High-altitude adjustments will raise your baking game

Are you a transplant or summer resident having trouble with your cooking and baked goods? Do your cakes and meringues fall, is your rice hard, are your eggs raw or is your bread lacking flavor? Well, fear not. Your cooking probably is not the problem. It’s likely that the altitude is wrecking your recipes.

Here in La Plata County these cooking and baking problems are caused by high altitude as well as the semi-arid desert climate – not only are we closer to the sun, we have less atmospheric pressure to hold things down. Here are a few changes that can make a significant difference for you in the kitchen.

To better understand why, let’s start with basic physics. In our area, the altitude as well as the low humidity plays games with baking, canning and moist-heat cooking – even meringue and pecan pie. Cakes and bread can look great halfway through baking but then crater in the middle. Biscuits can be “tough as a board,” cookies may be flat and greasy, jelly fails to set up and the list goes on.

For starters, do not assume that your recipe will fail. It may need little or no modification. We find most standard recipes work up to around 3,000 feet in elevation, but above that, adjustments might help.

There are three factors that affect all cooking but particularly baked goods, candy making and the safety of food-preservation canning.

At higher elevation, liquids boil at a lower temperature (2 degrees for every 1,000 feet above sea level). This occurs because there is less pressure to hold the bubbles down. At 6,000 to 7,000 feet, water turns to steam at 198 degrees to 200 degrees, rather than sea level’s 212 degrees. Not only are beverages not as hot, foods take longer to cook at the lower temperatures.

Because boiling water “evaporates” more rapidly, the quantity of liquids need to be increased in cooking. Foods such as beans and rice require about one-third more liquid and more time.

The third key factor is leavening agents, particularly whipped air, baking powder and baking soda, which can cause the gases in breads or cakes to expand faster and the item to rise too fast. If there isn’t a firm structure to handle the risen product, it will fall in the center. Overflowing the pan is common.

One teaspoon of baking powder at 6,000 feet produces more than 20 percent greater volume than at sea level. Bread rises faster. So in order to develop the yeast action and gluten, bread needs to be punched down twice to create the flavor we enjoy.

Be aware that the high altitude also affects candy making as well as canning. If you modify a recipe, take small steps at a time. One change might be all that is necessary. Start by increasing the baking temperature by 15 degrees to 25 degrees to set the structure, divide the product into two pans rather than one or try one of the recommended adjustments (see box).

ricekw@co.laplata.co.us or 247-4355. Wendy Rice is family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office.