermoPop could benefit from an optional beep to indicate it has reached, or is close to, a stabilized reading. If you know that the ThermoPop generally takes 3 to 5 seconds to hit its temperature, you learn to wait just long enough before pulling the probe out. But an auditory cue would be handy during a busy cooking session.
Unlike our mid-level upgrade, the ThermoPop lacks a magnet that can keep it stuck to metal surfaces or appliances. This is a feature most people don’t know exists in thermometers, and there is likely no room in the ThermoPop design to add one. Still, that keeps this thermometer in your drawer, where it might be trickier to get to, depending on what else is in there.
As we mentioned earlier, the ThermoPop reads in whole numbers, not to the tenth of the degree, as most of the above-$20 competition does. This level of accuracy should be sufficient for most cooks, and it’s a trade-off for clear screen digits.
The Lavatools Javelin is the next-best thermometer you can get for less than $50 besides the ThermoPop. It read just 0.3 to 0.5 second slower than the ThermoPop in most of our tests, and its display is large and easy to read, even if it doesn’t have a backlight or rotate. If you don’t do much stovetop oil frying, or roasting of thick meats, or you definitely don’t have the drawer space for another gadget, you’ll be just fine with the Javelin.
The Javelin has some minor faults. The Javelin’s probe is notably shorter, at 2¾ inches compared with the ThermoPop’s 4½ inches. But since it folds out, it can sometimes be more convenient (as long as you keep your fingers clear of heat and grease). It doesn’t have a backlight or a rotating display, but its display has large digits and shows tenth-of-a-degree decimal points. The shorter probe may not be an issue for some cooks, especially if they don’t expect to take the temperature of 8-inch-thick roasts, or do much stovetop oil frying.
It’s easier to store the Javelin than the ThermoPop, as it is smaller, and it has a loop for hanging and an internal magnet for sticking to metal surfaces (like appliances). You might prefer the button-less operation: you fold out the probe, it’s on, you fold it back up, it’s off (it also has automatic shutoff). It has a limited lifetime warranty. And it’s readily available through Amazon, with Prime shipping. If any of that appeals to you more than the speed or long probe of the ThermoPop, the Javelin is a fair alternate choice.
Some people may want just a bit more than the ThermoPop offers—a fold-out probe for getting more angles into smokers or very hot pots, and features like temperature holding, minimum and maximum session temperatures, and tenth-of-a-degree accuracy. Until recently, their only real option was upgrading to the $100 Thermapen. After head-to-head testing, we think Lavatools’s Javelin Pro Duo is a smart next-step upgrade from a ThermoPop, and not just because the price is right in that middle range. The Javelin Pro Duo consistently reached a stable temperature reading just a bit faster than the ThermoPop, and not too far behind the Thermapen.
The Javelin Pro Duo got within 1 degree of our 130-degree, sous-vide-controlled water in an average of 2.8 seconds after three tests, versus the ThermoPop’s 3.49 seconds and the Thermapen’s 1.8 seconds. The Pro Duo beeps when it hits its stabilized temperature, it can hold a temperature so you can see it after removing from inside an oven or smoker, and it can track minimum and maximum temperatures during the session you’re using it. The Pro Duo backlight-ready display is notably sharp and clear to read at most angles, and it rotates for upside-down insertion or left or right-hand use. Finally, while both are small things, a few different testers have enjoyed the loop at the end of its body for holding on with just a finger or two, and the magnet inside its probe pivot allows you to store it on a metal surface (like a fridge) instead of inside a drawer.
The Pro Duo display doesn’t rotate vertically, like the Thermapen’s. Unlike the ThermoPop, switching between Fahrenheit and Celsius readings requires opening the battery compartment and flipping a switch inside (though this is also the case with the Thermapen). The Pro Duo uses a thermistor sensor instead of a thermocouple (which our other two picks use); if Lavatools is using circuitry and software tweaks to speed up the sensor, our tests find it to be working. The Pro Duo uses the CR2032 coin battery that the ThermoPop and many other smaller devices use, which, while not hard to find, is not as easily on-hand as a AAA battery.
