A good meat thermometer is the best way to prevent food poisoning on Thanksgiving Day—if you use it properly.
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Every kitchen should have a trusty meat thermometer (especially on Thanksgiving). All that separates a juicy, delicious turkey from a dry, disappointing mess are a few degrees. More importantly, though, cooking your meat to a safe temperature prevents dangerous foodborne illnesses. Here’s how to check your turkey’s temp the right way this holiday:

Instant Read Thermometer vs. Leave-In Thermometer

Turkey in Oven Getty 7/23/20
Credit: Tetra Images/Getty Images

Tetra Images/Getty Images

An instant read thermometer is exactly what it sounds like: A thermometer that reads temperatures instantly. Most instant read thermometers have a handle that displays the temperature and a stainless steel probe that is inserted into food. (Looking for the best instant read thermometer? We tried a ton—and this one was our favorite by a longshot).

A leave-in thermometer is equally aptly named: It’s a thermometer that you leave in the meat during the cooking process. Some leave-in thermometers have an analog face and a stainless steel probe. Others are more complex, with an oven-proof wire that connects the probe to a device that sits outside of your oven. (Psssst: This one has more than 2,000 5-star reviews).

Digital vs. Analog Meat Thermometer

Turkey on Grill Getty 7/23/20
Credit: pr2is/Getty Images

pr2is/Getty Images

So, should you get a digital or an analog instant read thermometer? A digital one will display the temperature in numerals, kind of like a digital watch. An analog one uses a more classic face, similar to a clock.

Analog thermometers (like this top-rated one, which is just $11 on Amazon) must be calibrated to ensure an accurate reading. To calibrate your analog thermometer, submerge the stem in ice water and let it sit for a few minutes. If the dial does not read 32°, use a small wrench to loosen the nut behind the dial. Then rotate the dial to the correct temperature.

Why Do You Have to Measure the Internal Temperature?

There’s a reason you don’t measure the temperature of the outside of the turkey, and it’s called a temperature gradient. A temperature gradient is the difference in temperature between the interior and the exterior of the meat.

Since the outside cooks first (it’s closer to the heat, after all), measuring the external temperature isn’t an accurate way to determine the doneness of the bird throughout.

Think of it this way: Have you ever taken a pie out of the oven and admired its beautifully baked top crust, and then cut into it to discover a completely underdone filling or bottom crust? You can blame a temperature gradient for that, too.

How Far In Should It Go?

Turkey Digital Thermometer Getty 7/23/20
Credit: Foodcollection GesmbH/Getty Images

Foodcollection GesmbH/Getty Images

The thermometer should reach the deepest part of the bird. Now, this doesn’t mean you should stick it all the way through—if you push it too far, you’ll risk missing the part that cooks the last (the middle).

The sweet spot is actually the place where there’s an even layer of meat above and below the probe. In other words, the probe should be surrounded by meat evenly on both sides.

Where to Put a Thermometer In a Turkey

Turkey Anatomy
Credit: MyRecipes (Photo: Image Source/Cadalpe/Getty Images)

MyRecipes (Photo: Image Source/Cadalpe/Getty Images)

You should check the temperature in three different places, per the USDA: the thigh, the wing, and the breast. If any part of the turkey measures below 165°, it is unsafe to eat.

During Cooking

Place the probe of your leave-in thermometer into the deepest part of the turkey breast. According to ThermoWorks, it’s best to enter the turkey horizontally, starting near the neck cavity. The tip should be about 1/2 to 1 inch from the internal cavity.

Tip: Always avoid bone, as the bone’s temperature will be different from the meat’s temperature. This shouldn’t be a problem—there are no bones in a turkey’s thermal center.

After Cooking

Now it’s time to break out your instant read thermometer. Follow the directions in your thermometer’s owner’s manual, as they don’t all measure temperature in the same way.

You’ll know your turkey is done when the innermost part of the thigh and wing measures 175-180° and the innermost part of the breast measures 165°.