Common Issues of High-Altitude Baking and How to Fix Them

Baking at high altitudes can come with some surprises. These insights into what problems can happen and how to avoid them can help ensure your baked goods turn out perfectly every time.

Have you ever come across a recipe and put in the time, energy, and resources to create it, only to discover that the final product is not what you hoped for? The problem could lie in the fact that you are making a recipe that wasn't created for the altitude you live in. I've been fortunate to have baked in kitchens in Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Des Moines and have found that the same recipe can be noticeably different depending on where it's being baked. It might be a surprise to some (and it was to me!), but unless expressly noted, many standard recipes in cookbooks and online are developed for use at sea level. Baking in cities with higher altitudes can have dramatically different results, despite following a recipe with precision.

baking ingredients bread loaf cutting board eggs sugar milk
Blaine Moats

Issues with Baking at a High Altitude

Why would an elevation change affect baking? Baking is a science that relies on interactions between flour, fats, liquid, and leavening, and elevation is a significant factor in each of those areas during the baking process. A few of the main problems that arise in baking at higher altitudes include:

  1. Liquids boil at lower temperatures, which causes moisture in baked goods to evaporate quicker.
  2. Flours tend to be drier and absorb more liquid at higher altitudes.
  3. Baked items with leavening agents like baking powder, baking soda, and even whipped egg whites can rise quickly and collapse.
  4. Bread containing yeast tends to rise fast and overproof at higher altitudes.

High-Altitude Baking Adjustments

There are also ways that certain ingredients, oven temperature, and cooking time can affect your baking. Below are some factors to consider with your recipes, problems that may arise, and how to work around them for baking at a higher altitude. (If you haven't invested in a kitchen scale—and I highly recommend it for many reasons! It makes alterations to recipes using weight a cinch using simple percentages.)

Sugar

With evaporation increasing during the baking process, sugar can become concentrated, which results in a weaker structure of a baked product. An example of this could be a denser cake or cookies spreading on the baking sheet.

The Fix: The best practice to avoid this issue is to decrease the sugar in your recipe by 3% for every 2,500 feet in elevation (6% for 5,000 ft, 9% for 7,500 feet, etc.).

Flour

Flours tend to be drier at higher altitudes, but flour also supplies the necessary structure, strength, and shape to batters and doughs as they bake and cool. At high altitudes, all-purpose flour is preferred over cake or pastry flour because it has more protein which helps aid the overall structure of baked goods.

The Fix: Adjust flour in recipes beginning at altitudes of 3,000 feet and add 3% more flour than the recipe suggests. For higher altitudes, gradually increase the amount up to 10% for altitudes up to 8,000 feet.

Liquid

Water boils at a lower temperature and evaporates more quickly at higher altitudes. Because evaporation happens quicker, increasing the liquid in the recipe will help keep the product from drying out both during and after baking. Adding liquid also helps compensate for the decrease in moisturizing ingredients in baked goods, like sugars and fats, and the increase in flour, which absorbs moisture.

The Fix: To aid in the loss of moisture, increase the recipe's liquid by 9% for elevations of 3,500 feet (15% for 5,000 feet, 22% for 7,500 feet).

Eggs

Eggs are wonderful in many ways–they increase liquid, fat, and protein in baked goods. The egg white contributes to the strength, and the yolks contribute richness and tenderness, which can counteract the drying effects of baking at altitude.

The Fix: Adjustments for eggs could start at 2,500 feet, starting with adding 3%. Gradually increase the number of eggs called for in the recipe to 15% for elevations up to 7,500 feet.

Leavening

With altitudes being higher, the air pressure is lower, which causes leavening gasses to expand more. As a result, the amount of any leavening agent should be decreased in recipes.

The Fix: Baking powder, baking soda, and any other substitute that reacts to heat must be reduced by 20% starting at 2,500 feet and gradually reduced by up to 60% at 7,500 feet. If you are using a creaming or foaming method for your leavening, incorporating less air will help the product yield the best results. For instance, if using whipped egg whites, be sure only to whip them to a soft peak leaving room in the air cells so they can expand while baking and remain stable when cool.

Bread may rise in a fraction of the time required compared to lower elevations. Keep an eye on the process and punch down the dough when it doubles in size. In some instances, consider reducing the yeast in a recipe up to half of what the recipe calls for to keep the rise from happening too quickly.

Oven temperature

Leavening and evaporation happen more quickly at higher temperatures.

The Fix: Increasing the oven temperature by 15℉ to 25℉ will set the structure of baked goods before the product gets a chance to dry out or overexpand.

Baking time

Higher altitude baking means the products will be finished baking faster than usual.

The Fix: Depending on the baked good, decreasing the bake time by 5 to 8 minutes per 30 minutes of baking time will be helpful.

Other factors to consider are greasing pans heavily or lining the pans with parchment paper. A baked good with higher fat content tends to stick more easily at higher altitudes. Once the item is out of the oven and cooled, wrap or store products to help ensure maximum moisture and freshness. Using a glass dome over baked goods, a cookie jar with a heavy lid, or plastic wrap is a great way to help products maintain their quality.

Some high-altitude adjustments for baking could require some subtle but important changes. When working on adjusting your recipe for a higher elevation, it is best to modify one ingredient at a time to determine its effect on the recipe. It helps to try the recipe and take note of what changes you noticed; you may find that the recipe may only need minor adjustments. It is also helpful to keep track of what alterations you've made to adapt a recipe for your kitchen (the margins of cookbooks are perfect for this!). As a helpful resource, many manufacturers conveniently supply detailed information and adjusted formulas for elevation for some of their products on company websites or on the side of the label. For instance, adjustments on how to bake a box cake at high altitude are often listed on the instructions on the box itself.

If you find a recipe that could use some improvement after baking at higher altitudes, consider some of these high-altitude baking adjustments above to make the recipe perfect for your kitchen.

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