What a wonderful Christmas we had while visiting Colorado – fresh brisk air, snow, friends and family. And as is our tradition, we baked.
The challenge this year was the high altitude and how it would affect favorite breads, cookies, and quick breads. While there are many terrific high-altitude baking books available, any baker understands the comfort one has with tried and true familiar recipes. Aren’t there a few simple adjustments to compensate for the altitude?
We baked using recipes from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible and The Pie and Pastry Bible, Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery, Carol Field’s The Italian Baker, and King Arthur Flour’s Bakers Companion and Cookie Companion.
Here’s what we learned about high-altitude baking this Christmas in the Rocky Mountains:
High altitude, among other things, can significantly affect baking outcomes. With higher altitude comes lower air pressure and typically drier atmospheric conditions. Altitude begins to affect baking results at around 3,000 feet – a level where the baker must begin to make recipe modifications.
Below are some helpful tips when you’re baking at a high altitude:
|High-Altitude Effect||Recommended Modification|
|Lower air pressure causes a faster rise, which results in less-developed flavor (yeast breads) or collapsing (quick breads and brownies).||Slow the rise. For yeast breads, change the yeast type and let it rise at a lower temperature. Make a sponge [biga] the night before, let it rest at room temperature for an hour, then finish in the refrigerator overnight. With quick breads, reduce the amount of baking soda or powder. .|
Accelerate baking of quick breads by raising oven temperature and shortening baking time.
Add additional flour to strengthen the structure.
Use higher protein flourat very high altitudes. Lower humidity causes quicker evaporation, which can result in drier batter or dough. It can also cause a higher concentration of sugar, weakening the structure.Increase the liquid, or in the case of tender crumb goods such as cakes and muffins, increase the egg content. .
Utilize the autolyse. After initially mixing together the flour, starter, and water, let the dough rest for 20 minutes to allow the flour to fully absorb the water and the enzymes to untangle the gluten. Then proceed with adding additional ingredients and kneading. Water quality also affects baked goods, with the two major culprits being pH (acidity) and mineral content (softness or hardness).Increase the acidity. Yeast loves an acidic environment, but many municipalities’ tap water is either naturally alkaline or is fortified with alkaline agents in order to prevent public water pipe corrosion. Replace some of the recipe’s liquid with vinegar. .
Neutralize or mimic the water where the recipe originated. Use bottled water in your recipe. I know many bakers who will use bottled water from the country or region where the recipe originated.
High-Altitude Yeast Breads
Yeast. Most recipes today call for instant yeast, rather than active dry yeast. Instant yeast will begin its duty immediately whereas active dry yeast takes a little longer, rendering rising times shorter. At high altitudes, the dough will rise faster anyway, which results in less time for flavor development. Dry active yeast helps the high altitude baker in this situation because it will cause a slower rise, allowing for sufficient flavor development.
In her book The Bread Bible, Rose Levy Beranbaum recommends substituting 25% more active dry yeast when the recipe calls for instant dry yeast. Most high-altitude baking experts recommend using 25% less yeast when baking at higher elevations. So by merely using the same amount of active dry yeast for instant dry yeast, you kill these two birds with one stone.
Although you have probably read that you must first re-hydrate active dry yeast with water, I found that you can proceed just as if you were using instant yeast – and mix it with the dry ingredients, if that is what the recipe calls for.
Most baking books will specify how much the dough should rise in terms of volume, not just time (e.g., “let rise until doubled”). This is a preferred method, especially for high-altitude baking. Mark the side of your rising container with masking tape rather than merely trying to eye it. I found the rising time to be somewhat longer using this method than at sea level. I let the dough rise in a warm place – between 75°F and 85°F (an oven with the light turned on or a measuring cup of boiling water in the microwave will usually do the trick).
Make a sponge. The technical term is “pre-ferment”. In Italian it’s biga. There are other names as well: poolish, starter, sponge, pâte fermentée, each with its specific methodology and ethnic origin. If your recipe doesn’t call for a sponge, simply use about a third of the recipe’s water, a third of the flour it calls for, and 1/16 teaspoon of the yeast. Stir the ingredients for a couple of minutes, cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for an hour. Place the mixture in the refrigerator overnight (or up to three days). In the morning combine with the other dough ingredients and proceed as directed in the recipe. You’ll have well-developed flavor without over-rise.
Add additional flour. I typically added about two tablespoons of flour per recipe at my elevation. As a general guideline, add a tablespoon at 3,000 feet and an additional tablespoon for every 1,500 feet. Add the additional flour at the end of kneading, especially if using a stand mixer.
Use higher protein flour. At very high altitudes, say above 6,500 feet, consider switching to higher protein flour.
Compensate for water quality. Yeast thrives in an acidic environment, so consider substituting a tablespoon of vinegar for any liquid in your recipe. This is especially true for sweet breads with a high sugar content that can conceivably slow yeast activity. And as stated above, many municipal water supplies are alkaline because they add agents to neutralize any acidity that can corrode pipes.
Consider using bottled water for your recipes. Mineral content of public water systems varies considerably. The recipe’s origin may have significantly different water qualities from yours. You can compensate for this effect by purchasing a bottle of water from that region!
Leavening. Quick breads and brownies typically use baking power or soda instead of yeast. They will rise much faster at higher elevations, so less of these leavening agents are needed. King Arthur Flour recommends the following adjustment:
|Baking powder or baking soda in the original recipe||3,000 feet – 5,000 feet||5,000 feet – 6,500 feet||6,500 feet – 8,000 feet|
|1 ½ teaspoons||1 ¼||¾||½|
|2 teaspoons||1 ½||1||¾|
|2 ½ teaspoons||1 ¾||1||¾|
|3 teaspoons||2||1 ¼||1|
|3 ½ teaspoons||2 ½||1 ½||1|
|4 teaspoons||2 ½||1 ½||1|
Baking temperature and time. Leavening and evaporation occur more quickly at higher elevations, so baking at a higher temperature will set the structure of bread before it over-expands and dries out or rises too rapidly and then collapses. Increase the oven temperature by 25°F (by 15°F for chocolate, cakes, or brownies). To compensate for the higher temperature, decrease baking time by about 5 minutes (or a bit longer) for every 30 minutes of baking time.
Add additional flour. We typically added about two tablespoons of flour per recipe at my elevation. As a general guideline, add a tablespoon at 3,000 feet and an additional tablespoon for every 1,500 feet. Add the additional flour at the end of kneading, especially if using a stand mixer.
Use higher protein flour. Consider switching to higher protein flour when making quick bread or muffins.
Use more liquid. Increase liquids by 1 tablespoon at 3,000 feet and 1 additional teaspoon for every 1,000 feet. You can use extra eggs as part of the liquid if the recipe calls for it. If you need a partial egg, you can either use the egg white or scramble the egg and use the amount you need.
Use less sugar. As liquid from the batter evaporates, the sugar will become more concentrated, weakening the batter’s structure. Decrease the sugar by 1 tablespoon per cup used.
Use the guidelines for Quick Breads above to make adjustments to your favorite cookie recipes.
What are your high-altitude baking tips? We’d love to hear them.
- Cooking for Engineers: Baker’s Yeast
- King Arthur Flour
- Red Star Yeast
- Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible
- Colorado State University Extension’s Guide to High Altitude Baking