Saturday, August 7, 2010

"Wants" vs. "Needs": Infrared Thermometers

Photo: Stuart Selby
"Ira, I'd never thought I'd see you get excited about automotive tools." Were the exact words my coworker uttered to me the other day, once I had revealed, with dorky excitement, that the infrared thermometer I had fallen in love with is currently on sale

Hang on. Infrared. Thermometer? What the?

You're all probably confused as I was only a week ago. So, in the first installment of bakegeek's "Wants" vs. "Needs" series, we're going to examine these handy, super-industrial-cum-ingenious-baking tools. "Wants" vs. "Needs" is an opportunity to examine and highlight useful baking tools or equipment that bakers are currently coveting, but can't quite justify purchasing...yet. 

Photo: Stuart Selby
I first saw an infrared thermometer in my friend Stu's facebook album. He has recently gone on a macaron kick (along, apparently, with the rest of North America), and had done an excellent job of documenting the whole baking process in a photo album. Needing to boil caramel over 100ºC, Stu had in hand what can only be described as some sort of futuristic laser gun (see photos). A futuristic laser gun that also read temperature.

Needless to say, I lost it. What was this? You fire a laser at your batter and it checks temperature?! Judging by the other facebook comments, I wasn't the only person who was duly impressed. So, I did some digging to find out what I could about this little kitchen gadget that I can't live without.

What is an infrared thermometer?
All objects are made of particles, and above 0ºC all particles in an object vibrate. As these particles vibrate, they emit infrared radiation (IR). Infrared radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, having a longer wavelength (lower energy) than visible light or UV radiation. The hotter an object is, the more its particles vibrate, and the more energy is released as IR. A good visual example of this phenomenon is when certain metals are heated to extremely high temperatures, becoming red- or white-hot. The colour we see is actually energy being emitted from the metal in the form of visible light, due to the very high energy the object has from being heated.

Simply put, an infrared thermometer measures the infrared energy emitted from the surface of an object, and translates this energy into a temperature reading. The laser in the photos above is actually only there to help you aim properly. I know, I was shocked too.

Why should I be fantasizing about one?
Infrared thermometers aren't anything particularly new. The technology is commonly used in industrial operations to measure temperature data from objects that would be a nightmare for traditional thermometers. For example, objects that cannot be touched for reasons of safety; objects at a distance; moving objects; or objects in a vacuum, are all instances where IR can be used to measure temperature.

IR thermometers are also already used in the food service industry (I just hadn't realized), to ensure that delivered food palettes and storage equipment retains a desired temperature. This makes sense, because temperature data can be scanned quickly and repeated contact with food is avoided.

For the personal kitchen, a tool like this may seem like overkill. But the more that I think about it, the more I realize that it's a brilliant tool to have around - Stu was on to something! Because IR thermometers are contact-free, you can measure just about anything without having to worry about contamination, personal safety, or cleanup. I know that sugar thermometers exist, but honestly, I don't want to handle anything that's been sitting in liquid over 100ºC. I'm klutzy and I've burned myself too many times. Plus, once boiling sugar hardens it is a nightmare to remove. With an IR thermometer, a simple point-and-shoot is all you need to make sure you're at the softball (or whatever -ball) stage you need. Plus, IR thermometers can take multiple readings in a much faster time than contact thermometers. You gotta be efficient in the kitchen, right?

But why stop at food? With an IR thermometer you can easily measure the temperature of your oven, forgoing the need for a special oven thermometer. What about your pots and pans? Now you'll always be sure that your surfaces are exactly the correct temperature for grilling or stir-frying. No more messing around with the "sizzling water" trick (which in retrospect, seems horribly inaccurate for temperatures over 100ºC). Obviously though, you shouldn't rely on IR to test if meat is the correct temperature. Don't toss out that meat thermometer!

What's the damage?
If you're reading this post and live in Canada, I would strongly recommend catching the Canadian Tire sale linked above. Who knows, maybe they ship internationally, too?

From my superficial research, a good, lower-level IR thermometer will set you back about $100. To be fair, this does seem like a substantial investment, but I think it's worth it. The fact that you can replace multiple thermometers with it will already save you anywhere from $10-20 bucks for each one you will render obsolete (candy thermometer, oven thermometer, etc.). They're extremely easy to use, don't require clean-up, and I think you will easily become addicted to using it once you start ("Wow, this garbage is waaay above room temperature. Time to toss it!")

Higher-endl infrared thermometers only go higher in price, to the point of industrial models that can measure hundreds of degrees in Farenheit. I would avoid these. On the low end, I've seen "pen" format IR thermometers for about $30, so there is a spectrum to fit most budgets.

I know I've already convinced myself. Quick, easy, safe, and zero cleanup? Why didn't bakers think of this sooner?

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