Tips for Baking Cakes and Pies at High Altitude
Cakes are known for their delicate textures, and the baking processes that help them rise and achieve a soft, moist end result are heavily impacted by elevation changes. The instructions on the back of a store-bought cake box, or someone’s low altitude recipe, are useful until you reach about 6,000 feet in altitude. After this, the methods below may need to come into play.
Increase flour. Slightly increasing the amount of flour can strengthen the cake during baking and reduce the chances of it caving in. Flour should be increased 1 to 4 tbsp, depending on the recipe and elevation. Add 1 tbsp of flour per cup of flour required in the recipe. As altitude rises, additional tablespoons of flour can be added. All-purpose flour works well at high altitudes and may be preferable to cake flour because of its higher protein content, which improves strength and shape retention during and after baking.
Add eggs or egg yolks. Eggs act as a structural ingredient in baking, with an effect sometimes compared to that of the protein, gluten. Eggs also improve moisture retention. For instance, if a recipe calls for large eggs, it may help to use extra large eggs instead when baking at high altitude.
Reduce leavening agent. Since lower air pressure increases the chances that the cake will rise quickly and then collapse, reducing the leavener will in turn reduce the chances that the cake will rise too quickly. Reduce by about 1/8 to 2/3 teaspoon, depending on the altitude. If using whipped eggs whites as a leavener, whip them until they form soft peaks rather than stiff peaks. This will leave more room for expansion during baking, reducing the chances that the cake will collapse.
Increase oven temperature or baking time. Oven heat can be increased about 25°F if the baking time is kept the same, or the baking time can be increased if the temperature is kept around a moderate 350°F—try 10 to 15 minutes to start, but you may need to experiment.
Pies may be one of the easier baked goods to adjust at high altitudes, since the major adjustment takes place in the pie crust. When making the crust, the most important thing is to balance the dry and wet ingredients for a flaky, crisp crust that will hold up well with pie filling.
Increase liquid. Pie crusts dry out more quickly at altitude and may need a bit more water to make the crust more pliable. Add water by the tablespoon until the desired texture is achieved; too much can toughen the crust by overworking the gluten. Typically the water should be ice cold for the flakiest crust.
Cover with foil. Because pie fillings take longer to bake completely when at high altitudes, it may be helpful to cover the pie loosely with foil during baking to ensure that the tops do not burn while the inside is completely cooking.
High altitude can wreak havoc on normally fabulous cakes and pies, but this is no reason to give up on them. Altitude is just a condition of the environment that might affect the outcome of a cake or a pie, just like temperature or moisture. A bit of experimentation and the right preparation is typically all it takes to come up with just as fabulous an outcome.
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