What makes the Thermapen Mk4 worth a $100 (plus shipping) price tag? The Thermapen is faster—faster at displaying its final temperature, but also faster at getting close to that final temperature. It is 1 second faster than the Javelin Pro Duo at reading 130-degree water at an average of 1.8 seconds, and a full second is hard to come by in that short time range. The Thermapen’s long and thin probe can go deep into the thinnest of fish filets or pounded chicken breasts. The Mk4’s display, which rotates in four directions, has a strong backlight, and it automatically turns on when you pick it back up and is the best overall in adaptability and visibility. The Thermapen is by no means necessary for most cooks, but it’s an indispensable tool for those who love the science of cooking or the pursuit of kitchen perfection.
What’s most impressive about the Thermapen is how much closer it gets to the final temperature in the early stages of its reading. Almost instantly, it knows that your 160-degree chicken is at least 140 degrees. At the 1-second mark, you know it’s at least 150 degrees. Before two seconds, it almost has a reading, and within 3, it’s definitely 1 or 2 degrees away. That kind of speed means you can get food off the heat quicker if you know it’s going too far, or you can be certain to turn down your frying oil. This kind of step-by-step accuracy isn’t reflected in raw speed tests, but even still, the Thermapen simply wins the race. Its range is –58.0 to 572.0 °F (–49.9 to 299.9 °C), which is the same as the ThermoPop’s.
The Thermapen’s probe is 4½ inches long and 1 millimeter thinner than the ThermoPop’s 3-millimeter probe tip; when fully extended, it puts you a good 10.5 inches from anything hot. The matte plastic and the rubber-edged notch at the end of the body makes it comfortable to hold, even when extended as far as it will go. Even if you slip, the Thermapen can survive a dunk in water up to 39 inches for up to 30 minutes so long as you don’t twist it around in that water. It can certainly survive some barbecue sauce or spilled drinks.
Inside the Thermapen is a single AAA battery that lasts for a very long time (at least a year in our kitchen). The battery compartment also contains switches that let you disable the automatic shut-off, switch between Fahrenheit and Celsius, or choose if the Thermapen shows a decimal point. You can also calibrate the Thermapen yourself with a switch inside, or have Thermoworks’s NIST-traceable lab do it for a fee. Keeping those switches inside the battery compartment is something of an inconvenience if you need to change between Celsius and Fahrenheit more than once in a while. And while the Thermapen’s size and shape may not make it possible, it would be an improvement if the Thermapen had a magnet for hanging.
The major technology difference between the Thermapen and its competitors has to do with its thermocouple sensor. The majority of instant-read thermometers (including the Javelin Pro Duo, our mid-level upgrade) use a thermistor, a small, relatively cheap-but-accurate resistor bundle stored in the tip of the probe. The Thermapen’s thermocouple has a thin sensor wire running down its whole probe, while keeping a more extensive set of reading and calibration electronics inside the sizable body. Because the wire has less mass than the thermistor nodule, it registers changes in temperature more quickly. That thin wire also allows for a thinner probe, helpful for thin fish filets and reducing the size of juice-releasing punctures.
It’s not hard to find praise for the Thermapen. Consumer Reports gave the Thermapen a second-place finish in its September 2014 ratings behind a slightly cheaper CDN model that is certainly modeled on it (more on that in The competition). Cook’s Illustrated rates it “highly recommended” (subscription required), and they keep it in their test kitchen at all times. The New York Times2, Serious Eats, Wired, Alton Brown, Cooking for Engineers, Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools blog, PC Magazine, and many, many cookbooks and guides all vouch for the Thermapen.
If you wanted to save about $20, you could buy the “classic” Thermapen (while supplies last). It has the same core technologies as the Mk4, but it lacks the rotation and display upgrades and it sticks to a coin battery. We think those conveniences are worth the full cost.
Most of the thermometers we looked at in previous updates—culled from Amazon reviews and purchases and published writeups—were dismissed at the start due to limited temperature range (often with a top range around 300 °F). Not everybody cooks with frying oil or sears steaks with a blistering-hot grill, but we believe a good thermometer should be able to cover anything. 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.
