The Best Instant-Read Thermometer for the Home Cook
Knowing the temperature inside a broiling steak, water heating up for pourover coffee, or slowly caramelizing sugar can instantly give you better results in the kitchen. To get that temperature in 5-7 seconds and be certain it’s accurate, you should buy the $30 ThermoWorks ThermoPop. It’s the most reliably fast, versatile, and convenient instant-read kitchen thermometer you can get for less than around $100. It was two to three times faster than cheaper models we looked at. It also has a huge working temperature range and an easier-to-read screen than our previous pick. Those plusses (and a few other conveniences) make it the best pick for most people.
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.” We then tested a relatively new thermometer after our readers alerted us to it. Our two newest recommendations are faster and more accurate in arriving at hot and cold temperatures than the CDN. They can be read more easily and are built with a less-fragile 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 I considered the range, features, and convenience of each.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $25.
Our runner-up is very close to the ThermoPop in hot and cold reading speed (usually in margin-of-error range) and has nearly the same temperature range for $5 less. The Lavatools Thermowand has a fold-out probe design that looks like our upgrade pick, which helps with taking readings at certain angles. But its probe is much shorter than the ThermoPop’s.
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
A good instant-read thermometer should be fast, accurate, convenient to use, and not abusive to your food or fingers. You need more than a ballpark “medium-rare” guess but less than a research laboratory result. The price should reflect that lower-middle path—while you can spend up to $100 on a kitchen thermometer and as little as $10, most of the good stuff should cost less than $40 and compromise on a few inessential features.
To find the thermometers worth testing, we looked at what was highly rated on Amazon and a few other online stores. We 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 guide. We tossed out thermometers whose range prevented them from checking frying oil or grill temperatures, and we also omitted models that had dealbreaker flaws, terrible reviews, poor availability, or seemingly no warranty or support.
We arrived at six new thermometers we wanted to test against our original pick, a “control” thermometer I bought very cheap out of college, and the Thermapen.
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 1 degree of the ideal frozen/boiling target temperatures.
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 more volatile.
Of course there is 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 $25-35 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 additionally 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 relatively new, easy-to-use thermometer that doesn’t make any sacrifices in accuracy for speed or price. Made by the same company behind the highly rated 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, sometimes. It has a broad temperature range, competitive speed, real accuracy, a smartly designed display and shape that helps eyes and hands, and recommendations by serious cooks.
It must be noted that the ThermoPop only shows integers, displaying 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 (and make direct timing comparison harder).
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.
In the first version of this guide, we compared all the thermometers we tested to a reading taken at the same time on the Thermapen. On second consideration, this put a bit too much inherent value in the Thermapen (which is newly included in both our ice and boiling water tests). Boiling and ice-stuffed water are not precisely consistent in temperature, even in the same minute of testing. What’s more, our results found that the range of readings varied only by about one degree Fahrenheit. How long it took to get within that degree, and the design and features that make it easy to get the reading, matter much more. And that is where the ThermoPop excels.
The ThermoPop’s 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. So, too, is the seriously splash-proof design, which makes cleaning easier and gives you some confidence plunging this thermometer into your moist foods. The automatic shut-offs on the backlight and the thermometer itself are handy. And compared to thermometers like the CDN or the Taylors, battery replacement on the ThermoPop is a cinch: twist a regular-size screwdriver into the back, 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 the length of the ThermoPop into deep dishes. 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 (like our runner-up and upgrade picks).
The probe on the ThermoPop is toothpick-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 head design offers a grip you can get a few fingers firmly around. 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.
The ThermoPop’s electronics are well-sealed inside its bulb head. The unit is IP66 resistant: completely impervious to dust and withstanding “high-pressure water jets from any direction.”
ThermoWorks offers a one-year warranty on its digital thermometers (PDF link) against inherent defects and failures. That seems to be an industry standard, supported by Taylor, AcuRite, and Polder. Outlier CDN offers a 5-year warranty on its thermometers, while the Thermowand is a limited lifetime guarantee.
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.
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.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
What’s wrong with the ThermoPop? Mostly what ThermoWorks chose not to include in this $30 model.
