Many things go into making great food. Good quality fresh ingredients, spices, herbs, and other flavor boosters, choosing an appropriate balance of food items, visual appeal and presentation, and so on.
But your dish can score max on all these measures and still be a total failure if you’ve not attended to the essential basics of preparing any food item – the actual cooking of it, as determined, more than anything else, by the twin variables of time and temperature.
I used to believe that “real cooks” (whatever that means) do everything by instinct and sense, and don’t need to use modern aids such as timers and thermometers. I’m sure, hundreds of years ago, that was unavoidably true, and I imagine some cooks still do everything by instinct and experience now. But I’ve noticed, when looking inside professional kitchens, that they tend to be full of timers and thermometers, and I’ve also come to realize I’m not a “real cook” myself, and so now feel no shame at all in using the latest in technology to try to minimize the number of times I undercook the fish and overcook the meat.
I’m not saying I’m now a great cook at all, but I am saying that I’m not as bad as I was before I started using such devices. Maybe you’ll find that some of these inexpensive simple units will help you in the kitchen, too.
Time – or at least, how to measure it – is a relatively simple concept that needs little discussion. One point we’d make though is the benefit of having multiple timers in your kitchen, so you can conveniently be timing several different things simultaneously. We achieve that primarily by using the timers on our microwave and ovens, and supplementing it with Alexa reminders (rather than timers).
With Alexa reminders you can not only set a timer but also have Alexa tell you what the timer is for when it finishes. (We’ve a free 12 page document listing many useful Alexa commands here, and if you’re a Travel Insider supporter, you can get a much more detailed 30 page document from your special member reports page. If you’re not yet a supporter, you can instantly become one and get access to this and other material by joining on this page.)
I quite like using Alexa as a timer/reminder service, because I can call out to it to set a timer while simultaneously cooking/preparing a meal. But I also like seeing the remaining time on a “real” timer (although it is possible to ask Alexa about time remaining), so most of the time use the timers on appliances, or external timers.
Digital timers are almost literally a dime a dozen these days, and if you are considering buying one (or several), I’d suggest two things. First, choose units with really simple controls and a good clear display. I find I forget how to use some of the more complicated timers, and when the pressure is on in the kitchen, I have neither the focus nor the time to try and puzzle out all the buttons on a more complicated timer. I also like to be able to quickly glance at a timer from a distance and clearly see the time remaining on it.
In addition to really simple controls, I have a slight preference for timers with a number pad on them, so instead of pressing hour/minute/second buttons sometimes way too many times to set a timer, I can quickly key the time in from the keypad. You can also find two or three timers all built into the one unit, but those strike me as being more complicated and less convenient – just one more thing to go wrong when you’re rushed – you might accidentally clear the wrong timer, for example. Plus you have to remember which timer on a multi-timer display is for what thing.
If I have two timers for two pots (or whatever else) I simply place them near to the different things I’m timing. I’d rather have separate timers.
One more point. Most timers seem to run off an AAA or AA battery. Avoid timers that use unusual batteries that you’re not likely to keep spares on hand.
You are probably familiar with the “old fashioned” analog type “egg timers” where you twist a dial to how many minutes. They work and are quick and simple, but I tend to prefer the greater precision of modern digital ones, especially for time sensitive things like microwaving. Of course, Amazon has very many timers for you to choose from – this one seems like it has everything you need and nothing you don’t need (it is the one in the picture above).
But temperature – therein lies an underappreciated minefield of variables, both in terms of the temperature of the degree of heat being applied to the food item, and the ultimate temperature the food item is cooked to.
We take a lot for granted when it comes to temperature, and the variables associated with it. We get to learn if our oven and stove elements tend to cook “hot” or not. We also sense that many recipes seem to choose 350°F as a generic cooking temperature without much thought, and similarly give us cooking times that are adjusted to round numbers rather than exact numbers.
