On the Importance of a Good Thermometer

Critical to any cook’s arsenal of tools is a good, reliable, accurate instant read thermometer.  In fact, I would argue that short of a knife, this is the most important tool in the kitchen.  Here’s why:

A couple of months ago I received one of the greatest honors of my culinary career:  My dear friend Jon – one of the people to whom this blog is dedicated –  asked me to cook dinner for six guys at his bachelor party.   I knew that he had told these guys about me – and my love for cooking – so (even though I attempted to hide it) for me the pressure was on.  It was less of a matter of impressing everyone and more of a matter of not screwing up dinner on one of the most important evenings of one of my closest friend’s lives (again, no pressure, right?)

The point of this story isn’t to polish my gold star or pat myself on the back; rather, this story illustrates the importance of heat and food – which translates to temperature and food – which translates to the need for a good thermometer.

I’m basically convinced that to cook meat, all you really need is fire, a container (or a stick!), and a chunk of meat.  That and a good instant read thermometer.

My friend Jon is one of the most profound, loving and introspective people I have ever met.  I knew that the last thing he wanted to do for his bachelor party would be to crawl from pub to pub getting wasted amidst a crowd of strangers in a loud club.  Jon shares my love of the outdoors, so the groomsmen concocted the perfect plan – rent a cabin up by the lake in the woods, share a dinner made mostly of meat, and the drink whiskey by an open bonfire.

Having spent most nights a week in the kitchen for several years, I have amassed quite an arsenal of cooking gear that I love, including but not limited to: several sauté pans that I know exactly how they retain heat, a beautiful chef’s knife that I keep sharpened to precision and several thermometers, the most important of which is my prized Instant Read Thermometer.  I had to pack light, and the question I had to ask myself was this:  If you only take ONE piece of cooking gear with you, what will it be?  The answer was simple:  My thermometer.

And odd choice you say?  Well, maybe – but here’s the thing.  If you don’t know what temperature your food is – if you have to guess – the odds of royally screwing up are quite high.  Knowing the exact temperature of food takes the guess work out of it.  Go slow, don’t put too much heat into the food too fast, and you basically have enough control, no matter what else might go wrong.  And go wrong they did (almost!).

The morning of the bachelor party, Jon’s generous brother and best man, Andrew, and I headed out to Costco to buy the makings for dinner.  I had chosen Costco because what Jon had wanted for dinner was Tri Tip and you basically can’t get that particular cut of beef anywhere BUT Costco if you’re outside of California, and we happened to be in South Bend, Indiana.  Turns out you basically can’t get tri-tip in the state of Indiana, and that turned out to be a good thing, as we will discuss shortly.

Having realized that tri-tip was out of the question, I had to change gears at the last moment and opted for some 2 inch thick boneless New York steaks that were gorgeously marbled, all the same size, and looked like they had good potential.  I also had to cook chicken for one guy who doesn’t eat red meat.  We also picked up some appetizers – bread, a few types of cheese and crackers, a couple bottles of red wine, some nuts, a few ears of corn, the makings for Arugala Salad, coffee, sugar and cream (for the morning), and of course a handle of Maker’s Mark bourbon.  I also grabbed some angel foodcake, chocolate and strawberries for dessert.

We had rented an AirBnB, site unseen, for the bachelor party.  It was a beautiful location, a great house and we had a generous host.  There was only one problem: the information on the AirBnB site had stated that the house had a grill – but by ‘grill’ they meant something different than I had envisioned.  My original plan had been to keep it simple – olive oil, salt, pepper, grill steaks to perfection, beer in hand.

“It looks like the guy literally just picked it up off the side of the road and left it here,” remarked one of the guys upon our arrival.

As it turns out, our host later admitted that that is exactly what he DID do.  The grill had two grates, one of which was rusted through, the other of which was in okay condition.  The bars to the gas (terrifying, actually) were also rusted through for the most part.  Just for the hell of it, I turned on the gas and lit the thing up, just to see what would happen.

Balls of flame erupted in certain areas, and I knew that I wouldn’t be grilling steak tonight.

Time to switch to Plan B.  I’ll just do them in the kitchen, I thought to myself.  As I began to inspect the kitchen to see what was available, my heart sank.  A few muffin tins.  A plastic cutting board.  The cheapest-ass knife I had ever seen.  One, super-cheap frying pan.  And that was basically it.  The one thing the kitchen did have going for it was a very nice convective stove top and a decent oven.

A thought began to rumble around in the back of my brain…

If I ever have to make a reality TV show, it’ll go something like this:  You have to cook steaks for six guys in the woods and all you have is muffin tins!  Or a baker’s nightmare:  You have to cook muffins, and all you have is grilling materials!

Then a plan began to formulate in my mind…

I’ve got to find a way to get the steaks up to temperature evenly.  I’ve got to get a nice sear on them.  Without the grill flavor, I’m going to have to do something to get some more flavor on them.  What do I have on hand… Bourbon, cream, red wine, gorgonzola cheese…  Sounds like it’s time for Bourbon glazed steaks in a Gorgonzola, red-wine reduction cream sauce!

The first thing I did was to line one of the oven racks with aluminum foil.  I then went outside and cannibalized the grill grate that was in okay shape and brought it inside with me.  I laid four balls of aluminum foil on top of the oven rack and placed the grill grate in the oven on the aluminum foil balls so it was slightly elevated.

Built grill in oven.

I preheated the oven to 250F, the lowest setting.  Then I rubbed the steaks (and the single chicken breast) down with olive oil and seasoned everything aggressively with salt and pepper.  I placed all this onto the grill grate in the oven and shut the door.  Every few minutes, I tested the steaks for doneness with my instant read thermometer until they were all a uniform 115F.

Once I had the steaks up to temp, I began searing them, one at a time, in the frying pan which I had heated to about the highest heat I could along with some olive oil.  I was somewhat concerned that the frying pan wouldn’t hold up, but the little guy did a great job.  After flipping each steak and developing a nice crust, I added a cap-full of bourbon to the pan and ignited it with a grill lighter, steak still in the pan.  After six steaks, I had developed a pretty nice bourbon and steak flavored fond built up in the bottom of the pan.  I added some red wine to deglaze the pan and maximize all that flavor.  Once the wine had begun to cook down, I melted in some Gorgonzola cheese and then some cream and a little salt.  (I don’t remember what I did with the chicken breast during this time, but it came out edible).

Everything else – the salad, the corn, the bread – that was easy.  And my steaks, well, they came out deliciously seared and crusty on the outside and perfect medium-rare end-to-end.  There are probably people out there who could have pulled off dinner under such circumstances much better than I did, but I would never have been able to do it without my thermometer, which is accurate to 1/10 of a degree; my thermometer insured that I didn’t end up with food that was gelatinous raw in the middle and burned to a crisp on the outside, and that no one got poisoned.

I also wouldn’t have been able to do it without everyone pitching in – sometimes I have the tendency to bite off more than I can chew (not always a bad quality in a cook), but I have to thank each of the groomsmen for their help in getting everything together.  It was one of the most fun evenings of my life.

I’m just lucky I didn’t burn the house down with that damn bourbon.


6 thoughts on “On the Importance of a Good Thermometer

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