A good digital instant read meat thermometer. That is the answer I give to anyone that asks me what is the one item they need to help improve their grilling/smoking.
No matter what the cooking vessel, the ultimate goal is to produce a consistently moist, delicious product. A digital meat thermometer can help you achieve this goal.
Why Use a meat thermometer?
First, let’s talk about why using a meat thermometer is important. Meat can be a breeding ground for harmful bacteria, and cooking it to the proper temperature is essential for destroying these microbes and ensuring that your food is safe to eat. Undercooked meat can be dangerous, while overcooked meat can be dry and tough. A digital meat thermometer allows you to accurately measure the internal temperature of your meat, ensuring that it is cooked to the proper level of doneness.
Which one to use?
There are dozens of different digital meat thermometers on the market. As with most products, you have the spectrum of super cheap to high end options. The super cheap ones usually will not last more than a few months or flake out if they get too hot or wet. The high end option on the market is made by Thermoworks and retails for $100. I am not a fan of paying that much for a thermometer when the only benefit is a second or two faster reading. The food is not going anywhere. I am ok with waiting another second for the reading.
I have found that the products in the $30 – $60 range are a good blend of quality and functionality. I keep it pretty simple as far as functionality. I like to have the auto off/on when opening/closing the thermometer and a backlight is great for using at night.
Two that I have been using a lot lately are:
Lavatools Javelin – $26.99 (Amazon Link)
Maverick PT-51 – $39.99 (Maverick Link)
How to use?
Calibrate your thermometer so you can get the most accurate readings. All thermometers will have some degree of accuracy variance – i.e. plus or minus .9 degrees. I just spin up a pot of boiling water to use. Insert the thermometer tip and see if it reads 212 degrees or is with in a degree or two of that reading. Some thermometers allow you to reset/calibrate, just follow the instructions included with your thermometer.
Check various places in your protein to get an overall accurate reading.
Go to deep and you will be close to the grill grates and get a temperature reading that is too high.
Don’t go deep enough and you will get a temperature reading that is not accurate either.
I like to go into the meat at a 45 degree angle and make sure to get right in the middle.
Carry Over Cooking
Let’s discuss carry over cooking, as this is a very important concept to keep in mind when using your thermometer. When you pull a protein from the cooking surface and let it rest, it does not stop cooking. As it rests, the protein will continue to cook and rise in internal temperature. This is called the carry over effect.
How does this help you nail your perfect doneness?
If you want a perfectly medium rare steak, you would cook it until it reaches an internal temperature of 130 degrees. Pull the steak off and let it rest and the carry over effect will continue and get the steak to an internal temperature of 135. Perfect medium rare temperature and the crowd will go crazy when you slice into the steak.
Same with chicken. USDA says safe temperature for eating chicken is 165 degrees. Technically there is some wiggle room with that, but let’s just go with that. When I do a spatchcock chicken, I’ll smoke it until the breast reads an internal temperature of 160 – 163, then I pull the chicken and let it rest. The carry over effect will again get the final internal temp to 165 or slightly above. When you cut into that chicken, juices will literally squirt out at you.
Pork Tenderloin? Same thing. Pull it at 142 degrees and let it rest to carry over to 145 degrees = Tender and juicy.
So, for a minimal investment, you can really improve your grilling/smoking results.