Smoking Meat? Here’s How to Use Your Thermometer Right

by Matt

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Imagine this: you're the star of your backyard barbecue, the grill master, the provider of the feast. But there's a nagging worry at the back of your mind: "Is the meat cooked just right?" You're not alone. Many struggle with cooking meat to perfection, especially when smoking it.

Enter the cooking thermometer, your new best friend. These handy tools take the guesswork out of grilling, roasting, and smoking meat. They help ensure that your meat is not only delicious but safe to eat. But how do they work, and why are they so important? Let's dive into the world of using a thermometer when smoking meat.

Grilled Steak on a Grill Pan with Rosemary, a Thermometer, Salt, Spices, and a Glass of Red Wine.

Key Takeaways

  • Ensures Safety and Taste: Thermometers remove guesswork, ensuring meat is cooked safely and deliciously.
  • Essential for Control: Proper placement of cables and probes and maintaining tension is key for accuracy.
  • Variety of Tools: Different thermometers (instant-read, dial, wireless, infrared) serve various purposes. Consider accuracy, temperature range, durability, and ease of use.
  • Correct Probe Placement: Critical for accurate readings. Manage cables smartly and use foil to protect probes.
  • Regular Checks: Start early in cooking, understand readings, and use instant-read thermometers for precision.
  • Advanced Techniques: Use multiple probes for larger cuts and manage temperature fluctuations.
  • Maintenance Matters: Proper cleaning and calibration ensure longevity and accuracy.
  • Versatility: Thermometers are useful for non-meat items and enhance overall culinary skills.
  • Protect Cables: Prevent droop, avoid direct contact with smoker walls, and don't thread cables through the chimney.

The Importance of Using a Thermometer in Smoking Meat

Using a thermometer when smoking meat is crucial for ensuring food safety, achieving perfect doneness, and optimizing the smoking process. Here’s why thermometers are essential tools for any BBQ enthusiast:

Ensuring Food Safety

  • Preventing Foodborne Illness: Smoking meat at low temperatures can breed bacteria if not monitored. A thermometer ensures the internal temperature reaches safe levels to kill pathogens:
    • Poultry: 165°F
    • Pork and Beef: At least 145°F, with a resting period
  • Consistent Safety: Ensures all parts of the meat reach the safe temperature, especially in larger cuts.

Achieving Perfect Doneness

  • Eliminating Guesswork: Visual cues and timing can be misleading. A thermometer provides precise temperature readings, ensuring specific doneness:
    • Medium-rare beef: 130-135°F
    • Medium pork: 150-155°F
  • Enhanced Flavor and Texture: Proper internal temperature keeps meat juicy and tender:
    • Brisket: 195°F to 205°F

Optimizing the Smoking Process

  • Temperature Control: Monitoring inside the smoker maintains a consistent cooking environment, crucial for flavor and texture development.
  • Efficiency and Timing: Exact temperatures help manage smoking time, ensuring readiness when needed.

Practical Tips for Effective Use

  • Proper Placement: Insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat, avoiding bones and fat for accurate readings.
  • Monitoring Throughout Cooking: Check temperatures regularly. Wireless thermometers help monitor without opening the smoker.
  • Using Multiple Probes: For larger cuts or multiple pieces, use multiple probes to ensure even cooking.
  • Calibrating Your Thermometer: Regular calibration ensures accurate readings, crucial for safety and doneness.

By using a thermometer effectively, you can achieve safer, more delicious results in your smoking endeavors.

Roast Chicken with a Meat Thermometer Inserted, Stuffed with Herbs and Bread, in a Glass Baking Dish.

Selecting the Right Thermometer

Using a meat thermometer is essential for smoking meat to perfection. Here’s how to choose the right one:

Types of Thermometers

  • Instant-Read Thermometers: Provide quick readings within seconds. Ideal for checking doneness but not suitable for continuous monitoring. Frequent opening of the smoker can cause heat loss.
  • Dial Thermometers: Cost-effective, require opening the smoker to get a reading, which can lead to heat loss and extended cooking times.
  • Wireless Meat Thermometers: Allow remote monitoring, minimizing the need to check the smoker frequently. Look for models with a good range and reliable signal.
  • Infrared Thermometers: Provide fast surface temperature readings but don't measure internal temperature, which is crucial for smoking meat.

Features to Consider

  • Accuracy: Ensure the thermometer provides precise readings to cook meat safely and deliciously.
  • Temperature Range: Choose a thermometer that covers the full range of your cooking needs.
  • Durability: Look for thermometers that withstand high temperatures and are water-resistant.
  • Ease of Use: Opt for user-friendly interfaces and easy-to-read displays.

