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Grilling at High Altitudes and Ways to Adapt

Grilling at high altitudes presents a unique challenge compared to grilling at sea level. There’s a lot of science involved, but long story short, it all comes down to air pressure and knowing how to adapt.

If you’re new to grilling at high altitudes, you may be wondering how to adapt your grilling to this environment. Or maybe you’ve learned through some tough, dried-out meat that something has to change when you’re cooking at high altitudes.

So how can you adapt your grilling game to high altitudes? From how you cook your meat to how you prep it for cooking, there are a variety of ways you can change up your cooking process to give you the tender, moist results you’re looking for at any elevation. 

We’ve spent years honing our grilling skills and learning from the pros who know how to grill (and win competitions) at any elevation, so you’ve come to the right place to boost your high-altitude grilling knowledge.

In this article, we’ll go over the science behind why grilling is more challenging at high altitudes, how to ensure fantastic results when grilling at high elevations, and what not to do. Finally, we’ll give you the answers to your most frequently asked questions.

The Basics of High Altitude Grilling

The difference between cooking at a high altitude and cooking at sea level all comes down to atmospheric pressure. So how does this science impact your cooking?

At higher altitudes, the atmospheric, or air pressure is lower. This means the boiling point of water is lower. Water boils at 212°F at sea level. At 5,000 feet elevation, water boils at 202.6°F because there is less air pressure keeping the water from boiling (we will cover more on this later). This also means that water evaporates more quickly.

What does this mean for grilling? It means your food will cook slower and dry out faster. It also means you should cook your food at lower temperatures so the outside does not crisp up too fast and lose all its moisture.

What Is Considered a “High Altitude?”

How do you know when you’re cooking at a high altitude? Most experts consider 3,000 feet above sea level as high altitude, which includes parts of or the entirety of states like Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, California, Washington, Oregon, and even Nebraska.

The atmospheric pressure can start to change around 2,000 feet, however, so check your local altitude to be sure!

Boiling Point of Water at Altitudes

Elevation
Altitude in Feet
0
Degrees °F
212°F
Altitude in Meters
0
Degrees °C
100°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
500
Degrees °F
211°F
Altitude in Meters
152
Degrees °C
99.4°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
1000
Degrees °F
210°F
Altitude in Meters
305
Degrees °C
98.9°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
2000
Degrees °F
208.2°F
Altitude in Meters
610
Degrees °C
97.9°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
3000
Degrees °F
206.2°F
Altitude in Meters
914
Degrees °C
96.8°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
4000
Degrees °F
204.4°F
Altitude in Meters
1219
Degrees °C
95.8°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
5000
Degrees °F
202.6°F
Altitude in Meters
1524
Degrees °C
94.8°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
6000
Degrees °F
200.7°F
Altitude in Meters
1829
Degrees °C
93.7°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
7000
Degrees °F
198.7°F
Altitude in Meters
2134
Degrees °C
92.6°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
8000
Degrees °F
196.9°F
Altitude in Meters
2438
Degrees °C
91.6°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
10,000
Degrees °F
194°F
Altitude in Meters
3048
Degrees °C
90°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
12,500
Degrees °F
189.8°F
Altitude in Meters
3810
Degrees °C
87.7°C
Elevation
Altitude in Feet
14,000
Degrees °F
187.3°F
Altitude in Meters
4267
Degrees °C
86.3°C

How Is the Air Different at High Altitudes?

When you’re at a higher elevation, there is less pressure from the atmosphere above pressing down on the air around you. The air becomes much drier, and moisture evaporates quickly. There is also less oxygen which is a key ingredient for fire!

As we mentioned above, this lowered atmospheric pressure and humidity cause liquids to evaporate and boil at lower temperatures. It also causes the gases in baked goods to expand more.

Lighting a Charcoal Grill at High Altitudes

What Are High Altitude Effects on Grilling

You should expect extended pre-heating and grilling times due to less oxygen. I also recommend opening the lid and exposing your food as little as possible. A good wireless probe thermometer will help with this.

Lower atmospheric pressure means that the moisture in your food can evaporate more quickly while grilling. This can lead to dry, unappetizing food — definitely something to avoid. Aside from drying out, due to less moisture, the exterior of your meat can also burn faster than it would at lower altitudes.

