You probably already have a couple kitchen timers at your disposal. Most ovens have a timer function built in, and so do most microwaves. Your smartphone almost definitely came with a simple timer app, and you can download more elaborate ones in the app store. So why should you go out and buy a separate kitchen timer? Because a good one is easier to use, has more features, and is more precise than any of those basic timers you already have. And whether you're baking cookies, juggling prep for a multi-course meal, or just trying to make a perfect soft-boiled egg, you'll be glad you have one.
That being said, there's no point in buying a kitchen timer unless it can do all the things the ones on your oven, microwave, or phone can't. So to find out which ones might actually be worth the extra investment, I combed through reviews from Cook's Illustrated, forum discussions on Chowhound, and page after page of products on Amazon to come up with a list of eight different timers to put to the test.
I'll get to that testing—and my kitchen-timer criteria—below, but first, the winners:
For most people, the TimeStick Trio from Thermoworks is the ideal timer. It's small and versatile, with a lanyard for wearing it around your neck and a strong magnet for sticking it to the fridge. It includes three separate timers, each with a distinct alarm sound, and is quick and intuitive to program. It has a backlit screen, a "locked" setting to keep you from accidentally switching anything off, and is both durable and mess-proof.
OXO's Triple Timer is also a good option if you don't want to spend $35 on the TimeStick Trio. It's only $20, and while not portable, it's slightly easier to operate than the TimeStick. It also displays three separate timers at once, and, unlike the TimeStick, switches to a clock mode when not in use. It's a great countertop model to get if you don't feel the need to carry a timer around with you.
There are a number of features that a good kitchen timer can and should have that most basic timers do not. Here's what I looked for when picking and testing:
Portability and Durability
Your oven's timer is only useful if you plan on staying close to the kitchen. Wander to another part of the house, and there's a good chance you won't hear it, leaving your cookies to carbonize. It's much more convenient to have a timer you can keep with you. At the very least, you should be able to carry it to another room, but ideally it clips to your clothes or hangs around your neck so there's no chance of forgetting it somewhere. And when you are in the kitchen, it should also have a strong magnet so you can stick it to the fridge and/or a stand so it can sit upright on the counter, making it easily visible at all times.
Of course, an iPhone is portable, but your $600 phone is probably not the best tool for the kitchen, where it's liable to get smeared with sticky fingers, splattered with sauce, or dropped on the tile floor as you dash to pull a cake out of the oven. That's where a kitchen timer comes in. A good one should withstand being dropped or spilled on, and should allow you to wipe off grease and gunk easily. It should also be cheap enough that if it does break, it won't be the end of the world.
Precision and Range
Simpler kitchen timers only measure minutes and hours, and for many purposes, that's all you need. But the best timers can be programmed down to the second, and even if you don't use this feature every time, it's a nice option to have. For example, 30 seconds can be the difference between a perfect soft-boiled egg and an undercooked one. Precision often matters in cooking (even more so in baking) and any tool that allows greater control is a tool worth having.
On the other end of things, it can also be useful to have a timer capable of measuring long stretches of time. Again, it's not a feature you may use often, but it can come in handy for the serious cook. Some timers out there can only measure up to 10 hours, while others reach up to 100 hours. The latter may seem excessive, but it's useful if you want to, say, cook ribs sous vide for 36 hours, smoke a brisket for 12 hours, or make a slow-rising bread (sure, you can go by the clock for these things, but it's nice not to worry about losing track of time).
The most basic timers can often only keep track of one task at a time. But preparing a multi-course meal, especially something like a big holiday feast, might require keeping track of multiple times at once. A timer that has two, three, or even four timers in one makes juggling kitchen tasks much easier—no need to do the math to figure out how much time is left on the chicken after the potatoes come out of the oven. I did test a few single timers for comparison, but for anyone who cooks regularly, a multi-timer will be more useful in the long run.
The best timers offer other features and settings, too. A stopwatch mode (counting up from zero instead of counting down) can be useful, as are timers that automatically start counting up after the alarm goes off, so if you somehow miss it, you can see exactly how much extra time has passed. Some timers also have a clock mode, which is nice for keeping track of how close it is to dinnertime while also knowing how close the chicken is to being done.
Ease of Use
Some timers can be difficult to set because they have too many buttons. Others are difficult to use because they have too few buttons. So rather than count buttons, there are a few key features to look for to distinguish the unnecessarily complicated timers from the ones you could operate while simultaneously stirring a roux or keeping an eye on a pot of caramel.
