How to Use a Meat Thermometer Like a Pitmaster

Achieve tender, just-right results whether you're grilling or roasting.

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ThermoPro TP25 4 Probe Meat Thermometer

Food & Wine / Russell Kilgore

Judging whether food is done doesn’t have to be a guessing game. Familiarizing yourself with temperatures for degrees of doneness (such as rare, medium rare, and poultry) and putting a good meat thermometer to use, you can eliminate that uncertainty. There are two main types of meat thermometers, instant-read and leave-in. Instant-read models are used to spot-check the current state of your food, while leave-in models, which we can divide into subtypes, monitor the cooking temperature over time. Leave-in thermometers can be wired, wireless, or a combination of the two, with app compatibility adding another option to consider.

When and Where to Insert a Meat Thermometer

The basics of using a meat thermometer are simple: stick it with the pointy end. But getting the correct reading from the right place ensures you get the proper degree of doneness, according to pitmaster and hog farmer Tank Jackson. “You want to find the deepest and thickest muscle and penetrate it down to the middle, not touching any bones,” he says. Bones in meat are fantastic heat conductors, so you’ll get an inaccurate reading against the bone or right next to one.

If you’re roasting a turkey, for example, the best place to check or monitor the temperature will be in the thigh, right by the joint where it joins the body. The dark meat is denser than the white meat, and the upper thigh is the thickest part of the dark meat. In roasting a prime rib, you’ll want to check the “eye” in the center of the roast, both end to end and side to side, away from the bones.

If you’re using an instant-read model, you’ll want to open the oven, smoker, or grill and get a quick reading. If you’re using a leave-in model, you’ll want to insert the probe before you start cooking. Jackson’s guidance applies in either case.  

ThermoPro TP28 meat thermometer

Food & Wine / Will Dickey

How to Read a Meat Thermometer

Most instant-read models have a digital display on the handle. Stick the meat with the pointy end in the thickest part and wait for the temperature to register. Most leave-in models will have a display on their connecting device; some will also have this on a remote or an app, if not both. Analog (and some instant-read) models have a bulb dial or digital display at the head of the probe. It’s a good idea to get two to three different readings from the target area just to ensure you’re not getting a false reading from a hot or cool spot.  

ThermoWorks Smoke Remote BBQ Alarm Thermometer

Food & Wine / Russell Kilgore

How to Calibrate a Meat Thermometer

Every thermometer has its own mechanism for calibrating the temperature. But outside of those mechanisms, the basic process to determine if your thermometer requires calibration is to fill a 1-quart container with ice, preferably crushed ice, and then add water. You only want the water to fill the spaces between the ice. You don’t want to add so much that the ice lifts off the bottom of the container. Let the ice water sit for about two minutes, then insert your probe. The thermometer should register 32°F. If not, follow the directions for calibration from the manufacturer.

Lavatools Element thermometer in ice water

Food & Wine / Russell Kilgore

Meat Thermometers We Love

ThermoWorks Thermapen ONE

ThermoWorks Thermapen ONE


We tested 19 leave-in digital probe and 23 instant-read models to find the very best meat thermometers. The Thermapen ONE is a prime specimen of an instant-read thermometer. It’s simple and easy to use but provides fast, accurate results with an easy-to-read display that rotates as you move the handle. 

Price at time of publish: $104

ThermoWorks DOT Simple Alarm Thermometer

ThermoWorks DOT Simple Alarm Thermometer

The DOT is a bare-bones leave-in thermometer with a probe that attaches to a small base, hence the name. It’s a fantastic entry-level thermometer or good for someone who doesn’t want or need a lot of bells and whistles to the interface yet still wants precision and accuracy.

Price at time of publish: $45

ThermoWorks ChefAlarm

ThermoWorks ChefAlarm Cooking Alarm Thermometer and Timer


The ChefAlarm is the sophisticated cousin of the DOT, offering more functionality in the display with things like min/max temperature tracking and high- and low-temperature alarms. It provides comparable speed and accuracy to the other two ThermoWorks models listed here at a very reasonable price.

Price at time of publish: $65

MEATER Plus 2-Unit Bundle

MEATER Plus 2-Unit Bundle

The MEATER Plus is a truly wireless leave-in unit, which can be handy where a wired thermometer would quickly tangle, like rotisserie cooking. For the gadget-minded, the MEATER is completely app-integrated via Bluetooth or WiFi, with an extensive range of features and good-to-great accuracy. 

Price at time of publish: $191

Thermoworks Thermapen ONE

Food & Wine / Russell Kilgore

Frequently Asked Questions

How does a meat thermometer work?

A digital meat thermometer is about as far from an old-fashioned mercury thermometer as you can get. There are two dominant technologies on the market, and neither measures the actual temperature. The first is a thermocouple, most commonly found in instant-read models. Two different metals connect, and heat generates an electrical voltage that calibrates to a specific temperature to give you the reading in degrees. Leave-in models measure the resistance to electrical flow, which changes with temperature. That measurement gets translated through a computer to provide a temperature reading.

Can you leave all meat thermometers in the oven?

No, not all. Leave-in thermometers are intended for this purpose, so you can track the temperature without opening the oven. The probe stays in the meat and reports via a wire or wireless connection to a base unit outside the oven, keeping the base unit safe from the heat. With instant-read thermometers, all the tech you find inside a leave-in base unit is usually in the handle, and most models cannot withstand prolonged heat without damage.

Can you use a meat thermometer for oil?

Yes, provided it has the temperature range to measure what you’re seeking. Jackson uses a digital thermometer to test the oil when he’s making cracklings: “I want my oil between 375 and 400 degrees,” he says. While there are old-school ways of establishing that temperature, meat thermometers make the task much easier. 

How do you clean a meat thermometer?

Always clean your probes, no matter which model you’re using, to remove any accumulated food particles. Then, for food safety, sanitize them with a food-safe sanitizing solution or wipe. You can clean the other parts of most thermometers by wiping them with a cloth or sponge and soapy water.

Our Expertise

Greg Baker is an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and food writer with four decades of experience in the food industry. His written work appears in Food & Wine, Tasting Table, Food Republic, and other publications. For this piece, he interviewed Tank Jackson, pitmaster and hog farmer at Holy City Hogs in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-host of Moonshiners: Smoke Ring on Discovery+.

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