How to Use a BBQ Thermometer the Right Way
We as a grilling society have come a long way from Dad standing by the grill, proudly sporting bad shorts with a beer in hand, poking steaks and pork chops to feel for doneness. Heck, we’ve even put quite a bit of distance between ourselves and those old bimetal thermometers with basic probes and numeric dials. Most modern BBQ thermometers have lightning-fast and stunningly accurate digital readouts, not to mention Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities that allow grillers to track temperatures from their smartphones while hosting or performing other cooking tasks. Yet through it all, bad dad shorts are somehow still around. Maybe we haven’t come so far after all. Fatherly fashion aside, what can’t be debated is the usefulness of grilling thermometers. But how do you use one, and why are they necessary?
Our grilling experts provided the answers to those probing questions — yes, there’s more to it than “just stick it in the meat” — so you can always grill or smoke your food to perfection based on its internal temperature. Whether you prefer your steaks still mooing, well done, or anything in between, a BBQ thermometer is key to nailing the cook every time.
Why Use a BBQ Thermometer?
Short answer: it’s the only way to know when meat is done! It’s true that texture, color, and firmness give some clues to how much a piece of meat has been cooked, but relying solely on those archaic methods is a one-way ticket to raw or overdone food — or, worse, sickness for you and your guests. While it’s not fun to think about bacteria living on and in our food, those harmful microbes linger until they’ve been killed by the heat of the grill. Grill thermometers let us know the internal temperature of meat, which has different “safe-for-consumption” internal temperatures (per the USDA) depending on the type of protein. All poultry, for instance, should be cooked to 165°F as measured by a food thermometer; medium-rare beef sits at 130–135°F, while medium-well calls for an internal temperature of 150–155°F.
Safety is certainly the top reason for using a BBQ thermometer, but you also receive the bonus of reduced guesswork on the grill. Just think of how many times you thought you nailed a steak, only for it to come out with too much grey or pink on the inside. Or, to use a more extreme example, imagine spending all night smoking a brisket, only to overshoot its internal temperature by a few degrees and render the whole thing tough and dry. That won’t happen with timely temp checks and a basic understanding of how internal temperature corresponds to doneness. Cuts of meat differ in thickness, and grills differ in terms of heat output, but internal temperature’s effect on food remains a constant you can turn to time and time again to ensure your grilled goodies finish right where you want them.
How to Measure Meat’s Internal Temperature
Grill thermometers come in different configurations with a variety of features, but they all exist for the same purpose. The main idea is to stick its prong or probe into the center of meat so the thermometer can register its internal temperature, ensuring both safe consumption and your desired level of doneness. BBQ thermometers are remarkably simple tools relative to their function, but there are a few things to keep in mind when using them:
- Remove the meat from the grill or smoker before temping to get the most accurate reading.
- Insert your temperature probe into the thickest part of the meat, usually its center, to guarantee it’s cooked through.
- Make sure the probe isn’t touching bone, fat, or gristle, all of which will throw off temperature readings.
- Wait 10 seconds before considering the readout final, even if you’re using a digital grilling thermometer.
- Remember that surfaces and outer layers of meat will temp higher than internal layers because heat takes longer to reach its center.
- Use a leave-in thermometer (preferably one with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity for convenience) when smoking large cuts like pork butt or brisket that require long cooks.
- Take readings from 3 or 4 different areas of larger meats to ensure the entire cut is cooked.
- Brush up on the meat temperature cooking chart if your BBQ meat thermometer doesn’t have a built-in indicator.
- Keep your grill thermometer clean, following manufacturer care instructions for best results and accurate readouts.
Beware of Carryover Cooking
Here’s the trickiest part of using grill thermometers. Internal temperature doesn’t stop rising just because you removed food from the grill — the heat within still works its magic even as meat rests, leading to a final temperature that’ll be slightly higher than your last temp check. Because of this thermal activity known as “carryover cooking,” thinner cuts like steaks and burgers should be taken off heat about 5°F below the desired internal temperature. Bigger cuts, meanwhile, can see their internal temperature spike by as many as 10°F while resting, so plan to remove them from the grill or smoker a bit sooner. Remember, you can always toss an undercooked piece of meat back on the grill; overdone cuts have no shot at recovery.
Testing Your BBQ Thermometer’s Accuracy
Not confident your grill thermometer is on the mark? Let’s find out together with this easy thermometer accuracy test!
- Fill a small container with ice water.
- Insert the tip of your thermometer into the water, making sure it’s not touching the sides or bottom of the container.
- Wait 20–30 seconds to ensure an accurate reading; models that use the traditional dial setup may take as long as 1–2 minutes to produce a full readout.
- Observe the temperature gauge. If it reads 32°F, then your thermometer is right on! If not, your meat thermometer needs to be recalibrated or replaced.
It’s a good idea to periodically check your thermometer’s accuracy using either the method above or a calibration test recommended by your manufacturer. Again, monitoring internal temperature is not only the surest way to know food is safe to eat, but also a cheat code for getting the perfect cook on every piece of meat every time you fire up the grill. Dad can keep his funky shorts — you’ve got a trusty BBQ thermometer.
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