To a certain extent, food can cook as well at 340° as at 350° or 360°, but the time it will take for the food to rise in temperature of course varies depending on the temperature within the oven or pot. In part, the imprecision in time and temperature, particularly in ovens, is because much of the heat transfer into the food is via very inefficient conduction. Even though you might have a “convection oven” the heat transfer from the air to the food item is via conduction. The other main source of heating is from radiant heat – from the hot oven sides, and from any elements that might be visible within the oven (especially if broiling/grilling).
Temperature is important, however, and of course, particularly end-point temperatures (ie, the temperature at which you stop cooking something). You probably know from experience how quickly a steak can go from under-cooked to over-cooked, and the best way to manage that process is not with a timer (because there are too many variables) but with a thermometer. But the cooking temperature is also important to a greater or lesser extent – for example, you wouldn’t want to cook a steak at a low temperature, or a pancake at a very high temperature.
As an example of how temperature can sometimes be important, the speed of most chemical reactions will double with a mere 18°F (ie 10°C) difference in temperature.
There are two different temperature issues we need to understand. The temperature of the cooking method, and the temperature of the food being cooked.
Let’s look at them separately.
Temperature Part 1 – Cooking Temperature
So you set your oven to 350°; when it reaches that temperature, you put your food in, leave it for the assigned time, then remove it again. That is a fairly easy thing to do, because most ovens have a way of specifying the temperature you want to cook at. Older readers may remember gas ovens and instead of temperatures, there were semi-standardized “gas numbers” (350° being more or less the target temperature for gas number 4).
But what about “cook in a medium-hot frying pan”? What does that mean? And is your frying pan evenly warm or are there “hot spots” in places?
Sometimes, you might be cooking in a slow cooker or smoker where you aren’t supposed to open the unit up, because a lot of heat/moisture/smoke/whatever escapes and it takes time for it to re-accumulate again. How can you monitor temperatures in such cases?
We use two devices to understand and measure the temperature within the cooking area or on the cooking surface.
The first is an infrared temperature reader. This can tell, from the type of infrared radiation coming off a surface, what the temperature of that surface is. The best ones have a laser pointer built in, to help you understand where it is getting its reading from, and it is also helpful to know how large a cone of area it “sees” – this varies depending on how close to the surface you have the reader.
These IR readers nearly instantly tell you either the temperature of the cooking surface, or the temperature of the surface of the food within the cooking environment.
I use it to evenly warm up frying pans, to work out how close to boiling liquids are, and to see the surface temperature of items I’m cooking. It is helpful, when warming up a soup, allowing you to do exactly as the can instructions say – “gently simmer, do not boil”. It is also very helpful, when making mulled wine, to avoid taking the wine up above the alcohol boiling point (173°F), and for many other applications, too. I use mine several times every day.
Amazon has lots of models to choose from, and I suspect many of the units that look very similar are indeed identical, other than for some minor cosmetic differences.
The main “real” differences are the temperature range measured, whether or not it has a laser, and the spread of the “cone” it measures. For me, I’m not too worried about the temperature range because almost all go from colder than I’m interested in to hotter than I’m interested in, I want a laser, and I prefer a narrower cone to a broader one (most seem to spread at a ratio of 12:1, a higher number (ie above 12) is better than a lower number).
In terms of accuracy, it seems that +/- 2% or less is a common type of accuracy claim, and that is plenty good enough for most cooking needs. It isn’t good enough for checking your own temperature though, which is why they generally say “not suitable for taking medical temperatures”.
Just like with timers, I don’t want any extra features or complications. Just a trigger type on/off switch and that is all. Everything else quickly becomes unneeded clutter and confusion.
The second device I use is a remote temperature probe to monitor the temperature inside cooking containers such as ovens and crock pots. These can be either wireless or wired – I prefer the wired ones because there is less to go wrong and less to set up.
These simply allow you to monitor the temperature without having to open the door or lift the lid, so it gives you a great feeling for if an oven is almost up to temperature or not, and what is happening to the liquid in a crock pot, for example. It is very helpful with a smoker, because you don’t lose all the smoke each time you lift the lid or open the door.