Practical Tips

  • Calibration: Regularly calibrate your thermometer for accurate readings.
  • Multiple Probes: Consider thermometers with multiple probes to monitor different parts of the meat.
  • Battery Life: Check the battery life, especially for wireless models used in long smoking sessions.

By selecting the right thermometer and considering these features, you ensure your meat is cooked safely and deliciously every time.

Grilled Pork Roast on a Grill with an Instant-read Thermometer Checking the Temperature.

Where to Insert Your Thermometer

Proper placement of your thermometer is crucial for accurate temperature readings when smoking meat. Correctly positioning the probe ensures the meat is cooked evenly and thoroughly, enhancing both safety and flavor. Here’s a detailed guide on how to place your thermometer for the best results:

Best Practices for Probe Placement

Understanding Heat Distribution: Inside a smoker, heat decreases with distance from the source. Position your cable so it doesn't droop below the grate where temperatures are hotter.

Smart Cable Management: Keep enough tension in your cable to prevent drooping. If entering through a grommet, cable port, or lid, move your thermometer further away if needed to create light tension, but avoid stretching the cable too hard.

Using Foil to Protect Probes: Protect your probe cables from hot spots by wrapping them in foil. Only wrap sections crossing hot zones, not the entire length.

Preventing Cable Kinks: Avoid kinking your cable. Coil your cables loosely for storage to prevent damage.

Avoiding Chimney and Vent Areas: Do not guide your probe cables through the chimney or vents. The heat is concentrated in these areas, which can burn out your cables quickly.

Avoiding Contact with Smoker Walls: Ensure your cables do not rest on the sides or top of the smoker. While the air inside might be at 275°F (135°C), the metal can be much hotter, potentially damaging your cables.

Specific Placement for Different Meat Cuts


  • Placement: Insert the probe into the thickest part of the brisket, usually the flat end, avoiding any fat pockets.
  • Reason: This area provides the most accurate reading of the internal temperature, ensuring the meat is cooked evenly.

Pork Shoulder:

  • Placement: Place the probe in the thickest part of the shoulder, avoiding the bone.
  • Reason: Ensures the probe reads the core temperature, which is crucial for breaking down the connective tissue for tender meat.


  • Placement: Insert the probe between the bones, into the thickest part of the meat.
  • Reason: This helps avoid misleading readings from the bones, providing a true indication of doneness.


  • Placement: Place the probe in the inner thigh area near the breast, avoiding the bone.
  • Reason: Ensures the entire bird reaches a safe temperature, especially important for poultry.


  • Placement: Insert the probe into the thickest part of the breast and another in the inner thigh area.
  • Reason: Turkey is large and uneven, so multiple probes ensure both the breast and thigh are cooked properly.

Ground Meat Dishes (e.g., Meatloaf):

  • Placement: Insert the probe into the thickest part of the meatloaf.
  • Reason: Ensures the core temperature is measured, which is critical for safety and doneness.

By following these placement guidelines, you can ensure your thermometer provides accurate readings, resulting in perfectly smoked meats every time. Proper probe placement is an art that, once mastered, will elevate your BBQ skills and impress your guests with consistently delicious results.

Grilled Steak on a White Plate with an Instant-read Thermometer Inserted, Placed on a Wooden Cutting Board with Tongs Nearby.

Monitoring Meat Temperature: A Step-By-Step Guide

Cooking perfect meat cuts on a smoker requires precise temperature regulation. This guide walks you through the steps necessary to accurately monitor meat temperature while smoking.

When to Start Checking the Temperature

Timing Is Key: Start checking the temperature earlier than you might think. Waiting until the end can lead to over or under-cooked meat.

Check Regularly: Begin by checking halfway through your estimated cooking time, then at regular intervals. This helps you adjust your cooking temperature and time, ensuring perfectly cooked meat.

How to Interpret Temperature Readings Accurately

Sudden Drop Indicates Perfect Placement: When inserting the thermometer probe, the temperature should start dropping if placed correctly. If it starts rising, you’ve pushed it too far.

Use Instant-Read Thermometers: These devices offer accurate temperature readings quickly, making them ideal for checking the doneness of large cuts of meat.

Allow the Meat to Rest: After removing the meat from the grill, let it rest for about 10 minutes before checking the final temperature. This allows the juices to redistribute, giving a more accurate reading.

Observe the Lowest Temperature: For meat thicker than an inch, consider the lowest temperature as the accurate reading to ensure the entire cut is properly cooked.

