High Altitude Baking
High altitude baking can be a piece of cake.
If you’re a baker in a mountain town you’ve no doubt experienced the frustrating effects of high altitude. Looks perfect coming out of the oven, but within minutes the center falls, the edges crack, it becomes dry and hard as rock. I learned this lesson the hard way during a family trip to Mammoth, CA, where the 7,880 ft in elevation murdered my fail proof red velvet cupcakes. Everyone still ate them, because, let’s be honest, a bad cupcake is better than no cupcake. I drowned them in cream cheese frosting and received no complaints. But the experience left me disappointed and confused. I had made this recipe a dozen times; what happened? It was then I realized the majority of recipes are created for sea level living.
When I moved to Jackson Hole, WY, which is roughly 6500 ft above sea level, I was hesitant to bake anything for months. I didn’t want to spend the time and effort only to have something not turn out. I even made my son’s birthday cake from a box, which is a road I’ve never traveled down before. But as I settled in, and the nights grew cold and cozy, I wanted to bake. For me, baking is joy. So I grew determined to make high attitude my friend.
I talked to neighbors, I researched, I watched cooking shows, I got scientific. And I baked. I baked like a woman on a mission. I tested techniques, methods, and ingredients; cookies, cupcakes, scones, cakes…the works. My husband and boys had never been happier. It was like Christmas in July. Finally I figured it out.
You can bake everything you’ve always loved at high elevation. It’s simply a matter of understanding the basic fundamentals of how ingredients come together…and a little science. I won’t get too detailed, as this is a baking blog not a chemistry class. But my hope is that after reading this you’ll attempt these adjustments on your own, anxiety free.
It all comes down to water and atmospheric pressure. At high altitude the atmospheric pressure is less than at sea level so water responds differently. For every 1000 ft you climb the boiling point of water drops roughly 2°F/1°C. For example, at sea level water boils at 212° F/100°C, at 3000 ft above sea level water boils at 206°F/97°C. In Jackson Hole we’re at 6500 ft, so the boiling point would be 200°F/94°C.
When baking a cake, for example, an internal temperature (190-250°F) needs to be reached in order for the cake to set.
This is where the trouble with sea level recipes begins. I’ll explain.
A climb in elevation causes the boiling point of water to decrease. So water is evaporating at a faster rate and lower temperature. Hence the cracking and drying. Less atmospheric pressure is causing the cake to rise faster. The chemical levelers, baking powder and baking soda, are accelerated. The cake rises before hitting the needed internal temperature to set. Hence the dreaded collapse.
Not too complicated, right? Now, here’s the solution. Adjusting your ingredients will compensate for the water evaporation and low atmospheric pressure:
- Liquid. You’re losing liquid faster so simply add more. At 3000 ft, add 1-2 tablespoons of water. For every additional 1000 ft add 1 tablespoon more. Here in Jackson Hole, which is 6500 ft, I add 5 tablespoons.
- Sugar. Sugar binds to water. The loss of water makes the sugar, in basic terms, more intense. Decrease your sugar 1 tablespoon for every cup.
- Chemical leveners. High altitude pushes them into high speed. At 3000 ft, decrease your leveners by 1/8 teaspoon. At 5000 ft, by 1/4 teaspoon. At 6000 ft or above decrease by 1/2 teaspoon.
- Oven temperature. Increase your oven temperature to help it set as it rises. At 3000 ft increase by 15° F. At 6000 ft and above increase by 25°F.
- Baking time. Because you’re raising the temperature start checking for doneness about 5 minutes sooner.
- Flour. Adding flour will give the cake more structure. At 3000 ft increase the flour by 1 tablespoon. Add 1 tablespoon for every additional 1500 ft.
- Eggs. Protein creates setting power. Add an egg.
Keep in mind these adjustments are starting points. Baking isn’t an exact science. All ovens are different; all ingredients are different. You’ll have to test each recipe, as I did, and find what works. But these changes will get you to where you want to be. Be patient and have fun. And please, let me know what works for you and what doesn’t. Ask me questions, share new tricks.
I'll continue to point out adjustments in all my recipes. I'm here to help! ENJOY!