Temperature Check

One of the trickiest parts about cooking is knowing when to stop. It takes only a few seconds to turn a juicy steak into dried out leather or crunchy cookies into hockey pucks.  And temperature isn’t important to just how food tastes but for its safety, as well.

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An instant-read thermometers is an important kitchen tool

Expert cooks rely on their five senses to know when food is done and safe to read. This can be as easy as seeing the inside of a chicken breast that is no longer pink or pasta that is slightly resistant when you bite into it.

Anyone who doesn’t consider her/himself an expert cook (that includes me!) relies on the recipes to tell us how long a dish needs to cook before it’s done. But since oven and stove top temperatures can vary, this isn’t always accurate.  That’s why you need to have a good thermometer.

An essential kitchen tool is an instant-read thermometer which can be used for meat and for some baked goods. It has an extra-long probe and, as the name suggests, you get a reading in seconds. The price for this gadget can range from less than $10 to more than $100. I like my OXO Instant-Read Thermometer which retails for about $22. Whichever one you choose, look for one that has a shatter-proof dial and, a feature I find more and more important with the passing years, large easy-to-read numbers.

Once you have your thermometer, you need to know how to use it.  Here are a few tips I found a few years ago in Cook’s Illustrated, one of my favorite cooking magazines:

  • Regularly check the accuracy by leaving the probe in a bucket of ice water for a minute or two. If the temperature doesn’t register 32 degrees, use the calibration button to reset the thermometer.
  • Slide the probe deep into the center of the food, but not far enough that the tip exits the other side.
  • Avoid bones, cavities (as in turkeys) and pan surfaces, all of which will throw off the reading.
  • Take more than one reading, especially with large roasts and turkeys.

Holiday cooking season is just up ahead and now is a good time to buy an instant-read thermometer, if you don’t already have one, or to calibrate and change the battery of one you already have.  It will go a long way to improving the taste and the safety of your holiday dishes.

Cora Weisenberger has been writing about food since 1997, first for her hometown newspaper and later for national magazines.  She’s a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism, and can be found rattling about her suburban Chicago kitchen preparing goodies for hubby, Greg, and sons David and Jonathan. Read all of her blogs at


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