How to Choose a Turkey Thermometer
Meat thermometers are valuable additions to any kitchen, but we wanted to think about which types of thermometers are better suited for cooking a perfect turkey. With this in mind, we wanted to minimize how often you have to open and close your oven. We focused on leave-in probe thermometers and left the popular instant-read models by the wayside.
"I think [a leave-in thermometer is] totally worth making the small investment for your meal," says Josh Laurano, Executive Chef at La Sirena, a Mario Batali restaurant. "It's one less thing that you have to worry about and you can spend more time with your family."
We considered pop-up, analog dial probe, corded digital probe, and smart (wireless remote and app-connected) thermometers.
In pop-up timers/thermometers, a small stick is attached to a spring and held in place by food-grade soft metal or wax at the bottom of the timer. When the metal or wax melts, the stick pops up. These whimsical timers are best used as a novelty item and should always be double checked with an actual meat thermometer.
The former United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standard temperature for turkey breast safety was 185°F, but the current guideline is 165°F. Since many pop-up thermometers are still set to pop at 185°F, If you must use one, we recommend measuring the thigh temperature.
Entering into the world of probes can be overwhelming, especially since they are your meat thermometer's weakest point. No matter what brand, your probe will eventually fail. Even America's Test Kitchen recommends buying a backup probe (paywall).
"I feel like after the one use, I feel less comfortable with the reliability of the thermometer," says Chef Laurano, even less optimistic than America's Test Kitchen about the shelf life of probe thermometers.
This level of distrust made warranties even more valuable. After learning about the limitations of these probes, manufacturer probe repairs and replacements became a major part of our decision-making process. To make sure you have a working meat thermometer on hand, we recommend buying a backup probe. We included links to compatible probes in the applicable reviews to make the process easier for you.
Oven-friendly probes should typically be 4–7 inches long, and will be on the thicker side when compared to instant-read probes. A good instant-read probe will use a speedy thermocouple sensor, while leave-in probes and cheaper instant-reads tend to use slightly slower thermistors. Thermistor sensors need more real estate, but are ideal for roasting turkeys and other large cuts of meat.
The National Turkey Federation recommends that probes should be inserted at least 2.5 inches into the thickest part of the breast. You should avoid hitting bone, fat deposits, or any stuffing because they will affect temperature readings.
You may or may not be able to calibrate your thermometer, but you should test it right away regardless. Using a boil or ice water test, you can determine how accurate your thermometer is. Since you'll be testing ice water, not ice, 32–34°F is an acceptable temperature range for a freezing point.
Types of Leave-in Thermometers
Analog probe thermometers are a bit more serious than pop-up timers. Their clock-like temperature gauges react to heat sensors in the probe. Though these thermometers are a low-tech option, some users like being able to calibrate them and throw (re: gently place) them in the dishwasher.
Corded probe thermometers take the display outside of the oven, but they don't usually let you go too far away from your bird. The external displays allow for additional features like alarms, timers and temperature guidelines from the USDA or the user. The best displays will have a kickstand, hook, or magnet to secure the screen somewhere in your kitchen.
Most smart probe thermometers also use a cord to connect the probe to a wireless/Bluetooth™ transmitter. The cord's quality and heat threshold affects the unit's long-term value. Cheaper thermometers tend to have cords that easily burn, fray, or get crushed by closed oven doors. You deserve better than that.
Wireless remote digital probe thermometers usually have a wider range than app-connected thermometers, but some apps allow you to extend the range. If you're a social chef who wants to mingle while you work, these thermometers can give you mobility and peace of mind.
How We Chose Our Picks
Whatever your budget, you want your probe thermometer to be accurate and last you through the holidays. Throughout these categories, we analyzed expert and user reviews. We looked for thermometers with readable screens, durable hardware, and outstanding customer service. We consulted federal guidelines for thermometers and chefs. From there, we tested the expert review darlings, Thermoworks' Dot and ChefAlarm, against the more economical ThermoPro TP16.