Friday, December 24

What's the Big Deal about Baking at High Altitude?

Travels sent an interesting question to me the other day:

I am at altitude and don't ever change the recipes in cookbooks. I noticed you mention this cookbook in other posts. Could you tell me basically what is different when baking at altitude? What you need to consider changing and why?

After growing up at sea level, baking at high altitude has been a disaster for me. Pure and simple. The cakes, muffins and cookies I've tried have turned out dry, flat and pathetic. That's why Pie in the Sky was such a revelation for me.

Before I moved to high altitude, various people told me to add a couple of extra tablespoons of flour and call it good. Um, yeah. Wish that had worked. So, what's the big deal (other than the fact that MY recipes didn't work)?

As it turns out, it wasn't really my fault; it has more to do with changes in atmosphere and humidity than poor baking skills. It's chemistry, baby.

In one of the early sections of her book, Susan G. Purdy dispells 12 myths about high altitude baking:

Myth #1 - Always substitute extra-large eggs for large or medium eggs in sea-level recipes
Myth #2 - At higher altitudes, add extra flour to all baked goods
Myth #3 - Always cut the leavening as altitude increases
Myth #4 - Cut out the baking soda at high altitudes
Myth #5 - Reduce the fat in rich cakes and cookies at high elevations
Myth #6 - Always raise the oven temperature by 25 degrees at high altitudes
Myth #7 - When using a glass baking dish, always reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees
Myth #8 - Batter will overflow in cake pans at high altitude
Myth #9 - Cookie recipes don't need adjustment at high altitude
Myth #10 - Pie crusts don't need adjustment because they are not affected by high altitudes
Myth #11 - Pie fillings don't need adjustment because they are not affected by high altitude
Myth #12 - When using boxed mixes, you can count on their high altitude directions to work every time

Once you've read through the myths, though, there are still no hard and fast rules. Sometimes you raise the temperature; sometimes you lower it. You omit the baking soda to maintain acidity; or not. Substitute buttermilk for whole milk; sometimes.

Most resources recommend experimentation. Joy of Cooking has a special section and lays out some high altitude baking/cooking rules then sets you off on your own. Since I don't have the patience for that kind of thing, Pie in the Sky is the book for me. Purdy has already done all of the experimenting for me and her recipes work. I have nothing more to do than open the book, select a recipe and get to it. 

I wish that all of my sea-level recipes worked at altitude, but I just can't seem to pull it off. Travels, I'm jealous that you don't have to alter yours!


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  2. Thanks for the blog on high altitude baking. I've heard several of the myths from baked goods sellers at the Farmers Market. Sounds like Pie in the Sky is the book for me.
    Btw: any good recipes for high altitude chocolate chip cookies? Mine always turn out like biscuits!

  3. Todd - thanks for the comment. Isn't it a huge disappointment when chocolate chip cookies don't work at altitude? Such an easy cookie; how could it fail?! I'm posting Pie in the Sky version now. Let me know how they turn out.