As with a science experiment, successful baking requires accuracy and awareness when it comes to temperatures, moisture levels and precise ingredient measurements. Another factor that comes into play is the environment, including the altitude and the air pressure. In order for baked goods to turn out well at high altitudes, it is necessary to learn how the altitude impacts the baking process, and what modifications can be used to combat it.
How High Altitude Affects Baking
Living at high altitudes—higher than 3,000 feet above sea level—is great for the hiker, skiing enthusiast or competitive runner. However, for the professional baker or even baking hobbyist, this is not typically the case. Although those hungry hikers and skiers are bound to enjoy a warm loaf of bread or sweet cupcake after a long day in the outdoors, high altitudes can be a hindrance to any baker. The problem is that most recipes are developed for use at sea level. As you go up in altitude, the air gets thinner and the atmospheric pressure drops. This change affects cooking as well as baking, and it does so in three important ways.
Water boils at a lower temperature.
At sea level, water boils at 212°F. As you go up in elevation, water boils at lower temperatures.
|Sea Level||212 ºF|
|3,000 ft||206.7 ºF|
|5,000 ft||203.2 ºF|
|7,000 ft||199 ºF|
|10,000 ft||194.7 ºF|
High altitudes mean reduced air pressure, meaning that water can boil at a lower temperature. The result is that it takes longer to cook and bake foods, since the lower temperature slows down the chemical and physical reactions that occur during baking and cooking. For instance, dense cake batter or dough will take longer to bake completely, especially in the center, when baked at an altitude above sea level.
Moisture evaporates more quickly.
At higher altitudes, moisture evaporates faster than at lower altitudes. This means that moisture will leave your baked goods more quickly than at sea level.
- Reduced moisture can jeopardize the overall structure of baked goods
- Flavors can become weaker or less pronounced, since there are fewer moisture molecules to carry the aromas
- Baked goods tend to dry out, even go stale, much faster than at sea level
Air bubbles expand and rise more quickly.
The higher the altitude, the lower the atmospheric pressure, or air pressure. Low air pressure induces rapid expansion of leavening gases, which are bubbles formed from air, carbon dioxide, and water vapor that rise in products with yeast, baking soda or baking powder.
- Cakes will rise very fast but fall even faster, resulting in a dense, flat cake
- Recipes calling for stiffly beaten egg whites might experience excessive expansion while baking, causing the egg whites to pop, resulting in a collapsed cake or baked good
- Low pressure can cause yeast bread dough to over-proof, or rise too much, resulting in warped or flat bread after baking
Choosing and Preparing Baking Pans Correctly
Recipes will specify the ideal pan to use for baking, which is extremely important to achieve the desired result. This goes for breads, cakes and cookies alike. Using the right pan and preparing it correctly can help your baked goods a step further, after you’ve made the necessary recipe adjustments.
Use the right size pan.
High altitudes accelerate the rate at which baked goods rise, and using a pan that is too small can cause cake or quick bread batter to over-rise and spill into the oven. The same goes for using pie pans that are too small for the filling. Most baking recipes specify the correct pan size to use.
Try an angel food cake pan.
On occasion, using a pan with a tube in the center, such as an angel food cake pan, can result in a better rise and a quicker set. This is because it allows better heat conduction in the center of the cake batter. This is especially helpful for dense cakes and cakes that include fruit. You can purchase such a pan, or make your own by placing an empty aluminum can upside down in the center of a round cake pan.
Prepare the pan for baking.
Breads, cakes and quickbreads stick to pans even more at high altitudes. To prevent this, try greasing and sprinkling flour on the pan. This works at altitudes up to 5,000 ft. At altitudes above this, grease the pan, line it with parchment paper, and then grease and flour the paper. For cookies, use single-layer cookie sheets rather than double-layer, insulated pans, which reduce surface heat and prevent crisping. Muffin pans require greasing with shortening or non-stick spray. Add paper or foil muffin cups on top of this if baking at 9,000 feet or higher.
Quick Reference Guide for Adjusting Recipes at High Altitude
Unfortunately, there are no perfect guidelines for baking above sea level, as every recipe is different depending on the ingredients and the exact altitude situation. Typically, recipes can benefit by slight additions or reductions of certain products, or by altering baking time or temperature. The best way to adjust for high altitude is on a per-recipe basis. Baked goods tend to act in similar ways, and so you can plan the proper adjustment based on the type of baked good. There is no right way, as altitudes, environments and oven temperatures vary. All of the adjustments may be needed, or only one or two; it just depends on the recipe. Experimentation is key to finding the perfect balance.
|Baked Item||Suggested Adjustments|
There is no one quick fix for baking at high altitude. You may find that your baked items turn out wonderfully after making just one small change, or you may need to experiment with several changes, depending on your altitude and your baking environment. Baking requires a delicate balance between factors like temperature, humidity, air pressure and ingredients, so take some time to familiarize yourself with how these baked goods behave. Successful baked goods take time and experimentation; it's a matter of working with your environment and not against it.
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