Chief on my wish-it-could list: a beep to indicate it has reached, or is close to, a stabilized reading, like the Polder Stable-Read. 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 would be 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, but it’s a trade-off for clear screen digits.
The ThermoPop also lacks a calibration option. Thermometers with calibration buttons (or screw heads) offer a hedge against a gradually drifting reading. Then again, having spent a good amount of time stirring ice water and adjusting boiling temperatures, it’s also hard to be certain that you are calibrating exactly right without laboratory access.
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.
A review of instant-read thermometers by Wired dinged the ThermoPop for a “placement of the readout … (that) makes it difficult to read no matter how you’re using it,” and particularly, the post claims, in the oven. We mostly disagree, especially given that the post 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. Luckily, we think their top pick, and our runner-up, suits those with odd-angled needs just fine.
The runner-up: Lavatools Thermowand
*At the time of publishing, the price was $25.
The Lavatools Thermowand has a look and a name that suggest it wants to be directly compared to the industry-leading Thermapen. On the recommendation of readers and Amazon reviewers who made it Amazon’s best-selling meat thermometer (as of this update), we did a quick batch of tests to rate it. We found that, surprisingly, this $25 newcomer comes quite close to being a perfect step down from the Thermapen. It is a fast, wide-ranging, accurate thermometer with a convenient form and thin probe, a large display, lots of little touches, a solid warranty, and just one prominent downside.
As seen in our ice and boiling speed tests, the Thermowand is very fast in getting to within one degree of accuracy. It was technically the fastest in measuring ice water temperature and a very close third at boiling water, although all were within a reasonable margin of error. Lavatools claims to get within 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit within 4 seconds. Like all thermometers we tested, the Thermowand took a bit longer to reach temps, but it was not too far off: 6.8 seconds in ice, 6.5 seconds in boiling water. Wired’s instant-read roundup generally confirms our numbers, citing 4-6 seconds to stabilize.
The Thermowand covers temperatures from -40 to 482 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 to 250 degrees Celsius). That’s a great deal higher than our previous runner-up pick, the Polder Stable-Read. That range covers most of traditional home cooking, including casual grilling and deep frying.
It’s an accurate thermometer. During our testing, the Thermowand was never more than one degree away from the theoretical temperature of the testing water (32 or 212 Fahrenheit) or one degree away from where the Thermapen settled. The Thermowand generally updates every half-second, so you get a sense of where the final temperature will be before you get the final number, and you can keep track of rapidly heating or cooling items. Its probe tapers to 1.6mm at its tip, thinner than all but one CDN thermometer we tested.
Like the Thermapen, unfolding the probe turns the thermometer on and folding it back in shuts it off (it automatically shuts off after 60 minutes if you forget). The compact design makes the Thermowand easy to store in a drawer or stash in a pocket (although it’s not as convenient for those who like to clip into an apron or pouch). The probe can be inserted into your food at almost any angle.
The display on the Thermowand is large, high-contrast, and refreshes quickly as it races up or down. Twice out of six measurements over boiling water, the Thermowand seemed to freeze its reading for 1-2 seconds, but it recovered and kept updating with no long-term damage. There is no backlight, but you should still be able to see the display in most indoor cooking situations.
Lavatools packed a lot of small but reassuring details into their thermometer. Its internal electronics are water-resistant (“splash-proof”) to an IP65 level, meaning it can take a serious stream of fluid but not immersion. The plastic is Biomaster finished to help resist bacteria accumulation and growth, and you can choose a color that corresponds to common food categories, if you’re using multiple thermometers. The Thermowand is certified for food safety and lack of contaminants by the NSF, CE, and RoHS.
A magnet inside the Thermowand’s housing means you can store it on a metal fridge for easy access, a major benefit to those with cluttered kitchen drawers (most of us). Lavatools offers a lifetime warranty against inherent defects and flaws (i.e not wear, tear, and your damage).
But the Thermowand has one major flaw: its probe is short. Not too short to be used in most cooking, but for some meals, you’re going to have to hunt for an angle that keeps you away from steam, spatter, and oven heat.
The Thermowand’s probe is 2.75 inches; its closest competitor, the ThermoPop, has a 4.5-inch probe, as does its aspirational mark, the Thermapen. If you extend the Thermowand’s probe all the way out, parallel to its body, you can get the probe about 7.25 inches from your fingertips (pictured above); it’s not a confident grip.
