Welcome high altitude bakers and enthusiasts!
As a pastry chef, I have experienced firsthand the challenges and struggles of baking at high altitude. It can be very discouraging. Baking is too enjoyable of an activity to be limited from those living above sea level.
I wanted to create a place where I can offer my professional guidance, share my stories, and unite other mountain dwellers. Let’s relish in our beautiful surroundings and indulge in successful baking!
Where I work and live, the elevation is about 8,200 feet. So my recipes will always be formulated for this altitude. Elevations below and above will have to use my recipes as a guideline, and adjust them a bit further. If you keep reading below, I’ve offered some helpful hints and direction as to how to adjust recipes for your altitude.
Adjusting for Altitude Guidelines
Here are the heavy-weights when it comes to adjusting:
Chemical Leaveners. These would be baking soda and baking powder. When added to your batter, they create little air bubbles as they bake. The air bubbles are what cause your cake or baked good to rise, and help to determine the texture (light/dense). The air pressure at altitude can cause them to bubble and expand rapidly, which causes the baked good to rise too quickly. When this happens, the underlying batter hasn’t baked enough to create a strong structure that can support the rising cake. So consequently, the cake collapses in the middle. Sometimes you will also see a product that bakes over and out of the pan.
If you live below 8,000 feet, slightly increase the chemical leaveners called for in my recipes. If you live above 8,500 feet, slightly decrease the chemical leaveners called for in my recipes. I recommend starting with 1/4 teaspoon increase or decrease at a time.
Eggs. Trust me, eggs are a high alitude baker’s friend. I find that adding an extra egg or yolk to a batter or dough can be a rewarding addition, especially if you are worried about your product being too dry. When making a batter that involves folding in whipped egg whites, always underwhip them slightly. This once again has to do with air pressure, you do not want them to make your product rise too much, risking the chances of a collapse. If a recipe uses eggs as the only leavening agent (no chemical leaveners), it will most likely bake just fine, without any adjustments.
Flour. The air is drier up here, so your flour may be drier too. Pay attention to your dough or batter as you’re making it. Does it look dry, feel dry? Use less flour if that appears to be the case.
Cake Flour. I don’t like to use all cake flour in recipes. Cake flour is milled from a lower protein wheat and I find that it doesn’t provide the proper gluten development needed to bake structurally sound cakes up here. Use partial amounts of cake flour mixed with all-purpose flour. Ex: For a recipe calling for 3 cups of cake flour, use 1 cup cake flour, 2 cups all-purpose flour.
Liquids. Add 1/4- 1/2 cup more to your recipes for moister baked goods.
Sugar. Decrease the amount of sugar by a few tablespoons. I don’t measure it out, but for example, if I’m making something with 2 cups of sugar, I’ll use a scant cup each time. The air pressure can affect how much sugar is concentrated in a recipe, and this can make your baked goods have a gummy, odd texture if they’re not adjusted.
Cooking Caramel and Sugar. Always add an acid to sugar when it is going to be cooked to a certain temperature or to caramelize. Use either a squeeze of lemon juice or a pinch of cream of tartar. The acid will serve as ‘insurance’ to prevent your sugar from crystallizing or seizing. Make sure to wipe down any sugar crystals present on the sides of the pot with a damp pastry brush.
Yeast-Raised Doughs. Yeast doughs rise quicker at altitude, so the proof time will be significantly less. To develop a stronger yeast flavor, you can always punch the dough down once and let it rise again. In some ways the short rise time can work in your favor if you are low on time!
Fried Doughs. Use a slightly lower frying temperature for even cooking. At normal temperatures (350-375 F), the doughnut or fritter may be dark on the outside but raw in the center.
Oven Temperature. For cakes and quick breads, it doesn’t hurt to increase the temperature slightly. This will ensure the structure of the baked item gets set quickly and reduces the chances of a collapse. If you notice towards the end that your baked item is getting too dark but still isn’t finished baking, reduce the temperature. For custards and cheesecakes, I like to use a 275-300 F oven temperature. They will take 2-3 times longer to set at altitude.