Step-by-Step Process

  1. Initial Check: Insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat early in the cooking process. This helps you gauge how much cooking time remains.
  2. Regular Monitoring: Continue to check the temperature every 30 minutes to ensure consistent cooking. Adjust the smoker's temperature if needed to maintain an even heat.
  3. Final Check: As the meat nears its estimated completion time, check more frequently. Look for the target internal temperature specific to the type of meat you’re smoking.
  4. Rest Period: Once the meat reaches the desired internal temperature, remove it from the smoker and let it rest. This resting period is crucial for allowing the meat to finish cooking and for the juices to settle.
  5. Final Reading: After the rest period, take a final temperature reading to confirm the meat is done. This ensures the meat is safe to eat and has achieved the best flavor and texture.

By following these steps, you can accurately monitor meat temperature during smoking, ensuring your meats are perfectly cooked every time. Consistent checking and understanding how to interpret temperature readings are essential skills for any BBQ enthusiast.

Advanced Thermometer Techniques 

Once you've mastered the basics of using a thermometer for smoking meat, it's time to delve into advanced techniques. These methods can elevate your smoking game and ensure perfect results every time.

Using Multiple Probes for Larger Cuts

Multiple Probes: Using more than one probe isn't just for show; it's practical. Larger cuts like roasts and briskets benefit greatly from multiple probes to ensure even cooking throughout.

  • Roasts, Steaks, and Thick Chops: Insert the probe into the thickest part, away from bone, fat, and gristle.
  • Whole Poultry: Place the probe in the inner thigh near the breast, avoiding the bone.
  • Ground Meat Dishes: For items like meatloaf, insert the probe into the thickest area.

Using multiple probes helps you monitor different parts of the meat, ensuring that all areas reach the desired internal temperature.

Managing Temperature Fluctuations 

Temperature Fluctuations: Long smoking sessions can lead to temperature fluctuations, which might compromise the quality of your meat. Here’s how to manage it:

  • Avoid Cable Drooping: A drooping cable can encounter higher temperatures, leading to inaccurate readings and potential damage. Ensure enough tension to keep the cable from drooping.
  • Prevent Cable Contact with Hot Surfaces: The air inside the smoker may be at a consistent temperature, but the metal sides and top can be significantly hotter. Avoid letting cables rest on these surfaces.
  • Foil Protection: Use foil to protect cables from hot spots. Wrap the cable in foil only where it crosses hot zones, not the entire length.
  • Prevent Kinks: Kinks can damage the internal wires. Coil your cables loosely for storage to prevent this issue.

Maintaining Your Meat Thermometer

Proper maintenance of your meat thermometer is essential for ensuring accurate readings and prolonging its lifespan. Here's how to keep your thermometer in top condition.

Cleaning: Keeping Your Device Accurate and Sanitary

Regular cleaning is crucial for both food safety and accurate temperature readings. Follow these steps to clean your thermometer properly:

  1. Wipe Off Residue: After each use, wipe the probe with a clean cloth to remove any food residue.
  2. Use a Damp, Soapy Sponge: For a deeper clean, gently scrub the probe with a damp, soapy sponge or cloth. Avoid submerging the entire thermometer in water.
  3. Rinse Carefully: Rinse the probe under running water, making sure water doesn't enter the cable attachment.
  4. Dry Thoroughly: Dry the thermometer completely before storing it away.

Improper cleaning can lead to inaccurate readings and decrease the thermometer's lifespan. Always handle your thermometer with care.

Calibration: Ensuring Long-Term Precision

Calibration is vital to maintain the accuracy of your thermometer. Here's a simple method to calibrate your device:

  1. Prepare an Ice Bath: Fill a glass with ice and top it with cold water. Stir and let it sit for about three minutes.
  2. Submerge the Probe: Insert the probe into the ice water, ensuring it doesn't touch the sides or bottom of the glass.
  3. Check the Reading: Wait for about 30 seconds. The reading should be 32°F (0°C). If it's not, adjust your thermometer according to the user manual.

Regular calibration ensures your thermometer provides precise readings, which is critical for cooking meat to the perfect temperature.

By following these cleaning and calibration steps, you can ensure your meat thermometer remains a reliable tool in your smoking arsenal. Proper maintenance not only improves the accuracy of your readings but also extends the life of your thermometer, helping you achieve perfectly smoked meat every time.

Expanding Your Culinary Skills with a Thermometer

Adding a meat thermometer to your kitchen toolkit can elevate your cooking skills beyond smoking meat. Here's how you can use a thermometer to perfect a variety of dishes and learn to cook by feel and temperature.

