It’s no secret that baking is a science. It’s all about exact measurements and chemical reactions. The wrong proportions can throw off those chemical reactions, compromising the structure of the food. Baking can be tricky, but baking at altitude?
Most recipes are designed for sea level, which has denser, wetter air. The higher up in elevation you go, the drier the air and the lower the air pressure. As I discovered after moving from Seattle to Cheyenne… this difference matters!
(My poor multigrain bread… It was a beautiful… inedible brick.)
Let me save you some trouble and give you a few pointers to make sure your breads don’t overflow, your cookies aren’t hard as rocks, and your cakes don’t fall.
1) Use less yeast (or other leavener)
The lower air pressure allows dough to rise faster and higher, risking dough overflow and potential collapse. Decrease yeast by about 20% (you can guesstimate) and only allow the dough to rise by one-third, not double. You will need to play with the individual recipe to see what works best.
2) Use more liquids
The air is drier up here, making your ingredients more prone to drying out faster and throwing off your measurements. A good rule of thumb is to increase the liquid amounts by 1 or 2 tablespoons at 3,000 feet, and add one tablespoon per 1,000 feet after that. You can also add more eggs, depending on what liquid your recipe calls for. Eggs also act as a binder, helping support the food’s structure and prevent collapse.
3) Bake at a higher temperature
Since the air is thinner and drier, your foods are more likely to rise more and dry out faster. Increasing the baking temperature by 15-25 degrees “sets” the structure of the baked goods, helping to prevent them from collapsing or drying out. I’d suggest starting with the lower temperature increase, and go from there.
It also depends on exactly how high in elevation you are. The temperature increase is most effective between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. Between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, it’s best to maintain a moderate temperature and just cook it longer. And above 9,000 feet, preheat the oven to the higher temperature, and then lower to the original temp once the baked goods are placed in the oven.
4) Bake for less overall time
Because you’re cooking your baked goods at a higher temperature, they will obviously be done faster. Check your baked goods regularly, and decrease the cooking time accordingly.
5) Use more flour; less sugar and butter/oil
Like eggs, flour acts as a strengthener, supporting your food’s structure. Increase flour by 1 tablespoon per cup, and add an additional tablespoon per cup above 5,000 feet.
The increased evaporation at altitude concentrates sugar and fats, weakening the gluten in the flour and making it more likely for your baked good to collapse (as well as stick like crazy to the pan). Reduce sugar by 1-4 tablespoons, and fats by 1-2 tablespoons. Every recipe is different, so you’ll have to experiment and see what works best.
Baking at elevation can be tricky, and the higher your elevation, the more changes you’ll likely need to make. Start with one or two adjustments at a time, and just play with the recipe until you find what works for where you live. Good luck, and bon apetit!