Grilling a Tomahawk Steak at High Altitude

High Altitude Effects on Meat, Poultry, & Denser Foods

Denser foods like meat and poultry contain high water content, so these prime cuts are especially susceptible to drying out while cooking. The leaner your cut of meat, the more water content it contains, so the more you’ll have to keep an eye on it and follow the suggestions below.

What Can You Do to Counteract the Effects of High Altitude Grilling?

Increase the Cook Time, Not the Heat | Add a Quarter Hour for Every Hour | Use a Food Thermometer

Grilling at high altitudes can still produce excellent results with the right know-how and a bit of patience. Below are some tips that should help.

Increase the Cook Time, Not the Heat

You might be tempted to crank the heat and try to cook your meat more quickly to avoid it drying out over time, but don’t! If anything, consider lowering your heat to slightly lower than you would usually have it, and allow your food to grill slower. This will help your food hold onto that precious moisture for longer.

Add a Quarter Hour for Every Hour of Cooking Time

When cooking at high altitudes it will take more time than your traditional grilling methods. Lower the heat slightly and for every hour that you would normally cook a piece of meat, it will take about 15 minutes more to cook. For example, something that would usually cook in 2 hours should be allowed to cook for 2 ½ hours at high altitudes.

Just keep in mind that this is just an estimate and times may change depending on the conditions. When all is said and done, you always want to cook by temperature, not by time. The food is done when it hits your target temperature, no matter how long or short that takes.

Use a Food Thermometer

Knowing your food’s temperature is the key to avoiding overcooking it at high altitudes. Use a food thermometer to get an accurate reading and know when your food has reached a safe temperature for eating but hasn’t crossed into dried-out hockey puck territory yet.

Is There Anything You Can Do to Help With Moisture Loss?

If you’re worried about your meat drying out, there are a few techniques you can try to retain moisture. First, keep your meat covered or wrapped if possible to avoid excessive moisture loss. If you’re cooking in a dish, keep the lid on tight, and in general, open your grill or smoker lid as few times as possible.

You can also experiment with tricks like brining your meat before grilling, using more marinade than you typically would, adding a small pat of butter to each cut, or catching the drippings in a pan and using them to baste your food. Using a water pan can also help add moisture.

Finally, once your meat has reached your ideal temperature, let it rest for at least 5-10 minutes — this will help distribute the moisture in the food evenly before you cut in.

Should You Adjust Your Grill Temp When Smoking at Different Elevations?

We advise increasing your cook time, not your grill temp when smoking at high altitudes. This is the most surefire way to keep your food from drying out while smoking.

Does Altitude Affect Propane Grills?

The air at high altitudes contains less oxygen, which can throw off the mix of oxygen and fuel that propane grills need to keep their flames burning efficiently. You may find yourself using more propane than usual to get the same consistent flame on your grill as you would at lower altitudes.

It can also be harder to get your propane grill to lite and burn effectively at higher altitudes.

Does Grilled Food Taste Different at High Altitudes?

At high altitudes, the dry air and pressure changes can actually reduce how sensitive our tastebuds are, making food taste different than it would at sea level. You may also run into the issue of losing some of the seasonings off of your meat if you’re using a lot of liquid to retain moisture, leading to a less flavorful result.

Final Thoughts on Our Grilling at High Altitudes Guide

When grilling at high altitudes, just remember that it all comes down to moisture. When you’re high above sea level, that moisture is going to evaporate faster, so you need to account for that with your cooking time and techniques. Our best advice? Go slow, and always keep a meat thermometer handy to check the temperature of your food.

There may be some trial and error involved, but don’t worry — your results at high altitudes can still turn out just as delicious as they would be at sea level! As with any new grilling technique or recipe, this is a great opportunity to try out new marinades, brines, and basting.

Whether you’ve recently moved somewhere with high elevation, or you’re just visiting and want to make the most out of your time there, we hope these tips have helped take some of the guesswork out of high-altitude grilling!

Cheers,

Pat G.

Now It’s Your Turn

Now I want to hear from you:

Do you have any experience cooking at high altitudes?

Do you have any tips to share? Any success stories? How about funny stories?

Are you going to be purchasing a smoker in the future?  Or do you plan on looking at a pellet grill, built-in or standalone gas grill, or charcoal model?

Let me know by leaving a quick comment below.

If you still have questions, please feel free to send me a message.

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