Within the framework of relativistic quantum field theory, a novel method is established which allows for distinguishing non-equilibrium states admitting locally a thermodynamic interpretation. The basic idea is to compare these states with global equilibrium states (KMS states) by means of local thermal observables. With the help of such observables, the states can be ordered into classes of increasing local thermal stability. Moreover, it is possible to identify states exhibiting certain specific thermal properties of interest, such as a definite local temperature or entropy density. The method is illustrated in a simple model describing the spatio-temporal evolution of a "big heat bang."