Basically, there are two kinds of cooks in the kitchen: the free-form cooks, who may look at recipes for ingredient ideas, but create their own dishes by the way they feel, and the systematic cooks ,who follow recipes and ingredients to the dot. The major problem for free-form cooks is that they can rarely duplicate a dish that turns out particularly good. Professionals and better cooks are in the second category; they need to be able to reproduce a recipe exactly every time with only slight modification according to their own taste.
If you are a committed free-form cook, you may never need a thermometer, but if you want your dishes cooked to perfection, you are not likely to be without one. In fact, you’ll likely have two or three. Many professionals consider thermometers as their second most important kitchen tool, right after their knives, and will carry one around at all times.
To ensure that your oven is set at exactly the heat the dial reads, add a simple and inexpensive oven thermometer to your collection. It is easy to reset most ovens, particularly one with a digital dial. The adjustment for most non-digital models is inside the knob that dials the oven temperature. Carefully remove the knob and look for a tiny screw inside that adjusts the thermostat setting.
A candy thermometer is useful when dealing with high-temperature liquids: usually oil or melted sugar.
But the primary, and most critical, thermometer is a small, thin-stemmed digital unit. This helps in many, many different kinds of cooking tasks: having the meat, poultry, and fish cooked to perfection, not overcooked but totally safe; scalding milk without boiling; deep-frying without soaking up oil; cooking with gelatin; proofing yeast goodies; testing baking breads or potatoes for doneness; checking if the freezer and refrigerator are maintaining the correct temperatures, and so on.
Digital instant-read thin-stemmed thermometers are inexpensive, but it’s best not to buy the bottom of the line. Here are some features you should look for:
- A range from freezing to 400⁰F. With this wide range, you can dispense with candy and deep-fry thermometers.
- On/off button to extend battery life.
- Waterproof cover for keeping clean and saving it should you drop it into the dishwater.
- A clamp that attaches to sides of pots, as well as to your apron pocket.
Some cooks like a programmable thermometer with a probe that remains in the baking item while in the oven (I don’t; to me, simplest is best). You can check the progress without opening the oven door. Or if pre-programmed, it warns you when that roasting item is ready.
Totally different types are the costly infrared and laser thermometers, and many cooks consider them as unnecessary toys (myself included). They do read quickly and conveniently, but are no better than their cheaper cousins. They instantly measure the surface of a sauté pan heating up on the stove, if that’s important to you. Professionals stick to simple digitals and attach them to their apron pockets like engineers with their set of pens and pencils.
An inexpensive analog thermometer is also useful; digitals tend to lose their battery power at the most critical time. A simple analog thermometer is a nice backup on such occasions.
Your cooking can only improve when you acquire the habit of using a thermometer in the kitchen all the time, even if you are a total free-form cook.
George Erdosh is a culinary scientist, food writer and certified cooking teacher (and now a cookbook reviewer) with a strong science and research background (Ph.D., McGill University, Montreal). Originally an exploration geologist for some 35 years, he switched career to be a high-end caterer, a business he ran for over 10 years, before switching to food writing and running cooking classes.
He is the author of 10 published food-related books: a six-book series for young readers Cooking throughout American History and The African-American Kitchen; Start and Run a Catering Business (in its 4th edition, translated into five languages), Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer’s Kitchen, and What Recipes Don’t Tell You, as well as numerous articles in magazines and newspapers.
Contact George with questions or problems at email@example.com.