Living in areas with altitudes above sea level is full of benefits like fresh air and gorgeous views. Some even believe it to be good for your health. However, what may not benefit from high altitudes is your baking. As crazy it may sound, high altitude baking is “a thing” that those living in the mountains have to take into account when deciding how to prepare their favorite baked goods.
In high altitude baking it is common to make recipe adjustments for atmospheric conditions that change with elevation. Air pressure decreases at higher altitudes, which causes liquids to evaporate rapidly, leavened products often collapse, and food does not thoroughly cook at normal temperatures. To counter this, make recipe adjustments by increasing liquids, flour, eggs, temperatures and reducing leavening agents, sugars, fats, and cooking time.
Spending winters skiing in Vermont and summers out west meant that we needed to adjust our conventional baking methods. The alternative was relying on store bought baked goods which was a non-starter for our family. Through trial and error and with the help of a few local resources we learned how to tweak our favorite recipes for high altitude baking. Before making that cake or loaf of bread, keep reading for some important but simple tips on baking at high altitudes.
What Do We Consider High Altitude Baking?
When we talk about high altitudes, we’re referring to areas at least 3,500 feet above sea level. High altitude affects cooking and baking differently than food prepared at or below sea level. While the data exists to show that high altitudes affect baking, it is still highly recommended to follow the recipe the first time around. If things don’t turn out as expected, use trial and error and the 9 tips we share below to make adjustments based on the outcome. Try and make one adjustment at a time so you can determine which is causing the problem.
Why Does Altitude Affect Baking?
To understand why high altitudes affect baking we need to go back to what we learned in high school science class about air pressure and psi (pound per square inch). The air pressure at sea level is 14.7 psi and gradually decreases the higher the elevation. To put it more simply, the higher the altitude, the less air pressure is forced on leavened products. The change in air pressure from sea level to an altitude of 3500 ft (1067 meters and 12.9 psi) above sea level is 1.8 psi or approximately 12%.
So how does this affect the rise and cooking time of your baked goods? The thinner air blankets cause the gases from leavening ingredients to expand more quickly. When you have less air pressure pushing down on the batter/dough, leavening agents will cause it to rise more rapidly. The decrease in air pressure also causes liquids to evaporate more rapidly, and food takes longer to cook.
You’ll find that cookies, muffins, biscuits and piecrusts generally yield similar results whether baked at sea level or high altitudes. Cakes and yeast breads on the other hand will tend to require more attention and recipe adjustment. This is due to the effect of the altitude on the rising and falling of the dough/batter.
8 Ways to Adjust Recipes for High Altitude Baking
Adjustments to the ingredients, time, and temperature are ways to counteract high altitudes’ effects on your baked goods. It may take some experimenting to get the adjustments right. It’s important to also remember that what may work for you may not work for your neighbor.
One easy fix that seasoned high-altitude bakers often suggest is using buttermilk in place of regular milk. The acidity in buttermilk adds flavor and moisture to your baked goods. This helps them to stay tender in the dryer atmosphere.
Below is a guide to help you adjust sea-level recipes for high-altitude baking.
Increase the Following at Higher Altitudes
The dryer air at high altitudes affects the moisture of your baked goods. To counter this, you’ll need to increase the liquids, flour, and eggs called for in your recipe. Let’s take a closer look at some recipe adjustment guidelines and how they help with the final product.
To keep the dough/batter from becoming dry or gummy you’ll want to increase the liquid in the recipe. Low atmospheric pressure at altitudes above 3000 feet cause liquids to evaporate faster. This will also save your bread or cake from developing surface cracks. A trusted formula for adjusting the amount of liquid is to increase 1 to 2 tablespoons at 3,000 feet, then increase by 1 ½ teaspoons for every 1,000 feet.
Flour gives baked goods structure, but if the flour is too wet, it cannot do its job. Since liquids need to be increased in high-altitude baking, then so does the flour. At an elevation of 3,000 feet, increase your flour by 1 tablespoon and add an additional tablespoon per 1,500 feet.
The amount of flour you are using and its gluten protein levels are an important factor in high altitude baking, but does the type matter? We’ll discuss this in more detail below.
Eggs provide additional liquid to baked goods, as well as structure, leavening, and flavor. They also act as a key binding agent to hold the other ingredients together. Using an extra-large egg or adding one more egg to the recipe should be enough to maintain the structure and moisture of the final product.
To counteract the rapid leavening and evaporation, increasing the baking temperature will help maintain the structure of the baked good before it can dry out or overexpand. Increase the oven’s temperature by 25°F, or 15°F for more delicate cakes and chocolate desserts.
Reductions to Adjust for Baking at High Altitudes
Baking is all about balance, so if we increase something naturally, there needs to be a decrease counteract it. The following list of common baking ingredients pose the greatest risk of weakening your baked good’s structure because of the lower air pressure at higher altitudes. You’ll need to reduce the amount of leavening, yeast, sugar, and/or fats to maintain the strength of the dough/batter you are working with. You’ll also need to balance baking time and temperature to avoid overcooking but we’ll get into that more below.
