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I've been watching some cooking shows, and they seem very keen on there thermometers. They have prob thermometers, oven thermometers, meat thermometers, confectionery thermometers, oil thermometers... (Possibly these are all the same device, I don't know anything about kitchen thermometers).

Only thermometers I ever saw in real life, was my mother's roast thermometer (and I've made plenty of roasts without owning one), and her confectionery one that I broke as a child (and I've made plenty of toffee, with just the cold water test.)

So I've got on for quiet a while without owning one, and I've never seen one (out side of TV) used to check the oven temperature, or the oil temperature.

I'm wondering what the big deal is? Will using the right temperature change my cooking? Am I perhaps doing something unsafe in using any of the many methods for estimating temperature?

  • related : cooking.stackexchange.com/q/12263/67 – Joe Jul 9 '15 at 14:03
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    Dropping water into hot oil is unsafe: especially if you have a gas cook top. If you must check temp in this way, it's better to test on a small piece of food. – Mr. Mascaro Jul 9 '15 at 15:42
  • @Mr.Mascaro bad example, I was thinking dropping (an single drop) of water into a very shallowly oiled pan (Which I see no danger in, beyond a minor burn for the oil spit). I have replaced with the link to all the examples that Joe provided. – Lyndon White Jul 9 '15 at 15:54
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Thermometers are really practical when you do not have a lot of experience cooking things; it let you keep track of the proper food temperature.

For example, I do not cook beef roasts often, so I will use a thermometer to not mess up my cooking and waste a good amount of money on a good cut of meat.

Thermometers are essential for confectioneries where exact temperature are needed, mostly for sugar caramel stages.

Thermometers are also essential if you decide to try "molecular" cooking techniques with different chemicals; where temperature needs to be precise for certain reaction to happen (I do not have examples for that).

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    Even with experience thermometers are still important. – GdD Jul 9 '15 at 14:48
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    Even if you do have plenty of experience, meat can be tricky. I suspect you'll have a hard time doing things like judging exactly when grilled chicken is done. Sure, you can poke it and get some idea, but you'll probably end up with 5-10 degrees of variance in your guesses, enough that sometimes it'll be a bit less tender and juicy than other times. – Cascabel Jul 9 '15 at 14:49
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    Example for reaction at temperature is mashing malt - you do it between 70 and 85 Celsius degrees, and temperature changes proportions between glucose & maltose vs dextrin. There are recipes for young mothers that call for mashed malt, it's useful outside brewery sometimes. – Mołot Jul 9 '15 at 15:14
  • +1 for "essential for confectioneries." When making fudge, for example, if you don't get the temperature just right, it will not set properly once it cools, and the consistency will be all wrong. – Mason Wheeler Jul 9 '15 at 19:36
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Cooking thermometers aren't essential, but they sure are damn useful. They simply take the guesswork out of temperature, which is of course critical to cooking. Why guess when that expensive steak is done to your liking when you can stick a $10 digital doohicky in there and be certain? Why do something incredibly dangerous like drop water in hot oil when you can use a thermometer?

  • I've never even seen one in a store. I guess some of the larger kitchen stores would have them. Prob most of the smaller ones to, but I've never seen them. – Lyndon White Jul 9 '15 at 14:53
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    @Oxinabox, every grocery store within 20 miles of my house has them near the pots/pans, knives, etc. – Mr. Mascaro Jul 9 '15 at 15:29
  • Mr Mascaro: Neither the grocery stores in my suburb, nor in two adjacent suburbs the suburb over have pots/pans, if I go two suburbs over, there is one. Having check online, the two large supermarket chains in my country only stock meat thermometers. Not suitable for checking oven or oil temperature, I think. – Lyndon White Jul 9 '15 at 15:50
  • @Oxinabox It's worth checking the package on meat thermometers to see what temperature range they work on; sometimes they actually cover enough of a range to be good for much more than meat and are just being packaged as meat thermometers. (And a thermometer that can't just be left in the oven is still incredibly useful!) – Cascabel Jul 9 '15 at 16:46
  • @oxinabox Amazon has plenty to choose from – ElendilTheTall Jul 9 '15 at 16:50
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Before a thermometer in my low-price oven, I didn't know if it was well calibrated or not. My mom's was way off, explaining some burns. I also adjusted the pre-heat oven time, sometimes completely unnecessary. I also found out that steps of 30 C/50 F are enough to adjust up or down, ignoring smaller 10 C/25 F intermediate steps.

Before a thermometer in my low-price refrigerator, I didn't realize I needed to adjust thermostat dial - and how much - depending on season in order to maintain the same temp. I also learned the various spots to organize what food goes where inside, sometimes contrary to what usual people say.

Before an infrared gun thermometer, I couldn't figure how high of a setting I could push my various non-stick pans on the stove top. I learned about checking frying oil temp in a flash, without immersion, if the bottom of the pan is dark as reflecting surfaces are not reliable for this type of reading.

Before a probe thermometer with wire, I had to rely on time per pounds, confused with what type of meat and which cut it was. With a stand-alone probe, I can double check the final results, or find out if I need more rotation time on my rotisserie.

Many more, but you got the point. However, a probe in a one inch thick steak on the pan on the stove is a bit of overkill.

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This largely depends on what you cook, and how picky you are about the results.

If you cook steak and eggs type dishes, and aren't too picky about steak done-ness, then sure, skip the thermometer. Although I would definitely use one for steaks. But I'm very picky about how done my steak is.

Larger meats, such as roasts, I would consider a thermometer essential for. Time per pound is just too inaccurate, particularly given the different shapes of different cuts (or just different roasts). You want it even close to done correctly, your best bet is a thermometer.

As for baking, candying, etc.; it's certainly possible to manage without a thermometer, particularly if you're reasonably experienced, and again, if you're not too picky about exact results and/or not doing anything too cutting edge.

But I'd say it's similar to saying, can I cook without a measuring spoon? Sure, you can estimate the amount of flour in a loaf of bread, and if you're good at it you can probably get something that works and is decently tasty. But, will it turn out exactly right every time? Probably not. Even a loaf of bread is better with a thermometer, in fact!

  • You can do candying without a thermometer? – slicedtoad Jul 10 '15 at 13:54
  • In theory, yes. The OP says they can, in fact. I wouldn't do it, but... – Joe M Jul 10 '15 at 14:13
  • Exothermic reactions without a thermometer... I can't even imagine. – slicedtoad Jul 10 '15 at 14:19
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    I think the 'hard ball' / 'soft ball' method (drop a bit of the sugar-solution in water, see what happens) is how people candy without thermometers (and how they candied back in the day). – Joe M Jul 10 '15 at 14:37
  • +1 -- I really appreciate this answer. As someone who owns quite a few different types of thermometers for my kitchen (as well as a number of different scales, a pH meter, etc.), I also appreciate the fact cooking is often not as precise as we imagine it to be, and temperature is often a more imprecise indicator that we think. A temperature measurement cannot substitute for significant experience. Other than to maintain food safety, I agree that thermometers are NOT "essential." They are just one tool among many, and they don't have all the answers. – Athanasius Jul 23 '15 at 2:03

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