Five Rules for Baking at Altitude

Old family recipe? Dish you found online? Here's how to tweak it for Denver's altitude.

Photo by Cassandra Stiltner

Coohills and Frank & Roze executive pastry chef Nikki Baldacci, whose divine chocolate chip cookie fills our Dish page this month, loves the recipes she finds in Baking Illustrated, a modern classic from America’s Test Kitchen. There’s just one problem. “If you were to get a recipe from Baking Illustrated, or anywhere online, they’re typically not altitude-adjusted,” she says. “Here at 5,280 feet, we have to adjust every recipe.” Baldacci began aspiring to be a pastry chef when she was a little girl, and started working in kitchens at 15. She got her culinary degree from Johnson & Wales, so she can explain in detail the science behind the required adjustments. What amateurs need to remember: 1. Any recipe using baking soda, baking powder, or yeast needs a tweak; 2. At our elevation, evaporation happens more quickly and baked goods can dry out if left in the oven too long.

Here are her five rules for baking luscious, moist cookies, cakes, muffins, and breads at a mile above sea level.

1. Increase oven temperature at least 15 degrees Fahrenheit, up to Baldacci’s preference: 25 degrees. This means your dish will bake faster and you can remove it in less time—before drying starts.

2. Increase your flour by about 2 tablespoons per baked-goods recipe.

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3. Increase your liquids by 3 tablespoons to compensate for evaporation. “Liquids” includes water, milk, oil, and eggs. “When you bake a cake or muffin and you pull it out of the oven and it looks really beautiful and 2 seconds later it falls, it doesn’t have enough structure,” she says. “Eggs help, so I increase them. Just crack a medium egg, whisk it all together, then take two-thirds of that and pour it into your batter.”

4. Decrease your sugar by 1 tablespoon per cup. “This helps prevent collapsing,” she says.

5. Decrease baking powder and baking soda by 50 percent, and yeast by 25 percent.

Baldacci says sometimes her prize student (her mom!) follows all these rules, and comes to her lamenting, “My cake is still falling.” Here’s one last-ditch trick: Substitute 25 percent of your all purpose flour with whole wheat flour (for one cup of flour: ¾ c. AP flour, ¼ c. whole wheat) for more protein. With that comes more structure.

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