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High Altitude Barbecue

Why doesn't Colorado have an established barbecue scene? Primarily becauce cooking is simply different at altitude. The boiling point of water in Denver is 94 C (202 F). In Austin, Kansas City, Charlotteville, Lockhart, Lexington, Houston, and Memphis, water boils at 99-100 C (210-212 F). Adjusting from sea level can be difficult, especially with low and slow live fire cooking. Everything must be adjusted for differences in altitude.

Additionally, Denver's semi-arid climate differs considerably from most barbecue hotspots in the US. Dry summers, seasonal high winds, and unpredictable weather resulting from our proximity to the Rocky Mountains pose unique challenges for outdoor cooking. Our commitment to 100% oak wood fuel comes with an additional challenge in winter months as access to Colorado-grown Gambel oak is frequently impacted by severe weather events.

Understanding the physics of convection on an offset smoker is key to navigating these natural obstacles. It is possible to account for high winds or below-freezing temperatures by manipulating the firebox door at the smoker's input and the baffle at the output. There are three primary factors to consider: temperature, convection, and exposure to smoke.

Fully opening both the baffle and fire box allows for maximum convection at the expense of both temperature and smoke exposure. Air passes quickly and freely through the chamber, causing the meat to cook too quickly without developing a flavorful bark or effectively rendering the fat. In winter months, this can be even more problematic as an open fire box allows heat to escape, lowering internal temperatures and increasing cook times at the expense of fuel.

Closing both the baffle and fire box creates a different set of problems. Dirty smoke containing carcinogens and imparting a bitter, acrid flavor lingers too long in the chamber as the fire is choked out by a lack of oxygen. All the while, the lack of air flow through the baffle allows this dirty smoke to settle excessively upon the moist surface of the meat. In summer months, not enough heat escapes through the fire box door, causing temperature spikes that render out fat before the flesh can be sufficiently tenderized and impart a dry mouthfeel accompanied by unpleasant toughness.

To combat the effects of Colorado's wild weather, the cooks at Pit Fiend are constantly adjusting the amount of air flow both in and out of the smokers to account for these key factors. In summer, we cook with the firebox door relatively open and the baffle relatively closed, allowing smoke to linger in the chamber without raising the internal temperature above 143 C (290 F). During the winter, we close this firebox as much as possible while leaving the baffle more open, promoting convection without sacrificing temperature or unduly expending fuel.

If you live in a high altitude environment, consider the joint effects of temperature, convection, and smoke exposure when cooking on your own offset smoker. Or if you'd prefer, you can come to Pit Fiend Barbecue - we're happy to cook for you any time of year, regardless of the weather. Barbecue is for everyone, no matter how high you are.

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