We tested two Maverick thermometers at the request of commenters, the PT-50 and the Thermapen-like PT-100. We had issues understanding the readings we received with both thermometers, which made speed testing difficult. We used the PT-50’s calibration button to set it to ice water (a standard calibration method), but it was still not as fast as any of our picks. After that, it then wouldn’t rise near the temperature of the 130-degree water. Maverick representatives told us that calibrating the PT-50 would indeed shift temperatures downward, and suggested we recalibrate to another known, higher temperature (like boiling water). It’s true that the majority of food readings are taken at a higher temperature than ice water; still, having to calibrate manually to get close, reasonably fast readings felt like a chore.
The factory-calibrated PT-100 was glacial in testing ice water (nearly 11 seconds), and read lower than all other thermometers in our sous vide test. We provided an image to Maverick of the PT-100 immersed next to a Thermapen, with the PT-100 at 128.4 °F, 1.2 degrees below the Thermapen’s 129.6 °F. Maverick representatives said that in a sous vide machine, “it is difficult for an accurate thermometer to come to an accurate temperature since the water is always changing degrees.” Readings aside, the Maverick PT-100 doesn’t deliver a lot of helpful features at its approximately $50 price, and it is strangely less dust-proof or water-proof (IP44) than most of the thermometers we’ve tested recently.
Taylor’s Digital Turbo Read Thermocouple Thermometer has an interesting design, but it landed in the middle between our picks and cheaper models. Its display is bright, and its probe tip is thinner than the Thermapen’s (1.5 mm). It’s not a bad thermometer; it’s just priced a bit higher than it should be.
Consumer Reports (subscription required) gave the CDN TCT572-W ProAccurate Folding Thermocouple Thermometer its highest rating for speed and “repeatability” (consistent results). We found the CDN’s Thermapen-style model to be fast in a prior chicken broiling test but still half a second behind the Thermapen. In a second test, the CDN finished behind all our picks.
Our prior runner-up pick, the Polder Stable-Read, kept pace with the our picks in an early 2016 test. It issued a helpful beep when it (thought it had) reached a stable reading and it was a bit cheaper than the ThermoPop. But it’s not often in stock on Amazon. If you like a stick-style of thermometer, it’s a decent pick, but the ThermoPop suits more people.
Our first pick for the best instant-read thermometer, the CDN DTQ450X or ProAccurate Quick-Read Thermometer, remains an accurate thermometer with a wide range; it has the thinnest probe at 1.5 mm, a calibration option, and a number of handy holding and temperature alert functions for a relatively low price. But newer thermometers in a reasonably close price range do the job much faster.
The ThermoWorks RT600C was our runner-up among the affordable picks in our previous post. It came recommended by, among others, Buffalo 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. But its range ends at 302° Fahrenheit, and it lacks a clip to protect or pocket the probe. Not bad, but it’s not a winner.
The Palermo Digital Electronic Barbecue Meat Thermometer is the most affordable fold-out–style thermometer we found, and it averages 4.6 out of five stars on Amazon. It has a very wide range (up to 572 degrees Fahrenheit), and a stated 0.9-degree accuracy. It does not, however, reach within one degree of boiling water in four to five seconds, as stated; it took at least 12 seconds in three different trials.
The CDN DTW450L ProAccurate Waterproof Thermometer says right on its Amazon page that it has a six-second response time, and it averaged 6.13 seconds in our first chicken test. It has an eight-inch probe, which is so long it made us constantly fear it snapping.
The Weber 6492 Original Instant-Read Thermometer was last in our chicken tests, taking 8.3 seconds on average to get within 3 degrees. One time, it needed 13 seconds.
The Taylor 9842 Commercial Waterproof Digital Thermometer has a good range (–40 degrees to 450 degrees Fahrenheit), essentially mediocre speed ratings (although notably slower on ice water), and a calibration screw. It is the best thermometer you can get for about $10, but that’s not what most people are looking for.
The Taylor Ultra Thin/Ultra Slim Thermometer (9831 model) was the slowest with ice water and the slowest with boiling water in our test.
The AcuRite Digital Instant Read Kitchen Thermometer is an inexpensive 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. It always took at least 10 seconds to get hot or cold temperatures—sometimes up to 19 seconds.
(Photos by Kevin Purdy.)
Originally published: November 16, 2016