Safe Cooking at High Altitudes
By Diane Van, Manager, USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline
The higher you go, the longer it takes food to reach a safe temperature. Whether you live at a high altitude (as do one third of Americans) or vacation there for hiking, camping, or skiing, it’s important to have a food thermometer to make sure food reaches a safe minimum internal temperature.
What is high altitude and why does it affect cooking?
Where the elevation is above 3,000 feet, special cooking methods are needed for meat and poultry. The thin air -- less oxygen and atmospheric pressure -- affects both the time and the temperature of most everything that’s cooked. Cooking takes longer because water and other liquids evaporate faster and boil at lower temperatures.
So why not just turn up the heat? Turning up the heat will not make food cook faster because liquid cannot exceed its own boiling point. At sea level, water boils at 212 °F, but at an altitude of 7,500 feet, it boils at about 198 °F. Foods that are prepared by boiling or simmering will cook at a lower temperature, and it will take longer to cook them.
How to keep foods moist
Above 2,500 feet, the atmosphere becomes much drier. Moisture quickly evaporates from everything. For this reason uncovered food will dry out quickly while cooking. Cover foods with a lightly dampened cheesecloth, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil.
In general, if you are cooking meat at 325 °F, you should add one-fourth more cooking time. In other words, if you would normally cook a roast for 2 hours at 325 °F, you would need to cook it for a total of 2½ hours at high altitudes.
At high altitudes, moist heating methods yield more juicy and tender meat than oven roasting or broiling. One popular moist heating method is braising: brown food in fat, then cook it, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid at low heat for a lengthy period of time. In addition, moist heat helps to break down connective tissue, so it can tenderize tougher cuts of meat.
How to keep foods safe
If you’re cooking meat or poultry, use a food thermometer to avoid overcooking (which will result in dry, unappetizing food) and to prevent undercooking (which can result in foodborne illness). A food thermometer is the only way to measure whether food has reached a safe internal temperature.
Insert the food thermometer in the center of the meat away from bone, fat, or gristle. If the food being cooked is irregularly shaped, such as with some roasts and whole poultry, check the temperature in several places.
So, what’s a safe temperature? It depends on the type of food that you’re cooking. Check the Minimum Cooking Temperatures chart to find out.
Thank you for providing such a great article on the topic of cooking at high altitudes. Being that we live in a time that easy travel means going from seaside to mountaintops within hours is achievable, understanding how to cook in different extreme altitudes in necessary. Although I live in St. Louis, I frequently travel to Boulder, Colorado and experience the difference in cooking times and challenges.