Cakes that sink in the middle, cookies that are flatter than pancakes and pies that bubble up and overflow onto the floor of the oven – such are the joys of cooking in the high altitudes of the Rocky Mountain region. For years, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension has been a source of tested recipes that work at altitude and a trusted place to get help in adjusting old family favorites so they work in the higher altitudes of Colorado and the Rockies.
Why do baked goods present such a challenge for the high-altitude cook? The reason is our lower atmospheric pressure caused by the thinner blanket of air above. At sea level, the atmosphere presses on a square inch of surface with a weight of 14.7 pounds. At 5,000 feet, that pressure is only 12.3 pounds and at 10,000 feet, it’s just 10.2 pounds. It’s no wonder we often feel light-headed after climbing up a mountain.
As for foods, this decreased pressure affects food preparation in three related ways: 1) leavening gases expand more quickly; 2) moisture evaporates faster from foods; and 3) water and other liquids boil at lower temperatures. In addition, because the climate of higher altitude areas is usually drier than that found at lower elevations, flour may be drier and dough may require more liquid to reach the proper consistency.
Most cake recipes need no modification up to an altitude of 3,000 feet. Above this, the lower atmospheric pressure may allow excessive rising, which stretches the cell structure of the cake, making the texture coarse, or breaking the cells and causing the cake to fall. Corrections usually include decreasing the amount of leavening and/or increasing the baking temperature to help set the batter before the leavening gases expand too much. Because excessive evaporation of liquid at high altitude also leads
to a higher concentration of sugar and fat that can further weaken cell structure, decreasing the proportion of sugar and fat and increasing the proportion of liquid can also help. In some recipes, adding an extra egg may be all that is needed. Eggs contain protein that helps strengthen cell structure.
While only repeated experiments with each sea-level recipe can determine the most successful proportions to use, one of the best places to start is to compare your favorite recipe that’s not working at altitude with one that has been formulated to work well at altitude. This is where the high altitude publications developed by Colorado State Cooperative Extension come in handy. In addition to a free booklet of tips on adjusting recipes for altitude, they offer several different specialty booklets for $2.75 each plus a newly published Complete Guide to High Altitude Baking that retails for $14.95.
For more information on the booklets or the new High Altitude Baking book, contact the Cooperative Extension Resource Center at (970) 491-6198 or check out their Web site at http://www.cerc.colostate.edu.