Using a thermometer to measure the temperature of the oven and the food is a practice with a long history now. For over 50 years instruments have been sold that allow cooks to add a little science to their art. Today, the variety of meat thermometers is greater than ever.
The traditional meat thermometer is a metal rod with an analog dial. You insert it into the meat, wait a minute, then read the temperature. Good cooks can judge the safety and taste of the ultimate product in part by the process. While effective, there are some drawbacks to that method.
Most cooks will leave the lid of a smoker or covered grill open while they take the temperature. That allows heat to escape and that alters the cooking time and evenness, especially with thicker cuts of meat. The oven and meat cool down, requiring the temperature to be built back up to the original level that existed before opening the lid.
Technology to the rescue!
There are a few features of contemporary thermometers that help solve that problem: oven safe materials, instant-read displays and (among higher end models) wireless transmission.
Materials science has advanced to the point that non-melting metal alloys and plastics can be cost-effectively used in home barbeque thermometers. You open the lid, insert the instrument, then close the lid and walk away for a minute. You don’t have to fear the instrument becoming too hot because it’s practically indestructible (by heat anyway).
In some models, measurements have also gotten much faster than in days past. A good meat thermometer can now absorb heat much quicker, and transfer the information to the display almost instantaneously. You insert the device, read the number and pull it out. The lid only has to be open for a few seconds.
Some will allow the number to ‘stick’. Pulling the thermometer out doesn’t cause it to change the number back to the air temperature until you manually reset it. No need to worry about trying to read the number while having your face over a hot grill.
Some more advanced models even have a probe that can be inserted into the meat at any time and will transmit the data to a display up to 100 feet away. You can sit in your favorite outdoor lounge chair, have a beer and glance from time to time at the small monitor on the table.
Whichever model you get, there are some best practices to observe with meat thermometers.
Insert the instrument into the thickest part of the meat in order to get the best reading. You don’t want meat that’s burnt on the outside, raw on the inside. Slow cooking is made easier and more reliable this way.
Avoid making contact with any bones in the meat, since they can absorb heat to a higher degree (in both senses of the word). They may be at a higher temperature than the meat, and they absorb more heat longer.
Take measurements at different points in the meat and throughout the oven using both a meat thermometer and an oven thermometer. A thermometer in the lid is a great feature for the latter goal. That way you find out where best to place your cut for slow cooking (more barbeque style) vs fast cooking (grill style). It also allows you to average the numbers and see whether your interior temperature is more or less uniform.
Prices range from a few dollars to over $100, so shop around.