How to use a meat thermometer

Over the past few months, thanks to my schedule freeing up and other circumstances, I have been designated the family cook and have been cooking for my family a lot. It is an absolute joy for me to indulge my wanting mouth with a juicy, tender medium-rare steak for dinner. I may have nailed it a few times (on sheer luck), but most times, it just turns into a well-done situation or, worse, overdone and dry.

And believe me, I love following recipes, but I just cannot seem to perfect it. Recipes tell me to take the meat’s temperature, but I have observed that the temperature depends on where you stick the thermometer. So it is a different reading every time. I figured this might be the root cause of my gustatory predicament. So I looked into the Science of perfecting a steak, and a huge factor is the RIGHT way of using a meat thermometer.

Still don’t have a thermometer? Check out our guide to digital meat thermometers here.

Getting the Most Accurate Temperature for your Meat

Part of knowing the ideal measurement of heat is also knowing where to stick your thermometer. We aim for the coolest part of the meat, which, according to Science, is the center. But the principle is hard to apply if you are working with thinner cuts like chicken breasts, steaks, and/or pork chops because the center section is so slim.

The trick with thinner cuts is to target the general area, then push the thermometer through the meat until it emerges on the other side. If you are dealing with a whole turkey or a prime rib, push your thermometer all the way through until you hit bone.

Gently retract the thermometer, and you will observe an abrupt increase in the reading as the tip reenters the meat. Eventually, it will then drop as you get closer to the center. Notice that you will hit a low point, and then it will start to rise again since the tip of the thermometer is slowly resurfacing. That low point is the temperature you follow. Keep your eyes on the changes in your thermometer, or you might miss the coldest point of your meat.

How to use a meat thermometer to get the most accurate readings

Steaks, roasts and thick pork chops: The best way to use your meat thermometer to make sure you get an accurate reading for these cuts of meat is to insert the thermometer right into the center of the thickest part, but you need to stay away from the bone or excess fat.

Turkey or Chicken (or other whole poultry): Meat thermometers are best inserted directly into the inner thigh, close to the breast. You need to be sure you are not accidentally touching bone otherwise you won’t know when it is cooked.

Ground meat: Check the temperature near the thickest area to see if the meat is done. An instant read thermometer is ideal for this.

Thin pork chops or hamburgers: The correct way to use a meat thermometer here would be to insert the probe thermometer sideways into the piece of meat at it’s thickest point.

General Temperature Guides when using a meat thermometer

Steak: Don’t even get me started on the poke test to get the desired outcome for your steak. Use your meat thermometer to get a precise internal temperature. Steaks are mostly made of beef and pork but not always. Other possibilities include lamb, veal, venison, and goat. To achieve the desired kind of cook, hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit for rare and at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit for medium.

Poultry: When cooking roast chicken or turkey, we especially need to ensure the meat is cooked properly. Take note that the ideal temperature for white meat is around 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Dark meat like legs and drumstick, generally the legs of the bird is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Whatever piece of meat you are cooking, be it on a grill or in the oven you will want to check the temperature at its thickest part.

How to use a meat thermometer FAQ

Can you leave a meat thermometer in the meat while it's cooking?
This depends on what type of meat thermometer you are using. Most wireless thermometers are designed to be left in a grill or smoker and pass along temperature information. Instant read thermometers are not meant to be left in the meat while it's cooked.

How far in do you put a meat thermometer?
When cooking meat It depends on how thick the cut of meat is. Most thermometers need to be inserted at least ½ an inch and for thicker cuts than 1 inch, you should try to insert the probe to the center of the thickest area.

How many degrees will meat rise while resting?
You can expect smaller individual cuts of meat (say a chicken thigh or hamburger) will see the internal temperature rise by 3-4°F while it's resting. Meanwhile, a larger cut (say a roast or turkey) can rise by 10-15°F sometimes higher.

What kind of meat thermometer can stay in the oven?
Make sure you use a meat thermometer that is marked oven safe inside any oven, grill or smoker. This type of thermometer is designed to stay in place for long periods and under high temperatures but are not designed for thin cuts of meat. Do not leave an instant read thermometer in the meat.

When should you insert a meat thermometer?
When you use a meat thermometer depends on the model you have and the cut of meat being cooked. Instant read thermometers should be inserted periodically checking the temperature about 25% through its cooking cycle, checking periodically. While a more advanced thermometer will usually have a probe that will insert when you put the meat on the grill and leave it in.

How do I calibrate meat thermometers?
Checking to see if your thermometer is accurate is easy. Simply dip the tip of the probe into a glass filled with ice water, the reading should come back as 32 degrees F or 0°C or freezing temperature. If you get a higher reading you will need to press your thermometers reset/recalibrate button. Be sure to read your owner's manual for specific instructions.

What can I use if I don't have a meat thermometer?
If you don’t have a meat thermometer on hand you should use the palm test. Relax your hand positioned palm upwards and feel the soft part of your thumb just below the thumb joint. The sensation is very similar to raw meat. Next, using your index finger to touch the meat. Repeat this process several times to ensure you’ve been careful. When the meat no longer feels like the fleshy part of your thumb it’s no longer raw.