The Right Way to Use a Meat Thermometer

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[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Recipes tell me to take the temperature of my meat, but depending on where you put the thermometer, you get different readings. How do I know which one to follow?

By this point, everybody and Bobby Flay's mother knows that a good thermometer is the best only way to guarantee that your meat is properly cooked. Forget timers, forget charts, and definitely forget the poke test. Temperature is accurate and unwavering. If you're cooking poultry, white meat is at its juiciest at around 150°F, and dark meat at 165°F+. For red meat, 120°F is rare, 140°F is medium, and 160°F is dust. Get a thermometer; stop overcooking your meat. Capiche?

But! There's one little catch: Whether you're a doctor, a vet, a cook, or just curious by nature, a thermometer only works if you know where to stick it. You want to take the temperature of the center of the meat, but how do you know when you've hit the center?

This easy technique will help you hit that bull's-eye every time.

Point of clarification: We're not actually trying to hit the very center of the meat. What we're trying to do is find the coolest part of the meat. In the hypothetical smooth, frictionless world of Thermodynamics 101, that coolest point would correspond with the center. But in the real world, meat is not a homogeneous sphere. It has connective tissue, fat, muscle, water, air, bones—a full host of substances with varying rates of heat transfer. So simply aiming for the exact physical center doesn't exactly work.*

* This, by the way, is one of the reasons I generally advocate against making a leave-in probe thermometer the only thermometer in your arsenal. It's impossible to guess where the coolest part of the meat is going to be before the meat is cooked, thus the thermometer has a very good chance of giving you a false alarm. Use it as an early warning system at most.

When working with thinner cuts, like steaks, pork chops, or chicken breasts, the task becomes doubly hard, as that center section is so darn slim.

My trick is to not worry about hitting the center. Instead, aim for the right general area, but, rather than trying to gauge depth, just push the thermometer all the way through until it emerges on the other side (or, in the case of, say, a whole turkey or a bone-in prime rib, until the thermometer probe hits bone).

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Once you've done that, slowly retract the thermometer through the meat. As the tip enters the meat, you'll see the temperature reading rise abruptly, then start to drop as you get closer and closer to the center. Keep retracting the thermometer slowly, and eventually you'll hit a low point—the point at which the numbers will start to rise again. This minimum point is the temperature reading you should go by.**

** Okay, some of you nerds might be saying, Wait! How do you know that the coolest point is going to be somewhere along that line that you just poked into the meat? Wouldn't you have to use multiple probes taken from various directions—or, better yet, an IR camera—to get the true coolest point of the meat?

Yes, you are absolutely right. This technique doesn't guarantee that you get the exact, true coolest point, but it is a great improvement over the "shove it in and hope for the best" approach,*** and, at least of the many methods I've tried, produces the most consistently accurate results.

*** That's never a good approach in any situation.****

**** Okay, some of you might also be asking, What advantage does pushing it all the way through get you? Can't you just push it in slowly and search for the lowest point that way?

Yes, you absolutely can, if you have the muscle control. I find that when you attempt that, the probe is very likely to jump forward in bursts as you apply pressure, and it suddenly slips in. This makes it hard to get accurate readings. Pulling the thermometer out is a much smoother process, giving you finer control.