The Best Inexpensive Digital Thermometers

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If you ever roast meat, sear steaks, pan-fry pork chops, poach fish, or...cook any meat at all, you should consider a good thermometer to be as essential a piece of kitchen equipment as a cutting board or a knife. It's really the only way to know—not just guess, but really know—that your meat is cooked exactly the way you want it.

We've long recommended the Thermapen as the undisputed heavyweight champion of thermometers, but it has one major downside: it costs nearly $100.

Good news: After testing the most popular and highly ranked thermometers on the market, two of them proved capable of performing many—though not all, and not as quickly—of the same functions at a fraction of the cost.

Here they are.

The Winners at a Glance

These are my two favorite inexpensive thermometers, at a glance. Read on for more details.

The Best Inexpensive Thermometers

Lavatools Javelin ThermoPop
Price (at time of publication) $24.99 from Amazon $24 from Thermoworks
Reported Response Time 4 to 5 seconds 3 to 4 seconds
Actual Response Time 2 to 3 seconds 2 seconds
Reported Range -40 to 482°F (-40 to 250°C) -58 to 572°F (-50 to 300°C)
Reported Accuracy ±0.9°F (±0.5°C) from -4 to 302°F (-20 to 150°C) ±2°F (1°C) from -4 to 248°F (-20 to 120°C)
Reported Resolution 0.1°
Probe Length 2 7/8th inches (7.3 cm) 4.5 inches (11.5 cm)
Backlight No Yes
Rotating Display No Yes

The Criteria

For my testing, I ran nine thermometers through a gamut of common kitchen tests (taking the temperature of ice water, boiling water, roasted chicken, and caramel) to assess four different qualities: accuracy and precision, speed, quality of build, and usability and features.

Accuracy and Precision

First and foremost, a good thermometer needs to be both accurate and precise. That is, the reading that shows on its display needs to be close to the actual temperature of the thing it is measuring, and it needs to be able to repeat this consistently, measure after measure. In a pot of boiling water, it should register 212°F, and in ice water, it should measure 32°F. If I measure the temperature of a cup of room-temperature water five times in a row, those readings should be the same (or at least close) each time.

But there's also an upper limit to usefulness in accuracy and precision when we're talking about everyday cooking. Sure, if you're cooking a delicate egg sous vide, a temperature difference of a few degrees can make a significant difference in its final texture. But for your standard roast chicken or steak? A couple of degrees one way or another isn't going to make or break dinner. So I didn't dock too many points for being a little bit off. (That said, both of the winners happened to also be exceedingly accurate and precise.)

To judge accuracy, I plunged room temperature probes into three different things: a boiling pot of water (which should register 212°F), a cup of ice water (32°F), and a roasted chicken breast (150°F). It turns out that the speed at which those temperatures registered had a very high correlation to accuracy—the most accurate thermometers were also the fastest. Which brings us to...

Speed

A good thermometer needs to be fast. 10 or 12 seconds may sound like a small amount of time, but in the real world, when you've got a side dish on the stovetop, guests or family milling around the kitchen, and your hand reaching into a hot oven to probe a turkey, it can feel like a lifetime. So I weighted speed of reading very highly in my testing.

Interestingly, I went into the testing expecting to find an even spread in the speed. But as it turns out, the thermometers all fell into one of two extremes: Those that took between 10 to 15 seconds to take a reading, and the two winners, which took only two to three seconds.

Build Quality

A good thermometer needs to be well-built and able to withstand the rigors and unpredictability of a busy kitchen.

Of course, you'd expect a thermometer that costs $75 or more to last a long time. But even at $30 or less, longevity and robustness should factor into your decision. Some thermometers were made of cheap plastic that warped and/or cracked when I tried to open the battery case, or had wands that bent precariously over the course of normal use. Thermometers that were made of tough, high-grade plastic with smooth operation and well-constructed casing scored higher.

Waterproof, water-resistant, and easy-to-clean were all bonuses in my book.

Usability and Features

To assess how user-friendly the thermometers were, I judged them subjectively on measures such as readability (large displays and features like automatically rotating digits and backlights were useful); ease of operation (some thermometers had fold-out wands that were difficult to actually fold out, while others required small buttons to be pressed—not easy when you have greasy fingers); length of the probe; position of temperature reading (was the temperature taken just at the tip, or spread across a wider area?); and additional features.

The Winners

The Best Inexpensive Thermometer: The Thermopop

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This has been my favorite inexpensive thermometer ever since it was introduced a couple of years ago. It was the new standard then, and it remains the best-in-class now. It's rated to give readings in five to six seconds, but it typically clocks in at under three—nearly as fast as its big brother, the Thermapen. The dial is large and easy to read and is backlit for extra visibility when you're grilling at night or reaching into a dark oven. The display also rotates in 90° increments with a simple push of a button, which facilitates reading at even the most awkward of angles.

The Thermopop also comes in a variety of bright colors, if you care about such things, and has a nice long probe that can reach into the center of even the largest roast.

The Best Compact Inexpensive Thermometer: The Lavatools Javelin

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A relative newcomer on the field, the Javelin by Lavatools nonetheless has some impressive specs. In temperature range, accuracy, precision, and resolution, it meets or beats the Thermopop. It takes a fraction of a second longer to register a temperature reading, but at this point, that's just quibbling. It's also splash-proof, well built, and has an off-on switch modeled after the Thermapen—fold out the probe, and it's on.

Its compact folding design makes it very easy to store in a drawer or your pocket. It doesn't have a rotating display or a backlight—neither of which are deal-breakers for me—but its one major flaw is the length of its probe. Measuring under three inches, it'll work fine for most everyday tasks, but taking the temperature of a large holiday roast like a prime rib or a turkey can become a bit dicier.

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Ultimately, the choice comes down to your personal cooking style. If you rarely (or never) roast large cuts of meat, then the Lavatool Javelin, with its compact design, is the one for you. If you want a more versatile tool that's slightly bulkier, pick up a Thermopop.