High Altitude, Baking and Cooking
Things cook a little differently at high altitude. Some changes are subtle, and you might not connect them with altitude right away, others are pretty obvious!
Most high altitude cooking and baking instructions do not recommend compensations until you reach about 6000 ft above sea level. Living in the region of Wyoming that I live in, we are right in the altitude range in which you really begin to notice small differences, so I have learned to compensate when baking and cooking.
Water boils at a lower temperature here – this is due to reduced air pressure. You won’t really notice much of a difference at 4000 ft, and even at 6000 ft, the only real difference is that noodles take the tiniest bit longer to cook, and brown rice tries your patience a bit more than normal (taking closer to an hour to cook instead of the usual 40 minutes). Candies also can require a longer boiling period to reach the various ball or crack stages.
The most noticeable differences at this height is baking. Cakes tend to be a bit softer, and more likely to fall in the middle. Breads do some interesting things too.
Cake mixes will usually indicate that you should add an extra tablespoon of flour to the mix if you are at altitudes over 5-6000 ft. You may need to compensate even more if you are higher up than that.
Since cakes, muffins, quickbreads, and pancakes use baking powder, which is activated by heat, they tend to rise rather rapidly in the center. Reduced air pressure means that the bubbles grow faster and larger than usual. This can cause them to get large enough to burst before the center of an item fully cooks. It does not affect taste, so unless you are serving for company, it is not usually a big deal. Adding flour stiffens the batter a bit, and gives the same effect as increased air pressure – it makes it a little harder for the bubbles to grow.
If you are baking from scratch, you can also reduce the amount of liquid by about a tablespoon, or you can reduce the amount of baking powder (or soda and acid combination). Only reduce the baking powder by about a quarter though, a small difference will usually correct things.
I bought my first bread machine at high altitude. I have always baked bread, but did not notice any differences until I got the bread machine though, because I always baked by feel and appearance, not by specific times. Each time we moved we had to work out new bake times for the new oven anyway.
In the bread machine though, the differences were really noticeable. It is not fun cleaning out vents on the top of a bread machine into which soft uncooked dough has squished because the bread over-rose!
Bread will tend to rise too fast. Whole wheat bread can also sour very quickly at higher altitudes. Solutions to the two problems are slightly different, depending on how you bake bread.
If you are using a bread machine, the solution is one of two things:
1. Decrease the yeast by about a quarter teaspoon at a time. Test it and see when it is right.
2. Decrease the water by 1-2 tablespoons. Our recipe called for 1 cup and 1 tablespoon of water. We just put in 1 cup and it worked nicely.
The reasoning is the same as what it is with baking powder baked goods. Make it a tiny bit harder for the bubbles to expand.
With whole wheat bread, if the dough sours, it will rise rapidly, then fall, and the second time it will never seem to rise as well. If it over-rises, it will fall during baking. Since whole wheat bread has to have a fairly soft dough to result in an edible bread, decreasing water is not an option. You can decrease the yeast some, but it still needs at least half a tablespoon per loaf in general.
Your main solution is timing. We let the dough rise once in the bowl, and punch it down right away. This can take as little as 15 minutes in the summer. Then we shape the dough – do not let it rise again before you shape it! Put it in the pans and watch it.
Whole wheat dough will generally not raise as high as white, so you want it to just round up to the top of the pans, and have a nice, if small, shape to it. Put it into the oven, and handle it carefully. Bumping it too hard can cause it to fall. It will take you a few tries to learn just how high you can let it rise and still have a nicely shaped loaf.
Catching it at just the right point gives you the best shape, and the best flavor. Your bread will taste fine and full flavored without being sour.
High altitude baking can take a bit of experimentation, and a little testing, but for the most part, you’ll be just as able to turn out good baked goods up in the mountains as anyone can on the seashore.