My proudest moment in cooking school was when I dressed in my chef's whites for the first time. I took my newly issued instant-read thermometer and stuck it into the slender special pocket on the sleeve of my white jacket and felt transformed: Now I was a professional chef! I wanted to stop at someone's table and ask how everything was. I'm sure physicians feel the same way when they get their stethoscopes, or the president when he spins around in the Oval Office chair for the first time.
Unfortunately, my cooking school's standard-issue thermometer was one of those cheap stick jobs many of us have rattling around in a kitchen drawer, the kind you've probably jabbed yourself with when reaching for the potato peeler. You probably got it free with a turkey one year at Safeway. You take it out on Thanksgiving and poke it, tentatively, somewhere near the bird's thigh and hope. When you can't find a fork, it's useful for removing olives from the jar.
But then a very generous person gave me a Thermapen, a well-engineered professional precision instrument that is handmade in England. Think of it as the Aston Martin of kitchen thermometers.
Unfortunately, the other similarity between the Aston and the Thermapen is the cost. The Thermapen retails for $96, and though I've never actually owned an Aston Martin I can say that with the Thermapen, you get what you pay for. It is the best thermometer out there. You are paying for a professional precision instrument that can calculate temperatures in a range from minus 58 to 572 degrees within three seconds to an accuracy of plus or minus 0.7 degrees. It uses a scientific-quality thermocouple, instead of a cheaper, mass-produced thermistor, which makes it not only the fastest thermometer on the market, but faster by 15 to 20 seconds - and it's about $100 cheaper than any other thermometer with similar abilities.
But as much as I love the Thermapen and would like the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue them to all Americans to make us all better, safer cooks, $96 is a lot of beef. We'd all love an Aston Martin, but sometimes the Subaru Outback is what you can afford. The nice people at Thermoworks (they send jelly beans in the shipments, for goodness sake!), recently introduced a cheaper version of the Thermapen, called the ThermoPop (which sounds like the name of a forgotten New Wave haircut band). What the ThermoPop loses in speed - it takes a whole five to six seconds to read the temperature - it makes up for with a literal clever twist. The digital readout can be rotated so it can be viewed from any angle. The numbers are easy to read, as well, which is a boon when my glasses fog up with the steam from the oven and I'm left there as blind as Mister Magoo, stuffing my thermometer into the first warm thing I come across. (Sorry, kitty!) It's intuitive to use and would slip nicely into the pocket of my chef's jacket if I still wore it for something other than a last-minute Halloween costume.
If money were no object (insert bitter laughter here), I'd pick the original Thermapen. I want speed and precision when I'm melting sugar for desserts and candies. Its ability to gauge temperature within three seconds is important, so my caramel doesn't turn into a rock-hard brittle. That said, for the keen cook who has been hesitant to drop a Benjamin on a Thermapen, the ThermoPop is no sloppy seconds. Sure, you may have to wait a tad longer for a reading, but you are still getting the precise measurements (within plus or minus 2 degrees from minus 4 degrees to plus 248 degrees) and greater range of temperature than any other similarly priced thermometer out there. It's a bargain at that price, and it comes in a range of lollipop-inspired colors that make me want to lick them.