BBQ Thermometers – Not Just For Show

BBQ thermometers come in a variety of styles and vary considerably in price. With this post I hope to give you some guidelines in choosing the from the best BBQ thermometers available for your particular needs.

First, let us break the ice a little bit by introducing some quotes by folks that should know a bit about grill and meat BBQ thermometers.

“Cooking without good digital thermometers is like driving at night without headlights. Dial thermometers are technology from the 1800s and they are often waaaay off.” Meathead Goldwyn @ AmazingRibs.com

“Bi-metal coil thermometers are about as accurate as a sniper scope on a nerf gun.” Alton Brown, Food Network Star, author of multiple cookbooks

I think you can see where these two experts stand on their preference for cooking thermometers.

Styles of BBQ Thermometers

Bi-metal Dial BBQ Thermometer

Weber Smokey Mountain Dial BBQ ThermometersBi-metal technology has been used in thermometers for more than two centuries. This is the style of thermometer you will see most often in the domes of both charcoal and gas grills.

These BBQ thermometers use old school coil spring technology. The sensing device is made up of two different metals fastened together. Of the two metals, one has low heat sensitivity, while the other metal has high heat sensitivity. With changing temperatures the metals expand or contract at different rates causing the metal strip to curl. Since the bi-metal sensor is attached to the needle on the face of the thermometer, the changing temperature results in a curling of the metal strip moving the needle on a printed temperature scale.

You will want to ensure the accuracy of your dial thermometer is within your desired range. Because of the dual metal combination, these temperature gauges tend to be more accurate at higher temperatures than they are at lower temperatures. Consequently, since you will be using these while cooking presumably at higher temperatures you will want to calibrate for accuracy at the higher end of the spectrum.

The most common way to calibrate your these is to place the sensor in either freezing water at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or in boiling water. If you are calibrating at the boiling point you will need to know what the boiling point of water is at your elevation since this changes at different altitudes.

The boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. The boiling point decreases by 1/2 degree for approximately each 250 feet rise in elevation. This means that at 1,000 feet above sea level the boiling point of water will be approximately 210 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you calibrate at freezing, which is impacted very little by barometric pressure change, you may find that it is not accurate at your normal cooking temperatures. Always calibrate at the end of the temperature scale closest to your normal use.

Bi-metal Instant Read BBQ Thermometers

Dial Instant Read BBQ ThermometerYou will typically see this type of thermometer as the common pocket thermometer. It has a 2″ or 3″ metal probe with a dial thermometer reading at one end. While these may be billed as “instant read” they may be far from that when compared to a digital thermometer with a thermocouple tip.

The bi-metal instant read thermometer will typically have a response time of 13 to 20 seconds. This does not sound like a long time but when compared to some of the better digital thermometer it about 6 times as long. 20 seconds compared to 3 seconds for the digital can seem like an eternity, especially if you are trying to maintain an even temperature on your grill.
Image credit: Steven Jackson Photography Creative Commons License

Digital Instant Read Thermometer

Thermapen Barbecue Instant Read Digital BBQ ThermometerIf you are looking for temperature accuracy in your outdoor cooking, and you should be, you will want to turn your attention to the digital instant read food thermometers on the market today. As you commence searching for that one heat gauge that fits your needs you will find a wide variety of prices and almost as wide a variety of brands. Sorting through those can be a challenge.

Your grill will have hot spots throughout the cooking surface. In addition, your meat may will be of different thickness. Your turkey leg may be cooking at a different rate than the breast. It is imperative to know that the meat you are serving is at the correct temperature to avoid any food borne illnesses.

Here is what Harry Soo of Slap Yo Daddy BBQ had to say about the Thermapen digital meat thermometer.

Whether you’re a low-and-slow barbecue pitmaster or backyard griller, you know you need a good BBQ thermometer. The $100 Thermapen manufactured in England is the de facto standard for BBQ pitmasters because it’s the Lamborghini of instant read thermometers.

Obviously this is not your run of the mill digital temperature gauge, but it does satisfy the needs of the discriminating chef and backyard cook.

If you are not quite ready to fork over the approximately $100 for the Thermapen, Thermoworks did start offering the Thermopop in 2013. This thermometer will not give you your food temperature in less than 3 seconds like the Thermapen but it will give you an accurate response in less than 6 seconds.

Oven/Grill/Smoker Thermometer or Digital Probe

Maverick Dual Probe Digital Meat BBQ ThermometerWhile the rapid read thermometers are great for checking the meat temperature, they are too thin and fragile to survive being in the cooking chamber for any length of time. This is where a digital probe or cooking chamber thermometer comes into play.

These units will have a thicker probe built to withstand the heat and will be attached to a cable in order to read the temperature outside the cooker or oven. This allows you to maintain a more even and consistent cooking temperature.

While some units are basic other units will have all kinds of extra features. Some units will come with at least two probes where you can keep tabs on the temperature at the grill grate as well as having one probe inserted into the meat to keep up to date with the internal temperature of the meat.

In Summary

At a minimum, the outdoor cook/chef should have at least three different types of thermometers.

  1. An instant read or quick read thermometer to get the internal temperature of meat on the grill
  2. A digital probe thermometer for monitoring the cooking temperature of the cooking chamber while smoking or roasting thicker cuts of meat
  3. A digital probe to insert into the thick cut of meat being roasted or smoked in order to keep an eye on the internal temperature

With a good digital thermometer and diligence and care in your outdoor barbecuing you will have one fantastic meal to present to your guests.


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