Thermometers: A Necessity in Every Kitchen
No matter what type of foodservice operation you are running, thermometers are an absolute necessity. Any time food is chilled or cooked, thermometers help you ensure the food reaches safe temperatures to kill bacteria or prevent its growth. Thermometers also allow you to be sure food is being stored at safe temperatures and can help you maintain product quality between batches when cooking finicky items. There are several types of food thermometers available; below is some information on each type to help you make the best choices for your kitchen.
When cooking meat, it is essential to use a thermometer to check its internal temperature. Failing to do so can result in an undercooked product that is unappetizing and even dangerous to serve. While many claim to be able to judge a cut of meat's doneness by its color or firmness, those methods are not reliable and do not comply with HACCP standards. Knowing that the meat has reached the safe minimum cooking temperature1 is the only way to be sure that you are serving a safe product.
The most important part of checking the temperature of a cooked piece of meat is to be sure you are taking the temperature from the center of the meat, and away from any bones, fat, or gristle. Because of this, when shopping for a meat thermometer, you should look for one with a probe with a length and width compatible with reaching the center of the meat you'll be cooking. If you're cooking a lot of small meat patties you may require a thin probe, while a long stem may be better for large roasts or whole poultry. Meat thermometers may be digital or have a dial, but the digital versions are generally faster and more responsive. For a busy commercial kitchen, you may want to look for a waterproof thermometer. Some can also be calibrated so you can be sure you are continuing to get the correct temperature readings over time.
A probe thermometer is a thermometer with a long, thin stem that is meant to be inserted into food to get a temperature reading from the center. Often used as meat thermometers, these are available in two basic styles.
A pocket thermometer can be digital or have a dial face. These have the probe and readout screen as one piece and often include a cover for the probe to protect it, allowing it to be carried easily in a pocket. Although these are convenient for keeping in your pocket, the whole unit will need to be replaced if the probe breaks.
A handheld thermometer consists of two separate pieces, the controller with the readout and the probe. The two are connected by a cord, and the controller is always digital. These are more expensive than the pocket thermometers, but allow you to replace only the probe if it ever breaks.
Refrigerator and Freezer Thermometers
While most commercial refrigerators come with built-in thermometers, it is important to double-check your equipment's accuracy with an additional thermometer. In some locations, extra thermometers are even required by health codes. Freezer and refrigerator thermometers help you ensure you are holding your food at safe temperatures, which improves your food's quality and safety.
Refrigeration thermometers are available in several formats. Liquid-filled thermometers are generally the cheapest, but they can also be difficult to read. Alternatively, thermometers with dial faces are available, some of which also include a dial that reads humidity. Both of these thermometer styles must be mounted inside the refrigerator, meaning you must open a door to read the temperature.
Another option is a digital thermometer. While some of these are simply hung inside the refrigerator, there are some models available with a temperature probe that is mounted inside the refrigeration unit while the readout screen is hung on the outside of the door or on a nearby wall. These can either be wireless or have a thin wire running between the two parts. These are preferred in busy locations where operators want to be able to keep HACCP-compliant records without causing the refrigeration temperatures to fluctuate every time they need to check the temperature.
Grill and Oven Thermometers
Grill and oven thermometers can help you be sure the built-in temperature controls are accurate, letting you produce consistent cooking results and know when and if your equipment needs service. These thermometers are available in several styles so you can find the right one for your equipment.
Thermometers for grills and smokers can either measure the surface temperature of the grill grate or the ambient temperature inside the equipment. The surface grill thermometers are made to be placed directly onto the grill grate and feature an easy-to-read dial face. The thermometers meant to read the ambient temperature are for custom grill and smoker builds and can also be used to replace defective thermometers. These are mounted into the smoker wall with the dial facing out and the probe on the inside.
Another option that can work for ambient temperatures in grills or ovens is a hanging thermometer. These are simply hung somewhere inside the unit, with their main drawback being that you will need to open the door to the grill or oven to check the temperature.
Fryer and Candy Thermometers
When frying food or making candy, the oil or candy gets much higher in temperature than a typical probe thermometer can handle. Because of this, fryer and candy thermometers are made to read much higher temperatures, with most reading up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Some are made to look very similar to probe thermometers, with dial faces atop a long, thin probe, while others are made like paddles or spatulas with thermometers built into them, allowing you to measure the temperature while you stir the candy. Almost all fryer and candy thermometers come with a clip, used to attach it to the side of the pot for continual temperature monitoring.
Specialty thermometers include a whole range of thermometers meant for a wide variety of purposes. Thermometers in plastic armor casing are available for checking the temperature of dishwasher cycles. Wall thermometers, mounted with adhesives or screws, can help you monitor room temperatures, with some also having the ability to detect humidity levels. Thermometers meant for very specific purposes, including hot drink thermometers, tobacco thermometers, and soil thermometers, are also available, each with features and a temperature range specifically suited to their niche usage.
Another type of specialty thermometer is an infrared thermometer. These are able to measure the surface temperature of an object without touching it. Because it only works for surface temperatures, infrared thermometers cannot serve as meat thermometers. However, they can measure temperatures of liquids or equipment surfaces such as grills or griddles. These are also useful for record-keeping when thawing food because they allow you to take the surface temperature of frozen foods before they are thawed enough to take an internal temperature. Some infrared thermometers include laser sighting to help you know exactly where you are measuring the temperature from.
Data logger thermometers are a great option for kitchens who are working to maintain reliable HACCP data records. Working in a busy kitchen can make it difficult to take every temperature exactly when it is required, but a data logger does it for you. These use a USB or wireless connection to transfer the information to a computer, where you can take the stored temperatures and log them into your records as needed.
1. Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures. FoodSafety.gov. Accessed February 2016.