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Cooking at high elevations has many unique challenges. Cakes deflate. Pasta gets mushy. And as summer rolls around, many home chefs will likely find that making barbecue is no exception.
Pitmaster Tony Bolding learned this first hand after moving to Denver from Texas during the pandemic. A 20-year veteran of the Texas barbecue competition circuit, Bolding quickly discovered the techniques he used down south needed adjusting to Colorado’s unique environment—from the high elevation to weather and humidity (or lack thereof).
That’s why Bolding and his wife Sarah established a Denver branch of the Backyard Pitmasters barbecue school this past April. The two were acquaintances with the co-founders in Texas and wanted to bring its non-competitive, fun atmosphere to everyday home cooks in Colorado.
“I want the class to learn from my mistakes so they don’t have to suffer through them, wasting time and money,” Bolding says. “You have to learn a whole new toolkit of things to do a proper cook here.”
According to Bolding, barbecue always comes down to managing fire, heat, and moisture. Here’s a guide to how Colorado’s environment changes these factors, and how to compensate to deliver finger-licking results every time.
High elevation means less oxygen is available in the air, and that affects how fire burns. Whether it’s wood chunks, pellets, or charcoal, fuel simply burns faster up here—and if you’re not paying attention, your fire can extinguish or, worse, you can completely run out of fuel before your cook is complete.
“I’ve had to build a fire almost two to three times bigger than what I’ve done at sea level,” Bolding says, “so I can get it to the temps that I need.” That also means he uses nearly twice as much fuel here than back in Texas.
Beyond stocking more fuel, one of Bolding’s tricks is to start with a larger than normal foundation of lump or briquette coal in order to create a bigger fire, which lasts longer and is easier to maintain. He recommends avoiding lighter fluid, which gives off a chemically tasting smoke, and refueling often to generate the same heat as smaller fires at lower elevations.
And don’t just throw a log on top. “That’s the worst thing you can do,” Bolding says. “It’ll spike your temperature and generate a lot of bad smoke that you don’t want. Instead, feed the log from the sides or from the back and push it up underneath so it slowly ignites without pushing your temperature out more than five degrees or so.”
Smoking meat properly takes up to 12 to 16 hours, depending on the cut you’re cooking. Controlling the temperature of your cooker over that duration is a challenge in any environment, made harder here by Colorado’s wildly fluctuating weather.
“In Texas, we joked that if you don’t like the weather, it’ll change tomorrow. Up here, it changes in hours,” Bolding says. “When you wake up and it’s 40 degrees, and by the afternoon it’s 85, you’ve got to account for that. The idea of set-it-and-forget-it in Denver isn’t really a thing.”
Thus, pay close attention to your cooker’s thermometer. Bolding also recommends testing your equipment’s air flow: Heat it normally, then place pieces of white bread across different areas of the cooking racks and let them cook for 10 minutes. Take note of which pieces are more toasted; those are where your hot spots are, and move your meat towards or away from them as needed over the course of the day.
If you’ve cooked pasta here, you know that water at high elevations boils at a lower temperature, resulting in longer cooking times. The same science applies to barbecue.
“When you’re cooking meat to a certain temperature, you’re usually trying to get it close to a boiling point,” Bolding says. “That’s how you know the fats are rendering in the meat. [Here] you’ll have different boiling points for fat to render.”
For instance, at sea level, barbecue experts usually cook brisket to an internal temperature of 203 degrees. Doing that here will result in a dry brisket; Bolding recommends shooting for the mid-190s instead.
In fact, he recommends lowering the target internal temperature for any barbecue recipe by five to seven degrees, regardless of the type of meat used. And if you’re higher up than Denver, he advises to lower it even further. To determine the best target temp for your location, bring some water to a boil, measure its temperature, and calibrate your meat temps to around it.
While Denver’s low humidity is a blessing during hot summer days, it’s not ideal for long barbecue cooks. Meat can dry out fast, and no one wants dry barbecue.
Bolton says to put a heat-proof pan of water in your smoker every time you cook barbecue. The humidity from water pans not only keeps meat from drying out, but actually speeds up the cooking process by circulating heat more efficiently.
“It’s like a hot sauna versus a wet sauna,” Bolding says. “If you’re in a wet sauna, you can only stay in for a smaller amount of time [than in a hot, dry sauna] because the moisture in there is circulating the heat faster. It’s the same thing inside your cooking chamber.”
He recommends using as flat a water pan as your cooker can fit, since more surface area puts out more steam. But at the end of the day, any pan is better than none.
Quality Ingredients = Quality ’Cue
A good tip for barbecue at any elevation is working with quality ingredients. Learning on inexpensive meats is effective for newbies, but when it’s showtime, Bolding says to opt for USDA Prime or Choice cuts.
It’s not just meat, though. Buy quality 100 percent hardwood fuel; filler or soft woods burn out faster and leave unpleasant smoke. And while choosing a cooking vessel depends on space, lifestyle, and preference, Bolding recommends pellet smokers for pit-amateurs, since they’re more versatile and easy to control than offset or kettle smokers.
Cooking good barbecue is more than sticking to a set recipe. It’s about understanding the cause and effect of different fluctuations in the cook, and knowing how to respond. That’s the philosophy of Bolding’s comprehensive three-hour classes, which run in June, July, and August around the Denver metro area at locations such as Littleton’s Carboy Winery and Central Park’s Station 26 Brewery for $129 per ticket. The sessions cover how to trim, season, and cook popular meats such as brisket and ribs.
“What I’m teaching in the class is all the things that I’ve learned that I’ve messed up and what to avoid,” Bolding says. “We are teaching anyone who wants to cook [barbecue] the building blocks to be able to confidently and successfully smoke meat and share it with their friends and family.”