Trust a meat thermometer over a pop-up timer for your turkey

Trust a meat thermometer over a pop-up timer for your turkey

And to be safe, make it a digital model, Consumer Reports says

Published: November 13, 2014 06:00 AM

Our food safety experts recommend that you not rely on pop-up meat thermometers.

It’s a problem that probably goes back all the way to the Pilgrims: How the heck do you know when your Thanksgiving turkey is done? Getting the right answer is important—undercook it, and you risk sickening your guests with food poisoning; overcook it, and the meat ends up tough and dry.

For decades, one popular solution to this culinary conundrum has been the pop-up timer, a device invented to take the uncertainty out of poultry cooking times, especially for Thanksgiving turkeys.

But are these timers safe and reliable? To find out, we recently tested 21 pop-up thermometers in whole turkeys and turkey breasts. Our testing covered pop-up timers bought online and put into place by cooks before cooking, and models pre-inserted in the meat at the processing plant. To determine the pop-ups’ accuracy, we also measured the internal temperature of the meat with a calibrated reference thermometer. Our findings may make a few eyebrows pop:

  • Self-inserted and manufacturer-inserted timers generally “popped” in our tests at internal temperatures above 165° F—the minimum safe temperature for all poultry. But three timers popped up when meat was still below that safe zone, one as low as 139.5° F.
  • These low readings are a concern. Cooking poultry to 165° F helps ensure potentially harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning—such as campylobacter and salmonella—are destroyed. Serving undercooked turkey means you risk sending your guests home with a nasty case of food poisoning. Our food safety experts recommend that cooks do not rely on these timers to tell whether their holiday bird is done. Instead, use a conventional meat thermometer to check the internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast and in the thigh between the drumstick and the body, and take several readings.

Get more advice on choosing a meat thermometer in our buying guide. Keep everyone at your holiday table healthy by following our cooking do's and don'ts.

The Polder Stable Read THM-379 is reliable and inexpensive.

Meat thermometers: Our recommendations

In a separate round of testing, our experts assessed instant-read and leave-in analog and digital meat thermometers for temperature accuracy, repeatability, response time, and product features.

Based on this testing our experts recommend home cooks purchase a digital meat thermometer. Overall, compared with analog models, instant-read and leave-in digitals are more accurate, easier to read, and have faster response times. Testing found analog thermometers are also not suitable for use in thinner cuts of meat such as most steaks and boneless chicken breasts.

Among instant-read thermometers we tested, the CDN ProAccurate TCT572 was the top model. Accurate and consistent, it also features a foldaway probe. But at $85, it’s also the most expensive recommended instant-read digital. Another highly rated model, the Polder Stable Read THM-379, performed nearly as well as the CDN, yet costs just $20.

Williams-Sonoma's $200 Smart Thermometer was our top-rated model overall.

Leave-in digitals that remain in the meat while it cooks offer more features—such as audible alerts and the ability to transmit temperature readings to a wireless unit or smart phone—but generally cost more than instant reads. Williams-Sonoma’s Smart Thermometer 87072 was the top-rated model of all those tested; at $200 it was also the most expensive. When connected to Wi-Fi and paired with a free app, the Smart Thermometer sends temperature readings and other alerts to any Apple mobile device. Two less costly leave-in wireless models are Oregon Scientific’s Wireless BBQ/Oven AW131 ($50) and iGrill’s mini Bluetooth ($40). The Oregon Scientific doesn’t  offer as many features as the Williams-Sonoma thermometer, but performed very well in testing.

—Ian Landau

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