Routt County CSU Extension: High-altitude advice for holiday baking

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I received a call last week from a very unhappy home baker. She recently had relocated to Northwest Colorado and made her family’s favorite chocolate cake with miserable results. When she opened the oven, she discovered that it had overflowed the pan, making a mess of her oven and leaving a dense, sunken blob behind. What a disappointing result from hours of effort and costly ingredients. The Colorado State University Extension Office receives many calls of this nature from cooks frustrated with our high altitude. We even had a call from a visiting hunter who wanted to know why his boxed macaroni and cheese was “chewy,” even though he prepared it the way he always does back home.

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Karen Massey

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Do not assume that your sea-level recipe will fail. Try it first. It may need little or no modification. Often, repeated experiments with each recipe can give the most successful liquid, sugar and leavening proportions to use. Visit the Colorado State University — Food Science and Nutrition website, www.farmtotable.colostate.edu, to find more specific suggestions from its publication "High Altitude Food Preparation."

Routt County CSU Extension

This monthly column about health issues publishes on Mondays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

Cooks often find problems with food preparation at our higher elevation. Fallen cakes, undercooked ingredients and dough overflowing its pan are just a few of the troubles that you might experience. Cooking difficulties arise when you attempt to make recipes that were developed at sea level, like most recipes found in your favorite cookbooks, family recipes, magazines or online, at our higher elevation. A rule of thumb is that anytime you prepare food at 3,000 feet above sea level, you may require some high-altitude adjustments. Most of the communities in our corner of the state range from 6,000 to 8,000 above sea level, so we all can benefit from a better understanding of high-altitude cooking.

Before we can explore solutions, it’s important to understand the difference between low- and high-altitude cooking. The pressure of air (atmospheric pressure) is greatest at sea level and decreases as altitude increases. The lower atmospheric pressure that we experience in Colorado affects our cooking and baking in two ways: water and other liquids evaporate faster and boil at lower temperatures, and leavening gases in breads and cakes expand more quickly. The way we compensate for these effects can vary, depending on what you are cooking.

• Foods cooked in boiling water will require longer cooking times. A “three-minute egg” may take five minutes to cook at 6,000 feet.

• Yeast breads will rise quickly, so try punching down the dough several times to allow more time for the gluten and flavor to develop before baking. Flours tend to be drier in our climate (and able to absorb more liquid) so you may need less flour to get the proper dough consistency.

• Cakes and some quick breads usually benefit from adjustments for altitude. The recommendations can involve reducing the baking powder and/or baking soda so that the product doesn’t rise excessively. Increasing the baking temperature by 15 to 25 degrees will help “set” the batter before it has a chance to over-expand. Strengthen the cell structure by decreasing sugar or fat by 1 to 2 tablespoons. Use extra-large eggs to provide a little added moisture and structure to any baked good.

Cooking at high altitudes involves a blending of art and science. Don’t assume that all sea-level recipes will fail, but when they do, it is best to make one adjustment at a time. Eventually, you will find the right combination of corrections that will make your recipes family favorites once again.

Karen Massey is a registered dietitian nutritionist and family and consumer science extension agent with Colorado State University Extension in Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 or email karen.massey@colostate.edu with questions.

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