Sunday, 20 April 2014

At just over a tenner, why aren't they a kitchen staple? Meat probes / digital thermometers...

Perfectly-cooked joints of meat every time?

Or at least, perfectly cooked to your desired temperature, with a handy alarm that goes off to warn you to take it out of the oven at the right time (just before it reaches the 'perfect' temperature) to avoid residual heat over-cooking it (as it carries on cooking after you take it out of the oven, while it rests)?

Even works on something as small as a chicken breast?

I have to hold my hand up, and say that despite having used thermometers and temperature probes for years to check the done-ness of food (and the rest), I'd never 'invested' in a food probe that you stick in the food while you're cooking it, and leave the unit outside the cooker.

Why not? Well, to be honest, I'd never seen one in the shops in passing, never seen an article recommending them, never had one recommended by a friend, and don't really cook large joints of meat in the oven very often (er... because of the risk of over/under-cooking them!). And in the back of my mind, which never really thought about them, I assumed they were quite expensive.

But when I cooked pulled pork again last week, and was trying to perfect it, one of these would have been so handy during all those hours of cooking at a low temperature, taking the pork out to check how hot it was internally, and letting all of the heat out of the relatively-cool oven each time - I swear it took longer because of this! So I looked them up online, and discovered to my great surprise, that I could get one for a mere £12.99!

I'm sure advances in technology, and supply and demand, and all that malarkey mean that they're relatively cheap now (this is cheaper than the last digital food probe I bought from a supermarket a few months ago!), but I couldn't believe how low the prices were, and this was too cheap to resist considering the advantages.

So, when it arrived in the post, we decided to road-test it on a chicken breast, which was cooked in the oven. Now, for me, the perfect chicken breast is 60C in the sous-vide machine, so I was fully expecting that at 73C (the set temperature for well done chicken, because you can't just cook a chicken breast to 60C, as it needs to stay at that temperature for a certain amount of time, to pasteurise it and kill all of the pathogens - but if you want to cook your chicken breast sous vide, then have a look here), the chicken breast was going to be pretty dried out and tough. However, despite not particularly wanting to waste a couple of good chicken breasts and ruin our dinner, enquiring minds wished to know as not everyone is confident about cooking chicken breasts (well, I'm not confident about cooking a whole chicken without drying out the breasts, and/or under-cooking the thighs, which is why I very rarely cook roast chicken dinners!), so we put the probe in the largest of the two chicken breasts (or half-breasts, if you're from the USA), inserting it from the thick end, until it was a couple of inches in horizontally), put them on top of the bed of onions, poured the sauce over (I was cooking Chicken in Chipotle Sauce) and stuck them in the oven, all set to beep when it was time to take the chicken out...

As we'd quickly browned the chicken first (literally just a quick sear in a pan for some colour), my expectation was the they would take around 20 minutes to cook through to my liking, but I had sides ready to be warmed at the drop of a hat, as I had no idea how long it would be before the meat probe decided it was safe for us to eat it. (You get a few minutes warning to take it out, and then leave it on the side to rest for a few minutes until the core temperature reaches the appropriate level).

So this is how it came out of the oven, when the beeper summoned us to remove it, after 29 minutes.

Looking at it, I did not have high hopes. I could see the chicken juices which had escaped from the chicken into the sauce (look between the two chicken breasts, near the bottom left of the chicken breast on the right, where you can see a milky liquid bleeding into the tomato sauce). And mine was the smaller one without the probe in it (you can see how the probe is inserted in the chicken breast to the left, in the thickest part, horizontally).

Heigh ho, sometimes you just have to take one for the team. So anyway, I served up dinner with the trimmings, thinking that even if the chicken was dried out and stringy, at least there was plenty of sauce to moisten it.

Well. I have to say, I was actually very pleasantly surprised! Although it wasn't the meltingly-tender texture of chicken breast cooked sous vide, which I have become spoilt by, or the just-cooked butterflied chicken breast thrown on the griddle for a few minutes each time, it was actually MOIST!

No fibres of stringy dry chicken when I sliced it in two, and (although in the photo it's a little hard to see because of the chipotle sauce which has covered some of the flesh) there was still juice within the chicken!

And mine was the smaller chicken breast, so I really thought it was going to be well over and dried out.

Now, just to clarify, it wasn't perfect all the way through - the thin end of it, the bottom quarter was over-cooked, and had dried out a little - naturally the thin parts cook through before the thicker parts, but if I'd been served this chicken breast for my dinner, I would have been quite happy with it, as the majority of it was juicy and tender. And that is something not that easy to achieve cooking blind in an oven, with meats like chicken and pork, where you want to cook them well done and avoid food-related illness from pathogens, and not 'over-cook' them.

So on that basis, I'd highly recommend a food probe for anyone who wants well-done chicken (or pork) which is still moist. I think the warning beep to tell you to take meat out of the oven, before it's just hit the temperature so it hits it within a few minutes of resting is genius.

And I'll definitely be using it again on joints of meat - whether it's a medium-rare joint of beef, or a slow-cooked shoulder of pork or lamb.

The one draw-back?

The model I used had magnets on the back. My dearly beloved stuck it to the left side of the oven, where the door hinge was. I decided it would be more practical on the side where the oven opened. So I pulled it off the warm oven, and discovered that the magnets hadn't come with it, as the heat from the oven had put the glue into a semi-liquid state... fortunately, it had a hinge on it, and stood quite happily on the side next to the oven. But that is a bit of a schoolboy design error in my opinion. However, it did the job it was intended for admirably, so one really shouldn't complain too much - and at that price, for the difference it will make to the quality of cooked meat people can achieve, it's an absolute bargain.

I used a Polder Programmeable Oven Thermometer, which cost me £12.99* from Amazon. However, despite only buying this last week, they appear to now be out of stock, however there is a virtually identical product, for only an extra 76p, which has 4.5 out of 5 stars in customer reviews if you're interesting in buying one, which you can view by clicking here

If you have more pennies to spend, there is also a model by Mastrad which you can view by clicking here, for £24.90* which has a few more functions, but essentially they both give you an audible warning when your food reaches the programmed temperature.

If you're a really keen BBQ enthusiast, and have £59.99 to spare, there's a long range (300 feet) wireless dual 2 probe meat thermometer set from Ivation you can see here... pretties! So you can monitor your BBQ from afar and be alerted when the temperature goes outside your pre-programmed range. Very nice, but I think I'll try my £12.99 version next time I cook something big on the BBQ for now...not quite sure I can justify that one for kebabs and sausages! (But maybe one day...)

*Prices correct as at the time of posting, on

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