Thursday, June 3, 2010

The absolute Beginners Guide to Learning How To Cook for Survival: Part 9 Thermometers

Accurate Thermal Guessing Stick or thermometers.
The power of the kitchen comes from the control of temperature. Heat and cold are your allies and your enemies. Mastering thermal control is the Jedi level of kitchen mastery. And to do that you are going to need something to measure temperature. LIke most tools there are many variations specialized at doing different things.

The oldest style is the analog glass-bulb, formerly filled with mercury, generally the ones you can find today are filled with a dyed alcohol which is easier to read and plenty accurate. They are found in all kinds of enclosure styles for many different temperature ranges. Since alcohol has a constant coefficient of expansion over a relatively small temperature range, there are different formulations for different temperature ranges. Most often found in oven, refrigerator and candy thermometer styles.

There are the analog bi-metalic style. Two metals are welded together into long strips. Since they have different rates of thermal expansion they coil around each other. They are reasonably accurate and very inexpensive but sometimes have mild calibration issues, this also has range issues so they use different metals for different ranges. These are often used in the big dial style thermometers. You most often see these in oven, refrigerator and unpowered instant read and meat thermometers.

There are the digital thermistor based thermometers. A thermistor is a thermal-resistor, a small ceramic disk that changes its resistance as the temperature changes. A small battery powered device measures the change in resistance and translates that into a temperature reading for us. Virtually all of the digital electronic kitchen thermometers on the market today are based on this technology. This also has a very wide temperature range it can detect, so it can accurately measure temperature from freezing ice cream to deep-frying oil. Because it is battery powered you may want to pick up some extra rechargeable batteries and a solar powered battery charger so you can keep cooking after civilization falls. Another downside is that the ceramic disk is usually pretty big putting big holes in your food.

Finally, there are the digital thermocouples. These are two different metal wires that are welded together that create a voltage when heated and an electronic circuit can detect that and give us a temperature reading. Very fast, very accurate and makes for nice thin probes. They are also the most expensive. If you already have a Digital Multi Meter (DMM) in your home tool kit then getting a thermocouple attachment for your DMM is inexpensive. Same battery precautions as the thermistor-based thermometers as well.

Oh, there is one more the digital infrared thermometer, that is specialized as reading temperatures of the surface of objects at a distance usually a few feet. Not really useful in the average kitchen.

How many thermometers and what kind do you need?
You'll need one each for the refrigerator and the freezer(s). I like the bulb style because they are smaller and don't get in the way.
You'll need one for the oven, where a nice big dial style makes reading it easy from a distance.
A probe thermometer. I like the digital thermistor ones with the long probe so you can read the internal temperature of what is in the oven without having to open the oven, which would let out the heat, waste energy and increase the cooking time. Having two of these is great for Thanksgiving so you can monitor the white and dark meats, and for smoking foods so you can monitor the smoke box and the food temperatures simultaneously.
A handheld instant read thermometer for probing smaller foods like steaks and chops.
If you are making your own bread a thermometer for the proofing box is very handy.
Finally, you'll want a few regular room thermometers for the kitchen, pantry and storage room, just so you know how warm they are. The warmer the food in storage is, the shorter it will last before spoiling.