With the mainstream adoption of sous vide and other ultra-precise cooking methods, the kitchen thermometer has become a necessity of the modern chef. In fact, the need to know the temperature of what we’re cooking, cooling, or eating has been a constant since the days of Louis Pasteur, but the era of the leave-in meat thermometer and the pop-up turkey button are well behind us. Now is the era of the instant-read thermometer, an electronic device that can provide the temperature in mere seconds instead of the minutes a classic meat thermometer requires. That’s not a trivial improvement—delicate dishes can go from raw to well done in the time it takes an old-school probe to stabilize. Similarly, less time spent with the over door open as you wait for your readout means less escaping heat and a more stable cooking environment.
The market is flooded with instant-read thermometers, but all are not created equal. Every instant-read thermometer takes a few seconds to provide an accurate reading, but the actual speed varies considerably between models. How fast is instant? Or, to quote The Smiths, when you say it’s gonna happen “now,” well, when exactly do you mean?
To find out how soon now actually is, I tested five popular instant-read thermometers on a variety of solids and liquids, hot stuff and cold, in a household kitchen setting. Here are the probes which are worth your investment.
What to Look for in an Instant-Read Thermometer
Considering these devices are really just high-tech temperature gauges with only one function, there are a surprising number of features and capabilities to ponder. These are the big ones.
Design. Two types of designs dominate. One is a standard wand style probe-with-control-bulb on the end, usually featuring a protective, removable sleeve. The other design features a hinged, folding probe, with no sleeve. These tend to be the more sophisticated probes.
Function buttons. Some thermometers you just stick in and wait for a readout. Others require navigating a small array of buttons that let you change the temperature units, “hold” the readout, calibrate the temperature, and more. If you’re wearing oven mitts, these can be tricky to manage.
Backlighting. A few units have a backlight on the LCD readout, handy when cooking outside at night or in other light-challenged situations.
Range. Expect to see a temperature range supported of well below zero to 550 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If the range is narrower, the limitations are noted below.
Speed. How fast does the temperature stabilize? This was the big question mark, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Testing Instant-Read Thermometers
The ThermoWorks Thermapen ($96) is the Cadillac of the instant-read thermometer world, about four times the price of the low end of the market. The maker specializes in industrial sensors and other equipment, but its handheld thermometers have found quite a home in gastronomy. The device is stripped-down simple, a fat fold-up model with no extra features (no buttons, no backlight), and by default it only shows full degrees, not tenths. (Pro tip: You can flip a DIP switch in the battery compartment to change this.) What it does have is one thing: raw speed. ThermoWorks claims it will reach a stable temperature in three seconds or less, and it does, whether a fat pork chop or an ice water bath. Three seconds was par for the Thermapen. Never did I see it take more than four to stabilize.
ThermoWorks also makes a budget thermometer, the ThermoWorks ThermoPop ($29). This balloon-like wand thermometer features just one button (power) but a backlight comes standard. The ThermoPop is only marginally slower than the Thermapen, generally taking four to seven seconds to stabilize. (It’s faster when measuring colder temperatures.) Unfortunately, the placement of the readout—in line with the probe, not perpendicular to it—makes it difficult to read no matter how you’re using it. If you’re trying to work with something in the oven, this can result in a lot of dangerous jostling about.
The EatSmart Precision Elite ($45) is a folding model that, unlike all the other units in this roundup, requires two AAA batteries to operate. (Everything else uses a coin style battery.) It sure looks fancy with its backlight and vinyl holster, but it was also on the slow side, taking six to eight seconds to stabilize at temperature. The EatSmart also tended to run on the hot side of readings for me. It does offer a calibration system, but this is so complicated to deal with that it’s probably easier just to remember to knock off a couple of degrees when you use it.
The Grill Beastometer ($25) is representative of most cheap instant-reads out there, offering a wand design, and a spray of buttons on the outward-facing display. Easily the slowest of the bunch, the typical stabilizing time was nine to 13 seconds. The upper temperature range of 450 degrees is also on the low side.
Finally, the Lavatools Thermowand ($28) looks like a smaller version of the Thermapen, and it’s priced accordingly. There are no controls or fancy features, you just unfold it and go. I was surprised to see the Thermowand turning in amazingly speedy numbers, taking just four to six seconds to stabilize. Range is slightly lower than the Thermapen (topping out at 482), and the probe length is a bit small. But in exchange you do get an integrated magnet that lets you affix it to your refrigerator, grill, or prosthesis.
Our Hottest Pick
When it comes to performance for the price, the Lavatools Thermowand is the solid winner here. It’s one of the cheapest thermometers on the market, and it’s fast enough to work perfectly well in the field. Or the kitchen. If raw speed is all you need, the ThermoWorks Thermapen is definitely the thermometer to get, but bear in mind you’re only saving a second or two while investing an extra 68 bucks. And that kind of cash will get you a nice Wagyu to experiment on with the Thermowand.