I’ve always preferred to cook “active” (hands on), either on the stove top or on the grill. Active cooking allows you to make adjustments on the fly and use some creativity in the process. Switching out ingredients on a whim, or adding more or less of certain item, will very rarely ruin your final product.
Baking, on the other hand, is one of those activities that’s basically hands off once the cooking process begins. It involves precise measurements and temperatures as well as discipline (follow the recipe!). Make a mistake with any of the ingredients or procedures and your finished product can be a disaster.
In an attempt to expand my culinary skill set I started baking bread a few years ago (really baking bread, not pushing a button on a machine). I like the simplicity of the ingredients and the “active” process of kneeing the dough and forming the loves (especially when making french bread). Homemade bread is so far superior to the stuff you get at the grocery store and a fraction of the price of what the local chain bakery charges.
One issue I quickly discovered after my first few attempts is that the bread can look “done” on the outside & still be “undone” in the middle. There are several things that can cause this condition but temperature is the primary culprit. The temperature of the oven, obviously cooks the bread, but how do you know when the bread is done? I’ve found that taking the internal temperature of the bread yields the best results. Most “instant read” thermometers are far from instant. They can take anywhere from 10-20 seconds to give their final reading and their accuracy can be questionable…
Enter the ThermaPen. This precisely calibrated tool will give you the answer you’re looking for in as little as 5 seconds, making the difference between warm hands & painful hands while temping the bottom of a loaf fresh from the oven. The quality of my bread immediately jumped a level once I could quickly get a precise reading of 210-degrees and determine the perfect “doneness” of the finished product.
The needle tip of the ThermaPen makes a very small hole in whatever you are temping. Other devices can leave a large hole that, in the case of meat or poultry, can allow all of the juices to escape. The unit comes with a calibration certificate from the factory and is guaranteed to be accurate to within ±1%. These thermometers are popular in the food service industry as well as cooking shows like “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS. They even come in 10 different colors so you can buy multiple units and prevent cross contamination (but the home cook really only needs one).
This kind of precision obviously comes at a price, the ThermaPen retails for ~$90 at online retailers. That might seem like a lit of money to pay for a simple thermometer but the range in which the Thermapen operates in (-58°F to 572°F) makes it useful in other applications like frying, freezing and candy making.
I can’t tell you how many times I have used this tool, but it’s definitely used on a regular basis in my kitchen & I would highly recommend one for the serious home cook. Do you have an indispensable tool in your kitchen? If so, tell us about it in our comments section.