First and foremost, direct entry timers that allow you to punch in a time on a numbered keypad are always faster and easier to use than the kind that require scrolling through seconds, minutes, and hours sequentially. I did include a few of the latter among the eight timers I tested, since there are a lot of that variety out there, but they were all frustrating on two levels: First, it took much too long to scroll up to a setting like 45 minutes, and, second, none had any way of scrolling back down, so if I accidentally overshot (easy to do when scrolling fast), I had to clear the whole thing and start over.
A direct entry keypad is one of the few timer features that requires more buttons. In most other cases, any buttons beyond one for "start/stop" and one for "clear" only made using the timer less intuitive. Multi-timers that don't display all the timers at once can also be more confusing, since it takes extra button-pressing to navigate between one timer and the next.
A Top-of-the-Line Portable Timer
Out of the eight timers I tested, the Thermoworks TimeStick Trio was the clear frontrunner in almost every way. It is, as the name suggests, capable of timing three things at once, and it displays all three timers simultaneously on a single screen—one of only three timers I tested to do so. It also has a direct entry keypad, allowing you to set each timer quickly and easily down to the second or up to about 100 hours (technically 99 hours, 99 minutes, and 99 seconds because of the way the digital screen is formatted).
The TimeStick is designed to be worn on a lanyard around your neck, but it's also small enough to fit in a pocket, and it has a nice strong magnet on the back so you can stick it on the fridge or oven. Two other timers I tested also came with a lanyard and magnets on the back, but both of those were single timers, and only went up to 10 hours. All but one of the remaining timers came with a clip (to attach to your clothes), a magnet, and a fold-out stand to set the timer upright on the table. The problem with them was that most of their magnets were attached to the back of the clip, which itself jutted out from the back of the timer. As a result, those timers didn't lie flush with the fridge, and wobbled when I pushed a button to the left or right of center. I can imagine rushing to hit "stop" and launching one across the kitchen in the process. In fact, one of them did fall off the fridge as I fiddled with the buttons, and the clip promptly snapped off. This is not bound to happen with the TimeStick, which lies flat on the fridge, and has a magnet that holds firm even through a few layers of paper.
For the most part, the TimeStick is very intuitive to use, though I think that in an effort to make it easy to use, Thermoworks may have added a few too many buttons. The issue is that each of the three timers comes with it's own "set" button on one side of the device, and its own "start/stop" button on the opposite side. It takes some repetition to remember which side is which, and I think Thermoworks could have gotten away with just one "start/stop" button.
But other features make up for this small complication. For one thing, it's always easy to tell at a glance what's going on with each timer: The numbers flash when it's in "set" mode, the colons between the numbers flash when it's counting down, and the numbers flash along with the word "up" when time runs out and the TimeStick begins counting up (you can also make it count up just by pressing "start" when the timer is set to zero).
The TimeStick has a simple memory feature, so that pressing "set" for any timer automatically reverts it to the last programmed time. This is great for doing things like baking multiple batches of cookies, because you can reset the timer again and again in just a couple button pushes.
Plus, the TimeStick was the only timer I tested that allowed me to stop the alarm by pressing any button, not just the "stop" button. However, like some other timers I tested, it begins counting up after time runs out, and this counting up continues until you actually press "stop." In other words, you can choose to silence the alarm but let the timer continue counting up, allowing you to keep track of the time without having to listen to that irritating beeping. Out of all the timers I tested with that automatic count-up feature, the TimeStick was one of just two to continue displaying the final elapsed time even after I hit "stop." The others immediately reset, forcing me to remember how long it had actually been.
And about that alarm: It's the ideal volume, loud, but not piercing. You'll definitely hear it when it's around your neck, but I also tested its range as best as I could in my tiny apartment. I left it in the kitchen, turned the radio up, walked to the far end of the next room, and could still hear it clearly when it went off. I could also tell exactly which of the three alarms was beeping, thanks to a simple but clever design decision: The first timer sounds with a single beep over and over again, the second timer has a double beep that repeats, and the third timer has a triple beep. Thermoworks isn't the only timer I tested to give different alarms to different timers, but it was one of only a few to use such an easily recognizable system of beeps—there's never any doubt about which of the three timers has sounded.
