Grilling at High Altitude – Does it Make a Difference?

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When it comes to complete grill mastery, it’s often times the finer details that can be the difference between good and great – or great and legendary grilled food.

One of those finer details has to do with grilling at high altitude.  More specifically, does grilling at high altitude affect a grill?  And if so, how does the altitude change the grilling process?

Maybe you live in a high altitude area – or maybe you’re heading to the mountains for a vacation and have friends and family to impress.  Either way, we’ve got you covered.

In this article, we’ve created a complete resource for grilling at high altitude.  We’ll answer all of the questions and go over just how the thin air can affect your grill.

Grilling at High Altitude – The Science

To fully understand how the altitude you’re cooking at can affect your grill, it’s helpful to take a look at tiny bit of science.

As your altitude gets higher, something important begins to happen to the air with respect to cooking.  That is, air pressure gets lower as altitude gets higher – which results in a lower boiling point for water as there is less air pressure to prohibit the water from boiling.  In fact, for every 500 foot increase in elevation, the boiling point of water lowers by about 1 degree Fahrenheit.

So at sea level, water boils at 212°F.  But at 8,000 feet of altitude – water boils at 198°F.

What Does That Mean for Grilling?

There are a couple of implications specific to grilling that come from this phenomenon of water boiling at a lower temperature at altitude.

The first and most important concept to understand is that the moisture in your food will evaporate quicker than it would at sea level.  This will affect your cook in a couple of ways:

  • Your food is more prone to dry out quickly at altitude.  All things equal, your food will get too dry if you don’t reduce your temperature on the grill at altitude.
  • If you’re searing on high temperatures, you need to pay attention and be careful that you don’t burn the outside of your food to a crisp.  Since moisture leaves your food quicker, you can be left with a charred outside of your steak and an undercooked inside if you aren’t careful.
  • You should plan to grill your food on a slightly lower temperature and for a slightly longer period of time.  It’s not that your food won’t get as hot as it would cooking at sea level at the same temperature – it’s that your food will get burnt on the outsides too quickly if you have your temperature too high.

The second consideration is that it will take longer for your grill to preheat.  And if you’re using a charcoal grill, it will also take longer to get your fire started because oxygen density decreases as altitude increases – and oxygen is what feeds your fire.

What Can You Do About It?

While the above affects of grilling at high altitude are unavoidable, there are a few things you can do to help set yourself up for success at high elevations.

  • First, allot extra time for your cook.  The preheating process and cooking process are simply going to take longer – so don’t rush it and plan ahead for your cook to take about 20-30% longer.
  • Cook your food with slightly lower temperatures than you normally would.  This contributes to your cook taking longer, but it will make it far less likely that you end up with dry, hockey puck like results.
  • Use a probe meat thermometer to measure the internal temperature of your food.  This will help you be 100% sure of when your food is ready to come off of the grill instead of trying to guess.
  • Open your grill lid as little as possible during both the preheating process and the cooking process.  Every time you open the lid, you lose valuable heat and the ambient temperature of your grill drops.  And it’s an especially uphill battle for your grill to regain ambient temperature at altitude.
  • Let your meat rest for about 5-10 minutes after it comes off of the grill.  There are a few benefits to letting meat rest after you grill it at high temperatures – most importantly the moisture inside of your meat will redistribute evenly throughout your food before you eat it.
  • If you’re using a charcoal grill, make sure you have a charcoal chimney starter handy.  These things make lighting a charcoal fire so much easier and will seriously cut down on the time you have to spend preparing your grill.

Moisture is Key

Anybody who has spent time on the grill knows that moisture is key to a balanced and tender end result.  Without it, your food will turn out dry and will leave you wanting more.

If there’s anything else you can do to help your food retain moisture, do it.  If you have a naturally tough or dry cut like a pork chop, I think it’s essential to brine it if your grilling at altitude.

You can also consider techniques like placing a small piece of butter on your meat or placing a foil pan under your food to catch drippings, then basting them back on your food as it cooks.  We utilize this technique in our guide to grilling tomahawk steaks.

Bottom line – anything you can do to help keep that moisture level up a little bit is worth trying when grilling at high altitude.

Grilling at High Altitude – Final Thoughts

If you came looking for advice on how to get the job done on the grill at high altitude, I hope you found your answer.

Understanding the reason why altitude affects the grilling process is key.  From there, it’s easy to think about the things you can do to offset the negative effects of grilling at high altitude.

At the end of the day, preparation is key.  Make sure you give yourself some extra time for your cook and have equipment on hand to make your life easier.

Have any ideas for grilling at high altitude that we missed?  Or do you have questions for us on this topic?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.