Monday, December 8, 2008

Baking 101: High Altitude Baking

Nigella Lawson once commented that baking is easier than cooking because a baker just follows a recipe. Nigella never moved to a town 10,000 feet above sea level and had to rewrite the contents of her baking cookbook. Having done exactly that I could claim the opposite to be true; writing a entrĂ©e recipe, from scratch, is much easier than writing a dessert recipe. The baker’s science has to be spot on for the end result to look and taste perfect. I wouldn’t make that claim, though. No good can come from pitting egocentric cooks against each other.

To build confidence as a high altitude baker one must understand the science behind leavening and the effect altitude has on the internal structure of baked goods. Once that lesson is learned, the baker must adjust each recipe, testing and retesting until it works. Some recipes are easier to adjust. I never mastered Sponge Cake at altitude. Sponge Cake achieves it loft from a balance of air and leavening, two variables greatly affected by altitude. I learned to appreciate denser yellow cakes during my mountain years.

The science
Higher elevation means lower air pressure. Lower pressure causes water to boil at lower temperatures. Water comes to a boil in less time, so it takes longer to cook everything you boil. For example, at sea level I make 11-minute hard boiled eggs. To achieve the same egg
at 10,000 feet, I boiled them for 17 minutes.

At high altitude (anything over 3,000 feet) baked goods rise faster. Liquids evaporate faster so flavors and sugar become more concentrated. When the sugar ratio is out of proportion, cakes don’t set. The middles are gooey and the cake lacks structure. Air bubbles rise faster so cakes rise fast and high only to fall because of the last of structure inside.

The solutions
1. Decrease sugar - start by removing 2-3 T from a recipe and see how it responds. I routinely reduce sugar by 25% when trying a new recipe, so don’t worry about overdoing it.

2. Decrease leavening -baking powder or baking soda - by a ¼ to ½ teaspoon.

3. Increasing flour by 2-3 T helps reinforce structure and balance sugar/protein ratio.

4. Increase liquids - an extra egg yolk goes a long way. Butter, eggs, and sour cream all count as liquids. Start with an extra ¼ cup.

5. Don’t overbeat anything, especially eggs. Beating adds air, and adding pesky air bubbles creates rising problems. When a recipe calls for whisking egg whites to a soft peak, only whisk them until they are fully white but not quite strong enough to hold a peak.

6. Increase baking temperature 25° F. A faster cooking time will help prevent cakes from rising too high.

7. Use only pure ingredients, extracts and flavorings. I only advocate pure extracts, but it's absolutely critical that you don't use imitations at altitude since flavors are more concentrated at altitude. Use the best extracts available.

8. Bundt cake pans are much more forgiving cake pans at altitude. Never pass up the opportunity to use one. Cakes made in bundt pans also tend to be more dense and have lower rates of collapse.

9. Cookies rarely need recipe adjustments. It is critical to chill cookie dough prior to baking. Also increase oven temperature as described above.

The Conclusion
Taking any cake recipe and applying the guidelines above will improve your chance of success. And when you fail, don't sweat it. A fallen cake can become a beautiful trifle.

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