At $35, the TimeStick is the most expensive of the timers I tested, but that extra money buys you far better durability than anything else I tried. For one thing, the keypad is rubber-coated and seamless, so it's easy to wipe clean with a single swoop of a damp sponge. I tested this by dribbling peanut butter over every timer and then trying to scrub it off. All but the TimeStick got peanut butter stuck in the crevices and gaps between buttons. The TimeStick also claims to be splash-proof (I ran it under the faucet for a few seconds to no effect), and is made of strong plastic without any pieces that are liable to pop off when you drop it. On top of all that, you can lock the keypad with the press of a button in order to avoid accidentally canceling any active timers. Although, to be honest, my biggest complaint about this timer is that the buttons are somewhat hard to press—difficult enough that it seems unlikely you'd hit anything accidentally.
That $35 also goes towards another feature no other timer I tried had: a backlight. It's great to be able to switch that on if you're working in a dim kitchen, grilling outside at night, or just need a little extra help reading the numbers (the display is clear, but smaller than many other timers I tried). The screen also lights up for 10 seconds when an alarm goes off, giving you an extra cue that your cookies are ready.
It's worth mentioning that if you want a portable timer but really don't want to spend $35, or really don't feel the need for a triple timer, Thermoworks also makes a single timer TimeStick. It doesn't have a backlight, but it does come with a clock mode, plus all the simplicity and durability of the Trio, for $25.
A Great Countertop Triple Timer
For most people, I think a portable timer like the TimeStick is the way to go; at some point, you're going to want to stray far from the kitchen while something is in the oven, and you won't want to miss that alarm. But some people may prefer a model that stays in one place. Maybe you live in a space small enough that it's impossible to be out of hearing range of the kitchen, or maybe you live in a household where someone might wander off with a timer in their pocket, only to discover it in the washing machine a week later. If that's the case, the OXO Triple Timer is a great, easy-to-use countertop timer. In some ways, it even beats out the TimeStick.
For one thing, at $20, the OXO is a good $15 cheaper than the TimeStick. Just like the TimeStick, it also displays all three timers at once, and has a direct entry keypad allowing you to program any time between one second and 100 hours. Its soft silicone buttons are much easier to press than the stiff buttons on the TimeStick (which makes sense, since you won't ever have the OXO in your pocket, where accidental button presses are more of a risk).
There are also slightly fewer buttons on the OXO: Each timer has its own "set" button next to it, but there is just one "start/stop" button on the keypad. This makes the timer more intuitive to use. Brackets around the numbers indicate which timer is selected, and from there it's always the same operation to program, start, and stop a time. The only irritating thing is that you can't stop the alarm unless it's the one selected, so you may have to hit two buttons instead of one to turn it off. You definitely can't just hit any button to stop the beeping, the way you can with the TimeStick.
Like the TimeStick, the OXO has three different alarms for the three different timers. But unlike the TimeStick, the number of beeps does not correspond to the timer number. Instead, the first timer sounds with a double beep, the second timer with a quadruple beep, and the third timer with just a single evenly-spaced beep. So you'll have to rely on memory instead of logic to figure out which timer is going off. That being said, the alarms are loud enough to be heard from the next room, even when the radio is blaring.
The OXO doesn't have a backlight like the TimeStick, but it does have a clock mode, which it reverts to automatically when the timer isn't in use. That's not an essential feature, but it's nice to be able to see the time at a glance. Otherwise, the OXO has all the same features as the TimeStick: a memory button to reset each timer to the last programmed time, stopwatch functions, counting up from zero, and continued counting when time runs out. Plus, the elapsed time continues to be displayed after you hit "stop," rather than resetting right away.
It was a bit painstaking to scrub peanut butter from between the big rubber buttons on the OXO, but I did get it all off eventually, which can't be said for some of the other timers I tried, which had crevices around the buttons too small to clean. The OXO felt durable, though I wish the rubber feet on it were a bit grippier: on a smooth stone countertop, it tended to slide back a bit as I pushed the buttons. But the shape of the OXO does give it a nice sturdy base, and I'd much rather put up with a little sliding than with any of the fold-out plastic stands on other timers I tested (those were only good for keeping timers upright, but toppled as soon as I tried to press any buttons).
The shape of the OXO, however, did come with one drawback: The angled digital screen can only be read from certain heights and distances, otherwise the numbers fade from view. When the timer was on a three-foot-high counter top, I stopped being able to make out the numbers at about four feet away. Placing it on a three-and-a-half-foot tall shelf, I (being only 5'2") couldn't read the numbers at more than a foot away. It would be better if I could read the timer from anywhere in the room, but since the OXO works best as a countertop timer, I'm willing to let this slide.
I should also mention that, even though you can't hang it around your neck, you technically can take the OXO timer with you to another room (it is, after all, only the size of a softball). So it's still better than your oven timer in every way, and can be portable in a pinch if you need it to be.