Eye on Extension: High altitude baking tips

VALLEY — As you all know, cooking at high altitude requires time, adjustments, and patience!  All of Colorado is considered high altitude, with the Valley being VERY high altitude starting at 6,800 ft.! At altitudes above 3,000 feet, preparation of food may require changes in time, temperature or recipe, because of lower atmospheric pressure due to a thinner blanket of air above. At sea level, atmospheric pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi), at 5,000 feet it’s 12.3 psi, and at 10,000 feet it’s only 10.2 psi – a decrease of about 1/2 pound per 1,000 feet.  This decreased pressure affects food preparation in two ways:

1. Water and other liquids evaporate faster and boil at lower temperatures.

2. Leavening gases in breads and cakes expand more quickly.

This means that water boils at a lower temperature at a high altitude than at sea level. So it takes longer to boil food at a high altitude. This includes meats that are boiled to tenderize them – i.e. pot roast. Meats cooked by simmering or braising may require 1/4 more time at 5,000 feet than at sea level. Oven temperatures, however, are not affected by altitude, so sea level recipes work for oven-roasted meats. Not so with baked goods! Because leavening gases expand more quickly, the baked product is likely to “fall”. 

Here are some tips for adjusting baked goods recipes:

Add 2 – 4 Tablespoons flour to your baked good. Gluten is the protein component of flour that forms the structure of the baked good. The leavening causes the gas that makes the product rise.  The gluten is what holds the structure in place. For this reason, add flour. 

Always measure flour by spooning it into the measuring cup rather than scooping it out of the bag or cannister. Level the flour with a straight edged knife.

Next, increase the baking temperature by 25 degrees. This will give the gluten a chance to set and help prevent the item from “falling”. This will help keep cakes from collapsing and cookies from spreading. You will likely have to reduce the baking time, so keep an eye on your goodies using the oven light (opening the oven door lets heat out increasing the chances of “falling”).

Slightly decrease the amount of baking powder or baking soda the recipe calls for, since leaveners or yeast react with more force at higher elevations.

By the same token, slightly decreasing the amount of fat and sugar can offset their tendency to become more concentrated at altitude. An easy way to do this is to go down to next lower measurement on the measuring cup than called for in the recipe.

Use extra-large eggs instead of large eggs. They not only provide more of the aforementioned protein but contribute more moisture to offset the effects of our high, dry climate. For this reason, a slight increase in liquid ingredients is advisable as well.

A dark baking pan or baking sheet can brown the baked product too quickly. For this reason, place cookies on parchment paper or use an aluminum baking sheet.

These are some tips that I hope will help with your holiday baking. It’s wise to make one to two adjustments at a time in order to gauge their effectiveness before trying more adjustment. And yes, adjusting a recipe at high altitude is a matter of trial and error! I usually tell people to add the flour and the 25 degrees on the first attempt and see if that does it. Some recipes are stubborn and require more adjustments. If a cake is high in fat and sugar, it’s usually harder to make the adjustments. As always, give me a call if you need help!

For more information contact Mary Ellen Fleming at 852-7381, or visit the CSU Extension Office for the San Luis Valley Area at 1899 E. Hwy 160 in Monte Vista.  Please feel free to visit our website at:  http://sanluisvalley.colostate.edu for information about services provided.

Extension programs are available to all without discrimination,  Colorado State University Extension, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado Counties cooperating.


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