Inexpensive Digital Thermometers
How we tested
The axiom “knowledge is power” holds especially true in the kitchen—the more you know about what’s going on inside your food as it cooks, the more you can control the result. That’s why we’re so gung ho about using an instant-read thermometer in the kitchen, as more control means less stress and better results.
In fact, the test kitchen might be described as fanatical when it comes to thermometers. Over the years we’ve learned that it pays to monitor the temperature not only of meat but also of pies, cakes, breads, poaching water, butter, tea, coffee, caramel, custards, and even baked potatoes. And if you’re going to use a thermometer, it should be a digital instant-read model (old dial thermometers are slow and inaccurate in comparison). Our go-to is the Thermapen from ThermoWorks, which is unquestionably the best digital kitchen thermometer on the market.
But at $79 for the basic Thermapen model and $99 for the deluxe, it is an investment. In search of a cheaper alternative, we set out to test inexpensive digital thermometers and find out which model reigns supreme. In selecting our lineup, we capped the price at $35. But as we were narrowing our testing field, we found many thermometers that only read up to about 300 degrees—fine for meat but not much else. So we added another qualifier to our selection process: Each thermometer had to read up to around 400 degrees so that it could be used when making candy, caramel, and other foods requiring high temperatures.
We ran the thermometers through a battery of tests, including taking the temperature of ice water, boiling water, roasted chicken thighs, and bubbling caramel. Through each test we evaluated every model’s accuracy, speed, usability, visibility, comfort, and durability with a mix of lefties, righties, small- and large-handed testers, professional chefs, and lay cooks.
A good digital thermometer needs to be accurate—otherwise, what’s the point? Aside from a few buggy models, most thermometers in our lineup were indeed accurate. We next turned to speed and were pleased to find that three-quarters of the thermometers gave accurate readings in under 10 seconds, with the fastest ones clocking in at just over 6 seconds. Most of the thermometers were accurate and reasonably fast, but that doesn’t mean they were always easy to use.
Our testers found three major factors that impacted how user-friendly the thermometers were: length, grip, and visibility. Regarding length, the eight thermometers ranged from 5.75 to 8.75 inches long, and we found that longer was better—otherwise, our hands were too close to the heat, and we had to fumble with bulky potholders.
Next up was grip. All of the thermometers have two basic parts, a long metal probe and a head with a digital screen, but only some felt ergonomic and secure in our hands. A few only allowed for dainty two-fingered grips, like a damsel waving a hanky, which simply won’t do when you’re spearing a chicken thigh that’s spitting hot fat.
Lastly, visibility. Larger and clearer displays were best. Testers also preferred screens situated on the side of the thermometer’s head as opposed to on top, because they were easier to read from different angles. The best thermometer was lollipop-shaped and had a display that was visible at any angle for both lefties and righties. Said model was also fast, accurate, and easy to use. Manufactured by the same company as the Thermapen, the ThermoWorks ThermoPop ($29) is our top pick for the budget-conscious cook.