Beans and High Elevation – 5 Things to Know

Have you ever tried to make your favorite baked good recipe at a higher elevation than you’re used to, and it comes out… wrong? We often think about how high elevation affects cookies, cakes, breads, and all those goodies. But we may not often think about beans and high elevation! And yet, the cooking of beans – and pretty much all foods – is also very much impacted by being way above sea level.

I spent the last week plus in Leadville, Colorado – which is at over 10,000 feet elevation – with a fantastic colleague and friend. What was I doing, you ask? Cooking beans! Much of my PhD research centers on outreach, and cooking beans at higher elevations presents challenges for many consumers in Colorado and across the world.

So, without further ado, here are 5 fun tips and tidbits to know about beans and elevation!

What to Know About Beans and High Elevation:

  • Cooking beans at elevation takes longer! Sometimes a lot longer. The boiling point of water is lower at higher elevations. For example, at sea level, the boiling point of water is 212 degrees F, whereas it is only 194 degrees F at 10,000 feet. That is a big difference!
Beans in Mattson cooker - testing of beans and high elevation effects
Testing bean cooking time in a Mattson cooker
  • Yes, it can take longer even in a pressure cooker. If you look at the manuals for electric pressure cookers like Instant Pot, they recommend increasing the cooking time for dried beans by 5% for every 1,000 feet above 2,000 feet. So some quick bean math: being at 10,000 feet means increasing the cooking time by an additional 40% even in electric pressure cookers, based on this recommendation.
  • Storage is important. I brought my moisture meter up to Leadville, because I am cool like that. Beans that had been stored in a glass jar (that was only partly full, which could allow for more exposure to air) for a long time actually gave me a reading of ‘moisture below limit,’ which I had never seen before. It is really dry up in Leadville, so especially in places like that, it is beneficial to store beans well and eat them often to keep replenishing your supply of newer beans. When you purchase beans in a grocery store, you likely won’t know exactly when they were harvested or how they have been stored, so your best bet is probably to enjoy them relatively soon. At the same time, no judgment – I definitely have beans that are a couple years old in my home, too. Because sometimes new beans are just too exciting to turn down and I have to try them first!
Low moisture reading on beans
  • Soaking helps. This is true pretty much anywhere – soaking will reduce the cooking time of beans. But it definitely shortened cooking time up in Leadville, and it helped the beans absorb water more evenly and have less skin ‘blowout.’ So, better texture and appearance. Also, especially if you don’t know how your beans have been stored and/or for how long, soaking helps rehydrate them.
  • Beans like to climb trees. This is… potentially not true. But I brought beans on a hike with me, as you do, and I may or may not have put them in a tree to take a photo. Actually, to take a couple photos. Can you find the bag of beans in this forest picture??
Beans in a tree
Beans, in their element. Also, this is not just a zoomed in version of the photo below.
Beans in a tree - scavenger hunt
Find the bag of beans in this photo!

Bean questions?! Send them my way!!

And if you are looking for tips and tricks based in the science, check out this quick read on 5 ways to shorten bean cooking time.

19 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post. It’s quite helpful! I live in Denver and can never get dried beans to cook correctly. Since we have really hard water here (and currently 10% humidity in my house), I’m trying something new today. I soaked the beans in distilled water and I’m cooking them in 50-50 distilled and tap water. We’ll see. I bought five bags of interesting heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo and I really want them to cook without any high-altitude, hard water glitches.

    • I’m so glad this was helpful! Please let me know how it goes and if you have any other questions. I live just a bit north of Denver, so I can relate. Soaking in tap water does work for me, but they do take a bit longer to cook than they would at sea level. If you add salt to the soaking and/or cooking water, that will also help. Another tip to consider is using your hard water but adding a pinch of baking soda to the soaking water. Fun things to try!

    • This was a helpful article.
      Sharon, did your recipe turn out? I’m very curious about the distilled water… I live in Cheyenne, so high altitude is definitely a consideration and we are on a well with hard water. (Side note: our well water is only slightly more hard than the city water.) I’ve not had much luck with beans. I heard that salt will keep beans from softening. Is this fact or fiction? Because I often put salt in water to get a higher boiling temperature.

  2. Your article has inspired me to try cooking my grandmother’s New England baked beans. This will be my 5th attempt since 1999, the year we moved to Colorado from Maine. I gave up as you can guess. Time to dust off the bean pot. ✨️

  3. I live in Colorado Springs at 6,500 feet and have almost given up on beans. It’s been ruining my soups. This time I plan to cook my soaked beans ALL DAY in a crock pot, and then throw them into my soup the next day. Wish me luck.

    • I’m so sorry to hear that! Have you tried adding salt to the soaking water, or even a pinch of baking soda or baking powder? That can really help them soften.

      And I definitely wish you luck! Please let me know how it goes.

  4. Made refried beans from scratch at 4500 ft. Soaked the pinto beans in a gallon of distilled water for 12 hrs. Rinsed them in dater then into cast iron pot with garlic cloves, a quartered onion, can of and cilantro sprigs. Simmered for 2 1/4 hrs. While beans cooked fried a 1/2 pound of uncredited pancetta, added a minced white onion an can of mild green chili. Then everything into the Vitamix 3600. Came out spectacular!

  5. Excellent point about the dry air! People don’t mention this, but I’ve always felt it was an issue. I also buy my beans at a ‘health food’ store where there’s a high turnover rate of beans. I buy them in bags, not from the bins. I have bought beans at my regular grocery store that took forever to come to even size when I soaked them. I have used distilled or purified water and that does seem to help. But now I use spring water because I feel that getting minerals in water is important. I always soak in salted water and cook in an electric pressure cooker. They turn out great.

  6. PS I live and cook beans at 5300 ft.

  7. Mary Shinners

    Thank you so much for your articles and research! I have lived in the Denver area my entire life, my mother cooked beans frequently and always in a stovetop pressure cooker. Her meals were wonderful! I had a bad experience with using a pressure cooker so I’ve been hesitant to use one. I have lived at 6300ft. for 25 years and have all but given up on cooking dry beans! I am now committed to reducing my footprint and am trying dry beans again. I have always soaked them, but will try all of tips! Currently have a crockpot of pintos that has been cooking on high for 5 hours and they are still too hard!!

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I would love to hear how your experience cooking beans goes, and please let me know if you have any questions! πŸ™‚

  8. How long did you cook your pintos prior to canning?

  9. I live at 8510 feet and gave up on beans until I needed Bortolloti Beans. Found Cranberry beans dried and am trying again.

    Last time I tried, beans soaked for about 30 hours before I could cook and then cooked about 18 hours. Horrible.

    • So sorry to hear about your negative experiences! A few thoughts: 1.) If you can find fresher beans, that may help. As beans age, they start to take longer to cook. 2.) Add a pinch of baking soda or baking powder to the soaking water. This will help a lot with softening them. You can rinse them and drain the soaking water and cook in fresh water. 3.) Do you have hard water? Really hard water can prevent beans from softening. 4.) Have you tried a pressure cooker (traditional, or electric like an Instant Pot)? At higher elevations, these can be really helpful. I’ve tried to cook beans on the stovetop at a little over 10,000 feet and… wouldn’t recommend stovetop at such high elevations.

      These are just a few comments and ideas. Send me a message if you need more info, and please let me know how it goes! πŸ™‚

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