Baking at high altitudes isn't a task for the faint of heart. Even the simplest of baked goods, from cookies to cake mixes, can fail or behave erratically at high elevations. The difficulty increases along with the altitude, so if you're living and baking at 10,000 feet, your recipes need substantial adjustments to work. Thankfully, those adjustments are well known, so any baker willing to experiment can bake successfully even at the highest altitudes.
Understanding the Problem
Most of the problems in high-altitude baking are related to the thin air at higher elevations. The low air pressure reduces water's boiling temperature, so liquids evaporate more quickly. This leaves your baked goods dry. Moisture is also crucial to the gluten development that gives baked goods their structure, so it weakens the crumb of cakes, muffins and other baked goods. Leaveners such as baking powder and beaten egg whites work much more powerfully, and the weakened batter often can't retain the expanding air pockets. That means your baked goods will rise then collapse, producing a coarse and sunken end result. These effects can be countered by manipulating the proportions of your ingredients.
Don't Weaken Your Batter
Sugar and fat play a role in the flavor of your baked goods, but as ingredients, their primary role is to soften and weaken the flour's gluten. At 10,000 feet, you don't need as much sugar and might not need as much fat. Depending on your recipe, you might need to reduce the sugar by up to 25 percent. Start by using 3/4 cup for every cup of sugar called for in your recipe, then increase that amount a tablespoon at a time until you're satisfied with the result. If altering the sugar alone doesn't quite result in the right texture, reduce the fat by 1 to 2 tablespoons per cup as well.
Strengthen It Instead
It's the proteins in your batter or dough -- from the flour and eggs -- that set in the oven's heat and create the structure of your crumb. Increasing the protein helps your baked goods counter the weakening effect of high altitude. At 10,000 feet, most recipes benefit from adding 2 to 4 tablespoons of flour for every cup called for in your recipe. You can also substitute higher-gluten all-purpose flour for cake flour, or bread flour for all-purpose flour. In cakes and other rich doughs, add an extra egg white as part of the liquids in your recipe. The extra protein from the egg white will help strengthen the crumb, as well.
A Few Other Pointers
Because leaveners act so powerfully at 10,000 feet, you'll really need to cut back on those. You might need only 1/5 to 1/3 of the original amount of baking powder or baking soda to achieve the same result. Don't cream your cakes and cookies as long -- it adds air -- and don't whip your egg whites as much as you would at sea level. To counter the drying effect of high altitudes, increase the liquids by up to 1/4 cup for every cup called for in your recipe. Whenever possible, use buttermilk instead of regular milk and sour cream in place of cream. The extra acidity helps your baked goods set more quickly and remain moister.
Tips and Techniques
Aside from altering your ingredients, make a few other practical changes for baking success. High-altitude instructions often say to increase your oven temperature, but at 10,000 feet, that can make your cakes and muffins unpleasantly crusty. Instead, increase your baking time by a few minutes. At sea level, you'd fill your pans 2/3 with batter, but at 10,000 feet they should only be 1/2 filled to compensate for the extra rise. Grease your pans thoroughly, because baked goods are prone to sticking at high altitudes.
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