Technically, the extended Thermowand is longer than the whole length of the ThermoPop (about 7 inches). But a few points come up in real use:
- The ThermoPop’s 4.5-inch probe can go much deeper into roasts and tall liquids before your fingers feel the heat (or oil), and you can keep the electronics further from hot oil or steaming water.
- The ThermoPop’s rotating display and backlight make it easier to get a temperature from a safe distance to either side, or a top-down angle.
- You grip a solid, round, matte-plastic head on the ThermoPop, while the Thermowand’s back end is a slick plastic square hanging loop.
Most temperature readings are on meats that aren’t so hot as to be uncomfortable a couple inches away; the Thermowand certainly works for most cooking. But given their nearly equal footing on reading speed, we pick the ThermoPop over the Thermowand for its agility.
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 and easy-to-read numbers. There is an auto-off function, but it’s simpler to open the probe when you need it and then close it to turn it off. The range of up 572 degrees 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, and it is closer to the true temperature within 1-2 seconds than its cheaper competition.
The Thermapen’s probe is 4.5 inches long; when fully extended, it puts you a good 10.5 inches from anything hot. The casing is splash-proof, the battery is 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 sensor. Most instant-read thermometers use a thermistor, a small, relatively cheap, but accurate resistor bundle stored in the tip of the probe. The Thermapen’s thermocouple has just a thin sensor wire running down the 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.
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, Wired, 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.
Also, the Thermapen comes in even more color choices (14) than the ThermoPop for both food safety color coding and aesthetic preference. Gray and white and red look nice and fit in, but don’t entirely toss out British Racing Green before looking.
Many of the thermometers we looked at—culled from Amazon reviews and purchases and published 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 frying oil or makes candy, but we believe a good thermometer should be able to check that your grill is ready for steaks, or your weekend bread yeast is in the right proofing range. 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 prior runner-up pick, the Polder Stable-Read, kept pace with the Therma/Thermo Pop/Pen/Wand crew in speed. It issued a helpful beep when it (thought it had) reached a stable reading and was $10 cheaper than the ThermoPop. But it got bumped out of the running by the faster, better-designed, more widely available Thermowand. If you can find the Stable-Read cheap, it’s not a bad starter thermometer.
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, 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 of $18. But it seems to have slowed quite a bit since my first tests, even after calibration. Newer thermometers in a reasonably close price range do the job much faster. For a direct comparison to our ThermoWand runner-up, see a remarkably detailed Amazon review by Adam Dexter.
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; it has 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. At $72-$75, you’re pretty close to Thermapen’s price point. Being relatively new and low-profile, it had 29 reviews on Amazon as of February 2015, averaging 4.2 stars of five; some cite longer read times (6-7 seconds) and odd inaccuracies. We’ll keep an eye out for customer reviews and editorial reviews, but at that 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, 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, 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.
The EatSmart Precision Elite costs more than the ThermoPop and Thermowand, while operating a good bit slower, and, according to Wired, consistently measuring a bit off, toward the hot end. It also requires two AAA batteries, rather than very slowly eating through a coin battery, which can be either expensive to buy or annoying to recharge. It has a few of the features we wish our picks had, like a beep at pre-set levels, but the stick design, price, and slowness don’t add up to more than our picks.
The Grill Beast Beastometer has the exact same face, dimensions, temperature range, stainless steel body, and features as our very first pick, the CDN DTQ450X. It is either a licensed rebranding or daring appropriation of the CDN model. It costs $25 instead of $18, its face and clip holder are red, and its instruction manual promotes a lot of other Grill Beast products.
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 (the 9831 model) was the slowest with ice water and the slowest with boiling water. 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 nor 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.Get the ThermoWand or ThermoPop instead.
I kept my Taylor TruTemp pen-style thermometer around as a control for the tests. I bought it when I got my first sizable 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. We like the $25 Thermowand quite a bit except for one flaw that will bother serious cooks. But if you really love experimenting 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 $15 and $20 options we could live with, but we think a fast reading on food you care about is worth the added cost.
Originally published: January 19, 2015