When Susan Purdy and I were testing the recipes for Pie in the Sky (the best high-altitude baking book on the market ... she says, modestly) we tried to come up with a universal strategy to solve all our baking problems. As time and testing went on and on and on we realized this was not possible. But we did find that some widely accepted tips were not true.
If you research the subject of high altitude baking, you will find ubiquitous tips and lists of ‘rules’—the do’s and don’t’s for success. Whether the sources are cookbooks, university extension service pamphlets, websites, or neighbors, these admonitions seem to come from the combined wisdom of anecdotal experience, computer calculations extrapolating tests from one altitude (usually 5,000 feet) to another, and (in the case of the university labs) scientific calculations tested in pressurized laboratories that mimic changes in elevation and atmospheric pressure. With few exceptions, these ‘rules’ have not really been systematically tested in mountain-top, home kitchens. When I set out to do just that, these guidelines were all I had to go by. I was in for a big surprise when I discovered that many of the ‘rules’ were wrong.
- Always substitute extra large eggs in sea level recipes First recorded by covered-wagon cooks traveling to uncharted western mountain territories, the ubiquitous ‘large egg’ substitution is still a popular recommendation. It does work some of the time because many high altitude recipes need more liquid and more protein. Nevertheless, the baker needs to consider the properties of the egg: the yolk is a fat, the white is protein (which has drying properties and adds strength) and the total egg adds 3 tablespoons of liquid. I believe the ‘egg solution’ was popular years ago when it was often the only adjustment made. The recipes in Pie in the Sky were developed for ‘large’ eggs. If you have a new recipe and no other changes in mind, you can start the “altituding” process by adding another egg or substituting one extra-large egg for a medium or large egg.
- At higher altitudes, use smaller pans
Wrong. See 3 below. If anything, you would need a larger pan.
- Always reduce temperature 25° F when using a glass baking dish Wrong. I always bake pies in glass pie plates and never reduce temperature. At altitude, it is an advantage to get greater heat into the baked product.
- Batter will overflow in cake pans Wrong some of the time. At high altitude, reduced air pressure contributes to rapid expansion of gases, so sea level leavening can be too expansive. In addition, liquids evaporate more quickly at high altitude; evaporation leaves excess concentrations of sugar in a batter or filling which can boils up and easily overflow. Carefully developed recipes prevent these situations. Overflow also happens if you put too much batter in a too-small pan or over-fill the pan; you need to leave rising room. If worried, put a sheet of foil on the oven floor to catch spills. Again, carefully developed recipes account for this and call for the correct size pan. I do not recommend using larger pans because batter can be too thin, causing it to over-bake.
- Always raise oven temperature 25 degrees No. This doesn’t always work, and in fact it is often better to leave the temperature the same or reduce it, but increase baking time. Of course, it depends upon what you are baking. Raising heat 25 degrees to bake cookies and cakes works very well at 5,000 feet, but at 7,000 and 10,000 may be too hot, crusting over the top of a cake before the inside bakes through. It is often better to use moderate (350° F) or slow (325 °F) heat and add baking time or change position of rack in oven (lower third is hotter than center).
- Always cut leavening as altitude increases Wrong. Up to and including 5,000 feet, leavening often stays the same. Leavening adjustments are critical. You need carefully balanced proportions of baking powder and baking soda to affect a good rise. Bread bakers are also told to cut the amount of yeast at high altitude. This is not always a good idea, and is not necessary in any case until you get over 5,000 feet. It is better to moderate temperature, keep dough cooler so it takes longer to rise, and punch it down for another rise.
- Use boxed mixes, you can count on their high altitude directions to work every time Boxed mixes are developed to work to about 6,500 feet in altitude, not higher.
- Cut back fat in rich cakes and cookies at high elevations Rarely necessary. The theory is that fat, which coats protein, or gluten, strands in flour, weakens it. This makes cakes tender (a good thing) but at high elevations, liquids evaporate quickly, leaving higher concentrations of fat as well as sugar (not so good), which weaken a cake’s cell structure and can cause it to collapse. Most of the time, you can strengthen a batter by adding flour and counter evaporation with extra liquid, so you don’t have to cut fat.
- Cookies recipes don’t need adjustment at high altitude Sometimes. Many sea level cookies work without change, but most are improved with slight adjustments. At altitude, cookies tend to over-spread as they bake. The more they spread, the thinner and more crisp (or tough) they get. Also, because liquids evaporate faster at high altitude, the baking dough loses moisture, leaving a high concentration of sugar and fat that can change the texture. To remedy these conditions and reduce spreading, you can strengthen the batter by adding flour and reducing sugar, leavening, and very occasionally, fat. You can also add little solid shortening (which has a higher melting point) along with butter (which melts near body temperature) to help cookies hold their shape. To counter the evaporation, you add a little liquid. Sometimes you can add a little corn syrup or honey as well, to improve color and texture, and add moisture. Raising baking temperatures about 25 degrees often helps cookies rise faster, so they set before they spread and/or dry out, but you have to experiment to be sure the higher temperature doesn’t cause over-browning instead.
- Pie crusts are generally not affected by high altitude Not true. They are affected, but not as much as cakes. At 5,000 feet and above, especially in dry mountain air, pastry dough often require more liquid to become pliable enough to shape and to bake without cracking or toughening.
- Pie fillings are not affected by high altitude Not true. For fruit tarts and crumb-topped pies, baking times and techniques are about the same as at sea level as long as the fruit is not too hard and the altitude is not too high. However, it takes longer for juicy pies to thicken because it takes more time for the juice to come to a boil and gelatinize the starch (flour, cornstarch, or tapioca); these pies often take longer to bake. At 7,000 feet and above, it takes much longer to bake through hard, crisp fruit. For example, if you sandwich a high mound of Granny Smith apple slices between two crusts, the top will often burn before the apples inside are baked. There are two solutions: change the variety of apples or precook the fruit on the stove. And furthermore at 7,000 feet and above, food tastes more bland than at sea level; you often need to increase spices or seasonings in your pies to brighten flavors.
- Cut out all baking soda at high altitude No. Baking soda (which has four times the leavening power of baking powder) has two functions: it neutralizes acidity, lowering the pH of a batter; while also working with acid ingredients to make carbon dioxide, a leavening. Baking soda must be in balance with baking powder for high altitude products to rise well. It is true that the higher the acidity of a batter or dough, the more quickly it will set in the eat of the oven, but you cannot remove soda to retain acidity without replacing it with baking powder or another leavening.
What are you favorite high-altitude recipes?