A hint. When routing the probe’s wire out of the oven door, have it come out near the bottom of the door if possible. While most oven door seals will wrap around the wire anyway, minimizing the heat loss, you’ll get even better results if the wire is closer to the bottom than the top.
“KISS” (Keep it simple, stupid) again applies, but I’m more willing to get a more sophisticated unit here, because usually I am using this at not quite so time critical a stage in cooking.
I also sometimes like dual temperature probes, which helps better understand, in an oven, where the hotter and cooler parts are. But, having said that, 99% of everything I want/need to know is answered by a single readout of the current temperature of a single probe, so there’s no need to go too overboard with this type of device, either. I’ve never needed or wanted devices with alarms on them or max and min temperature readouts, or that give me their opinion of what internal temperatures different foods should be cooked to.
Yes, again, Amazon has plenty of choices.
Temperature Part 2 – Food Temperature
It is all well and good understanding the temperature of the cooking surface or environment, but ultimately, you need to know the temperature of the product being cooked, and probably you need to know this not just on the outside but on the inside of the item.
To understand external temperatures, I use the same IR Gun that I use for measuring cooking surface temperatures (see above).
To understand internal temperatures, I use one of two products. The first is a remote temperature probe, the same as described immediately above. This is great when cooking roasts – you can stick a probe into the roast, have the lead come out of the door, and a display unit conveniently on the counter. There’s no need to keep opening the door, the information you want is outside the oven.
I mentioned multi-probe units above. Whereas they are optional for simply understanding an environmental temperature, they are almost mandatory for understanding internal temperatures of larger or irregularly shaped pieces of food. Depending on where the probe is – further in or not so far in, close to a bone or not, in meat or fat – you can get quite different temperature readings, so I always use at least two probes and recently found a nice four probe unit that allows me to luxuriate in more data than I perhaps really need. While the probes on this unit are wired, the entire unit will also communicate via Bluetooth to a phone or other BT device, so I can even conduct the previously inconvenient “check the meat” ritual from the comfort of my den.
One more nice feature is a time/temperature graph, a feature more often seen on a matching phone app than on a unit’s low-res digital display. This can be used to help you understand how much longer it might take for the item you’re cooking to continue to rise up to your target temperature.
The second item I use is an instant-reading temperature probe. You’ve probably seen and might even have one of the units that looks like a meat skewer with a digital dial on top – a digital one simply reaches the measured temperature more quickly. You want this to be as thin as possible so that when you stick it in something and withdraw it again, you don’t leave a huge big hole for all the juices to come out through.
A device such as the one illustrated conveniently and quickly shows you the temperature where the probe tip is located. This can be great when checking microwaved food items, or of course, just about anything else at all. Similar to the IR sensor guns, there may be some difference between models in terms of temperature range, and perhaps also in claimed accuracy and speed at which a reading is obtained. The main thing I focus on is how quick the reading is received (and the price). One other minor issue is the type of battery it uses – make sure the unit comes with a battery, and that replacement batteries are inexpensive and readily obtained.
A Note About Accuracy
All these various temperature sensor devices show temperatures at a seemingly very exact number – sometimes, to a tenth of a degree. But that does not mean the unit is actually resolving temperatures to that degree of accuracy. Think of it a bit like the speedometer on your car – whether it has one or ten division markers between each ten miles an hour on the dial doesn’t make it any more accurate.
If you want to, you can always check your unit’s accuracy. Put the probe into boiling water, and you should have it reading right around 212°F/100°C or slightly lower than that. You can also put a container of water and ice cubes in the freezer, and once it has started to freeze over the top, then test that temperature, and it should be slightly above 32°F/0°C.
As long as the temperatures shown are within about 5°F or so of what they should be, the device is probably performing adequately.
I can’t guarantee that timers and thermometers will give you godlike powers in the kitchen, but at least your mistakes will now be scientific ones. More seriously, you’ll get a better understanding of what is happening as you cook, and, if things turn out well, you’ll know what numbers to aim for next time.