The difference between dangerously undercooked food and a perfectly grilled meal is only a few degrees. Using a meat thermometer when grilling guarantees everything you serve tastes great and is cooked to the appropriate temperature.
Everyone has tricks for checking meat on the grill: chicken is ready when the juices run clear; steak is medium-rare when it’s firm to the touch; if it’s charred, it’s done; all the burgers go on together then come off together. Far from reliable, such methods often result in disappointing food that is woefully under- or overcooked.
The truth is it’s hard to gauge internal temperature based on appearance or touch. Even timing it is unreliable, since every grill has hot spots and every piece of meat cooks at a different rate. To prevent serving pink chicken or leathery steak, invest in a meat thermometer. There are three basic types—leave-in food thermometers, instant read thermometers, and wireless remote thermometers, and they can usually be used for cooking on the grill/smoker and the oven.
Analog Leave-In Thermometers
If all you want is an affordable and reliable way to check meat temperatures on the grill, leave-in thermometers are the answer. As the name suggests, leave-in thermometers are inserted into the meat and left there during grilling. They’re simple, well-constructed analog thermometers made of durable metal and glass that can withstand high heat. Inexpensive and easy-to-use, leave-in thermometers like the Tel-Tru Professional Spot Check cost under $20 and don’t need batteries. However, not every metal analog thermometer is a leave-in, so make sure the packaging states that it’s oven-safe.
Digital Instant Read Thermometers
For those who want the accuracy of a remote thermometer but prefer something less hi-tech, instant read thermometers are a good alternative. Quick and convenient, instant read meat thermometers provide accurate temperatures almost instantaneously. Many, like the Maverick Pro-Temp Commercial Thermometer, give readings in under two seconds. They run on batteries and feature an incredibly accurate digital display. Because of their speed and size, instant thermometers can get quick readings from different spots of the same meat or multiple pieces of meat. This makes it easy to check everything on the grill and ensure all the food gets cooked to the appropriate internal temperature.
The accuracy and speed of instant read thermometers adds to the price. However, if you’re willing to sacrifice a little speed, there are near-instant read thermometers that are more affordable. The Maverick PT-50 is one such thermometer. It accurately reads temperatures in under 5 seconds, but is a fraction of the cost of a true instant read thermometer. Another option that is even more affordable, if not quite as quick, is the Weber Original Pocket Thermometer
Wireless, or remote, thermometers give you the freedom to monitor food temperatures while you do other things. The temperature probes, which are left in the meat during cooking--many accept more than one, so you can monitor food and grill temperatures—connect to a battery-operated transmitter that relays the readings to a wireless receiver or your phone. Without opening the lid, or even being at the grill, you can get accurate real-time temperature readings.
When considering a remote thermometers, it’s important to look at how the readings are transmitted. Some, like the Maverick ET-732 work by radio frequency—there’s a base that stays at the grill and a receiver that you keep nearby and use to monitor temperatures. The upside to these models is that they’re relatively affordable and offer a strong signal up to 300 feet. The downside is that you have to carry around a receiver wherever you go.
If you’d rather not carry around a receiver, there are also remote thermometers that connect to your phone or tablet via Bluetooth, such as the iGrill2 and the Maverick ET-735. More high-tech, these thermometers connect through an app and have the added convenience of helpful features like timers and alarms that alert you when food is done. However, there are also limitations. The range of Bluetooth thermometer is only about 120-150 feet, so you may not be able to connect to the base from every room in your house.
If you love the convenience and features of a Bluetooth thermometer, but want better range, there are WiFi remote thermometers, such as the Maverick ET-736 that connect via your home internet. Much like the Bluetooth models, they connect through an app and have smart features to make your cook easier. However, they also have a much larger range. As long as you’re connected to home’s WiFi, you’ll be able to monitor your cook. The one drawback is price, with WiFi thermometers being more expensive than both the radio and Bluetooth models.
How to Use a Meat Thermometer on the Grill
Checking the internal temperature of your food to ensure it’s done is vital to serving food that is safe to eat and cooked in a way that will maximize its flavor. If you’re using a thermometer that requires you to open the grill or smoker to temp food, try not to do it too often. Not only are you losing cooking heat, but you also risk losing valuable juice by continuously probing the meat.
Whatever type of thermometer you choose, for an accurate reading place the probe in the thickest part of the meat, away from any bones, fat, or gristle. Take the meat off the grill when it’s 5℉ to 10℉ below the target temperature and let it rest for several minutes before cutting or serving. After being removed from the heat, the internal temperature will continue to rise to the desired level.
Note: The USDA has established safe cooking temperatures that offer guidelines for minimum internal temperatures.