Reduce Leavening and Yeast
Leavening and yeast are the ingredients that give rise to your baked goods by creating air, steam, and carbon dioxide. It’s the chemical reaction of these compounds that give your baked goods volume and their desired texture.
Decreased air pressure at higher altitudes means less air resistance on the batter or dough. This lack of pressure allows the leavening agents or yeast to release gas and grow faster than the flour can physically expand, causing the baked good’s structure to collapse.
Reducing leavening amounts will hinder rapid rise and give the structure enough time to rise to avoid a collapse. For every teaspoon of baking powder or baking soda, reduce by ⅛ of a teaspoon. Some recipes may call for a mixture of leavening agents. If the recipe calls for both baking powder and baking soda, AND an acidic element such as buttermilk, King Arthur Baking Co recommends using only baking powder and sweet milk instead. To save you from having to “google” what sweet milk is, it’s just regular whole milk. In fact, it’s called “sweet milk” to differentiate it from sour milk and buttermilk.
For bread baking, King Arthur also recommends reducing the amount of yeast used by 25%. In addition to using less yeast, you’ll want to make sure to adjust the flour and water measurements to form the right dough texture.
The use of sugar in baking is twofold. As you would expect it provides sweetness to the dough in baked in goods. In bread baking it has another important function that is to provide food for yeast. Sugar enables the fermentation process to occur, and any residual sugar left behind will contribute to the color and sweet flavor of the bread.
In cakes and cookies sugar adds sweetness and tenderness. Sugar’s ability to maintain water has a softening effect on cookies and also affects their spread.
Sugar becomes affected by increased evaporation of liquids in the recipe which it binds to, therefore increasing its concentration. Leaving the ratio as is will result in a weakened structure and unwanted changes to the texture of your baked goods. To prevent this, you’ll need to reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe. For every cup reduce it by one tablespoon or 12 grams for every 64 grams of sugar.
To create delicious and tender bakes, all recipes rely on a fat element. Fats are included in recipes with the role of breaking down the gluten in flour. Evaporation and moisture loss at high altitudes results in a higher ratio of fats to liquids. This can significantly weaken the dough’s structure. For this reason, you should reduce fats in the recipe by 1 to 2 tablespoons.
If you’re baking cookies and find that they’re spreading too much try decreasing the butter or equivalent by 2 tablespoons. The culprit may also be the sugar which you can reduce slightly as well.
When it comes to baking at high altitudes it’s a bit of trial and error but once you’ve found which proportions work best for your location the process will be much simpler.
Shorten Baking Time
To counteract the effects of increasing the baking temperature, the total baking time needs to be shortened or you risk overbaking. The baking time only needs to be decreased by 5 to 8 minutes per 30 minutes of the recommended baking time.
Does The Type of Flour Matter for High Altitude Baking?
There are many things to think about when it comes to high altitude baking, however, the type of flour isn’t one to fret over. Simply follow the recipe and use the type of flour that is called for. What is essential is the amount of flour used and the strength of the dough or batter it produces. You should, however, be aware of the varying amounts of gluten-producing proteins in the flour you are using. Flour with a higher gluten protein content may be more suitable for some recipes.
All-purpose (AP) flour has 9.5% to 11.5% gluten protein content, compared to bread flour which contains 11.5% to 13.5%. We cover this and more in our article on cake flour vs all-purpose flour which compares the gluten protein content for 5 popular types of flour.
You may be tempted to search the internet for the perfect flour to use for high altitude baking. In doing so you’ll come across Ardent Mills Hungarian High Altitude Flours made in several different varieties. While at first glance it appears to be the perfect solution to your high-altitude baking conundrum. After doing some more digging the “high altitude” refers to the region where the flour is grown and milled (Colorado, the Dakotas and Montana) and the elevation it is milled at 5164 feet. It makes no claim to being the preferred flour for baking at high altitudes. The “Hungarian” flour is no better for baking at high altitudes than any other flour on the market.
In fact, sourdoughhome.com tested this flour and found it to be thirstier than many other flours meaning it requires more liquid for hydration. As we mentioned above, liquid was one of the ingredients that required increasing at high altitudes making this flour seemingly more complicated to work with.
With some simple recipe adjustments and experimentation, baking at high altitudes can become second nature. Increase liquids, flour, eggs, and baking temperatures and reduce leavening agents, yeast, sugars, fats, and cooking time. These measurement adjustments will help maintain the structure of your cakes and loaves of bread.
Hopefully, this article has given you the confidence to tackle baking at high altitudes and proves how simple it can be. We would love to hear about your experiences baking at high altitudes and any recipes you have to share.