Friday, March 15, 2013

Cooking at Altitude: A Basic Overview

After my recent article on baking at high altitudes (and its follow-up blog post More Details on High Altitude Baking), I received a lot of good feedback.  I have a feeling that baking and cooking at altitude is just as frustrating for you all as it is for me!
But baking is not the only problem we have in the kitchen at high altitudes, is it?  Cooking presents some challenges, as well.  I'm sure many of you have had trouble cooking rice, beans, stews and other braised dishes. Why in the world won’t they turn out the way they usually do?!? Don’t worry…it’s not that your cooking skills are waning! Cooking at altitude needs some adjustments as well, particularly when you are using “moist heat methods”, or cooking in liquid.

Here’s why, and it’s for basically the same reason that we have to modify our baked goods recipes: At high altitudes, there is less air pressure. This diminished air pressure means that water boils at a lower temperature than the expected 212°F/100°C. Because the water boils at a lower temperature, the liquid stays at that lower temperature and these dishes take longer to cook. (Additionally, the liquid evaporates faster than we expect because the boiling point is lower.) The result? Rice is still hard when all the water has been absorbed, beans don’t get soft until you’ve cooked them within an inch of their lives and all the skins have fallen off, and your tough cuts of meat that you are braising take forever and a day to tenderize…all of which are major annoyances! But now that you understand what’s going on in your dutch oven, slow cooker, or saucepot, you can make some adjustments and achieve the results you’re hoping for.

First of all, however, I will start out with the advice than many of you are probably already screaming: use a pressure cooker. Using a pressure cooker is a great way to avoid nearly all the problems with cooking at altitude. I don’t personally have a pressure cooker, but I hear they work great, even cooking foods faster than you can cook them at sea level. The reason is simple. The device doesn’t allow steam (and therefore liquid) to escape below a certain temperature, and this trapped steam increases internal pressure and temperature. Therefore, the ambient air pressure is not an issue. In fact, pressure cookers provide even more pressure than is typically available at sea level, so they provide the exact opposite effect of cooking at altitude. The result is a device that allows the food inside to cook at a highertemperature than the boiling point (usually 250°F/121°C), cooking foods faster and more efficiently.

However, like me, not all of us own a pressure cooker. And I’m always up for a challenge. So here are some tips for cooking foods using traditional moist-heat methods at altitude:

RICE: Most folks who cook rice the way they’re used to end up with dried out, undercooked mess. To fix this, just follow these steps:

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1. Increase your amount of liquid by about ⅛ to ¼ Cup for every Cup called for. (For example, if you are cooking white rice, your sea level ratio is 1 Cup rice to 1 ¾ Cup liquid. At altitude, you would need to use a ratio of 1 Cup rice to 1 ⅞ to 2 Cups liquid. For brown rice at altitude, use a ratio of 1 Cup rice to 2 ⅝ to 2 ¾ Cup liquid. For wild rice at altitude, use a ratio of 1 Cup rice to 4 ⅛ to 4 ¼ Cups liquid.)

2. Cook your rice longer by about a tenth more time. For example, white rice takes about 15-18 minutes to cook at sea level, but may take 20 minutes or more at high altitude.

3. Adjust as you go by checking the rice occasionally. Add 1-2 Tbsp liquid if the rice is dry but not yet cooked, or cook a few more minutes if the liquid has not been absorbed.

**I have had a lot of luck cooking my rice in a rice cooker at altitude. I simply increase the amount of liquid and let the rice cooker do the rest.

BEANS: Most folks who cook beans the way they’re used to end up with a disintegrated mess where all the skins have fallen off. To fix this, just follow these steps:

**For MORE details on the tips below, check out this previous post.
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1. Presoak your beans. You can do this in cold water and it will take 10-12 hours to reach maximum effectiveness, which is doubling the size of your bean. Or, in a saucepot, add your beans to water and bring to a boil. Blanch them for 1 ½ minutes. Turn off the heat and let them soak. It takes 2-3 hours to reach maximum effectiveness, which is doubling the size of your bean.

2. Cook your beans at a lower temperature than the boil. This is always recommended to prevent beans from losing their skin. Your cooking liquid should be at a slow, lazy bubble.

3. Plan for your beans to take longer to cook and be prepared to use more liquid than your recipe calls for. This is inevitable at altitude but as long as you build some extra time into your plan, you should be fine.

4. Add acid, sugar, or calcium. All three of these substances prevent disintegration and loss of skins. Using molasses (a good source of all three), tomatoes (acidic), or hearty greens (calcium-rich) will achieve this goal, but of course these ingredients won’t work with all recipes. Alternatively, add just a touch of vinegar (such as cider or red/white wine vinegar, depending on your recipe) or a tablespoon of sugar to achieve the same results.

5. Don’t store your beans too long before using them. Bean compositions physically change after several months, particularly in warm temperatures and at high humidity and the result is their they will never get as soft as younger beans.

BRAISES: Many folks I’ve talked to have found that braising meat (such as stews, pot roasts, etc.) takes a much longer amount of time than they’re used to, meaning their meat doesn’t get as tender as fast and sometimes their pots are drier than usual. To fix this, just follow these steps:

1. Add about a cup more liquid to your recipe for every quart (4 Cups) of liquid called for. This will help to adjust for the quicker evaporation. Don’t forget to adjust your seasonings to taste.

2. Plan for at least a quarter more time than your recipe calls for, and you’re probably safer if you plan for more than that. It all depends on the cut of meat you’re using so just make sure you start your braises with plenty of time and don’t be alarmed when they don’t tenderize in the amount of time you’re used to.