Using a Meat Thermometer for Non-Meat Items

A meat thermometer is versatile and can be used for many non-meat items, ensuring they are cooked to perfection:

  1. Baking Breads and Pastries: Insert the thermometer into bread to ensure it's fully baked. Aim for 190°F - 210°F for most breads and 205°F - 210°F for lean breads. Pastries like pies are perfectly baked at around 175°F.
  2. Making Homemade Yogurt: Accurate temperature control during fermentation is crucial. Use the thermometer to maintain 110°F - 115°F for the perfect yogurt.
  3. Deep Frying: Maintaining the right oil temperature is key to avoiding sogginess. The ideal deep-frying temperature is between 350°F - 375°F.
  4. Cooking Vegetables: For example, root vegetables like potatoes become tender inside when they reach around 210°F.

Learning to Cook by Feel and Temperature

Understanding the feel of food at specific temperatures can dramatically improve your cooking. Here are some valuable insights:

  1. Grilling Seafood: Unlike steak, you can gauge the texture and firmness of perfectly cooked fish by feel. Most fish is optimal at 140°F.
  2. Roasting Coffee Beans: Use a thermometer to know when to take beans off the heat for your preferred roast. Light roast occurs at 356°F - 401°F, medium roast at 410°F - 428°F, and dark roast at 465°F - 480°F.
  3. Cooking Vegetables: Cooking vegetables to their optimal temperature can enhance their flavor and texture.

Mastering the art of cooking by temperature can open up a world of culinary possibilities. While the thermometer may not always take center stage, it's an essential supporting tool in your kitchen. Use it to ensure precision and improve your overall cooking skills.

By broadening your culinary horizons with a thermometer, you not only perfect your smoked meats but also elevate your everyday cooking. Enjoy experimenting with different foods and techniques, and watch your culinary expertise grow.

Perfecting Your BBQ with a Thermometer

Using a thermometer when smoking meat is a game-changer. It ensures precise temperature control, enhances safety, and guarantees perfectly cooked, flavorful meats. By understanding the importance of accurate temperature readings and mastering proper probe placement, you can elevate your smoking skills.

From selecting the right thermometer to employing advanced techniques, each step contributes to achieving the ideal smoked meat. Maintaining your thermometer ensures it remains a reliable tool in your culinary arsenal, and exploring its uses beyond meat can further refine your cooking.

With these insights, you're well-equipped to impress your guests with perfectly smoked meats and broaden your culinary skills. Embrace the art and science of using a thermometer, and take your BBQ game to the next level. Happy smoking!


What is the significance of using a cooking thermometer?

Using a cooking thermometer when smoking meat ensures precise temperature control, which is paramount for the perfect cooking process. The thermometer provides accurate temperature readings, helping to avoid both undercooking and overcooking of the meat.

WHERE is the best place to insert the probe of the thermometer when smoking meat?

To achieve the best results, the probe of the thermometer should be inserted into the thickest part of the meat. Make sure to avoid areas with fat and bone as they can give misleading temperature readings.

How to prevent the droop of probe cables when using a cooking thermometer?

Suspending the cable above the grill grates when using a cooking thermometer helps in preventing cable droop. Moreover, the cable should not be threaded through the chimney as it can also contribute to the droop.

Is it safe to have direct contact of the probe with the smoker walls?

It's important to avoid the direct contact of the probe with smoker walls while using a cooking thermometer as this might lead to inaccurate temperature readings and potential damage to the probe.

How can a cooking thermometer help in producing the perfectly smoked meat?

A cooking thermometer is a crucial tool that, when used properly, can significantly enhance the quality of your smoked meat. It helps to master the art of smoke-cooking by providing accurate temperature readings, thus ensuring your meat is perfectly cooked every time.

What types of thermometers are best for smoking meat?

Using the right type of thermometer is crucial for accurate temperature readings. Instant-read, wireless, and dial thermometers each have unique benefits for different smoking needs.

How often should I check the temperature of my meat while smoking?

It's important to check the temperature regularly to ensure even cooking. Start checking halfway through the estimated cooking time, then at regular intervals.

Can I use a cooking thermometer for non-meat items?

Yes, cooking thermometers are versatile and can be used for baking bread, making yogurt, deep frying, and even roasting coffee beans.

How do I calibrate my cooking thermometer?

Calibrating your thermometer ensures accurate readings. This typically involves placing the probe in ice water and adjusting the thermometer to read 32°F (0°C).

About the Author

Matt Barrell

Hi, Matt Barrell here. A BBQ and Smoked meat enthusiast. I love grilling and smoking meat, it is not just my hobby its my passion. My goal is to share my passion with as many other like-minded people as possible.