High Altitude Baking

This Cooking Tip is Part 2 about the problems of being in a high-altitude kitchen. The first Tip was about the difficulties of cooking at high altitude. In this one, I want to tackle baking, something that can be even more challenging than cooking at high altitude. If you live above 3000 feet, I’m sure you have suffered your share of fallen cakes or cupcakes, under-done interiors, a dry texture and more. I often speak to people who have given up on baking when they move to our area. In this Cooking Tip, I want to encourage you to try again. You do not have to cease baking if you have a bit of knowledge about what is happening and what can be done about it.

Overcoming the problems of high-altitude baking starts with understanding the source of those problems. As you go up in altitude, air pressure decreases and, as noted in last week’s Tip, water boils at a lower temperature. Consequently, the liquids inside your baked item (or around it if using a water bath) do not get as hot and the baking time may need to be extended. The decreased air pressure also means quicker rising in items that contain leavening agents as the gases rapidly expand. Therefore, your cake rises very quickly – before the batter has had time to set. Once you take it out of the oven, that underdone middle collapses and you have a gummy crater in the middle of your beautiful cake. Another problem is that there is quicker evaporation of liquids, resulting in dry baked items.

If those are the problems, what are the solutions? The first thing to note is that not all recipes fail at high altitude. I encourage you to try the recipe as written the first time you make it. You may be surprised as it turns out wonderful. If not, there are a number of steps you can take. Do not do all the changes at once. Start with making just one or two adjustments and taking notes about the results. If the item still does not turn out as you wish, try more adjustments. In my experience, some recipes just need a slight tweaking while others need more. I have even had one recipe that I just discarded because nothing seemed to work.

Here is a list of adjustments for high altitude baking.

  • Oven temperature – Increase by 15-25 degrees. Monitor the cooking time as, with the increased temperature, you may need to shorten the baking time by about 5 minutes per 30 minutes of cooking time. If you are above 7000 feet, it may be better to leave the temperature alone and increase baking time. The increased temperature at this altitude can lead to over-crusting.

  • Flour – increase the amount by 1 tablespoon per cup of flour. It is also preferable to use all-purpose rather than cake or pastry flour.

  • Liquid — Increase by 2-4 tablespoons per cup of flour.

  • Leavening – decrease baking soda/powder by 25-40% depending on altitude.

  • Eggs – add an additional egg.

  • Sugar – reduce by 1-4 tablespoons per cup of flour. Do not remove more than ¼ cup.

  • Acid – because acidic batters tend to set more quickly as well as holding moisture in batter, substituting buttermilk, sour milk, yogurt, or sour cream (all high in acidity) for regular milk (which is lower in acidity) often leads to an improved result.

Another question you might have is which type of baked goods can be affected by altitude. To some extent, all baked goods could be affected if only by the lack of moisture. Baked goods that rise in the oven are the most affected – cakes, cupcakes, etc. They are likely the ones to give you the most difficulty. Although less of a problem, even muffins and quick breads may need slight adjustments. Some people have concerns with their cookie recipes although many cookie problems are not necessarily related to altitude. I wrote an earlier Cooking tip on Cookie Success. If you have not read this and want to, just email me.

Pies do not rise but may need some extra liquid in the crust as well as a longer baking time.

Making yeast breads at altitude is interesting in that they, too, will rise faster. Some may like this as the waiting time for the dough to double in size is decreased. This, though, is not a total positive. The slower yeast breads rise, the more flavor develops. If you like the resulting product, there is no need to change anything. However, to maximize flavor, you may want to decrease the yeast by about 25% or punch the dough down and allow a second rise to occur. Allowing your dough to rise very slowly in the refrigerator overnight is also something that can enhance flavor – whether or not you live at high altitude.

If you are saying, “This is all too much trouble!”, don’t despair. A quick look on Amazon showed not less than 20 cookbooks written with recipes that have already been adjusted for altitude. Grab one of those and get back in the kitchen. Delightful baked goods are just around the corner!