Apparently I was late on the bandwagon by only recently finding out that there was such a thing as a digital candy thermometer. Frankly, it was a while before I realized there was need in my life for a candy thermometer at all. It all started with a recipe in the December 2007 issue of Gourmet for Toasted-Coconut Marshmallow Squares. One enormous batch of 100+ marshmallows later, I was hooked.
As it turns out, though, candy thermometers come quite in handy—DIY candy-making is now my favorite gift-buying alternative, and frying gets a lot easier when you can figure out exactly how hot your oil is versus how hot it should be. Whether they need to be spiffy digital versions or not may be more up for grabs.
Williams-Sonoma makes a reasonably priced digital model, though at $35, it's more than twice the price of my traditional (now discontinued) Martha Stewart one. In a nutshell, the former beeps as soon as it reads the temperature you set it to, which means there's more precise work at play. It's great if you're doing advanced work where it's more important to hit a specific temperature than a range, like the soft ball or hard ball phases, which can range up to 20 degrees.
Here's the caveat: Even if you have a gadget to tell you when you're sugar's ready, leaving a pot of boiling sugar alone for more than a millisecond is a bad, bad idea, as anyone who's done it can tell you (myself included). Some would also say that a traditional thermometer is more reliable; at the very least, it doesn't have batteries that could die at the wrong moment.
The convenience of a digital reader benefits the avid perfectionist, not the lazy baker, so know which category you fall into before you shell out the bigger bucks. For the former, it's a worthy investment, but this holiday season, I'll be making my marshmallows with my trusty old friend.