A basic guide to baking in the High Country
Over a beer at the day’s end, the talk is of difficult mountain endeavors pursued by the brave and the dauntless. The stories tell of trials and tribulations, near disasters and sweet triumphs. There are high fives for the victorious and nods of approval for those who tried but failed. The topic, of course, is baking in the High Country.
What makes it so challenging?
There’s far less air pressure at high elevations. It drops about half a pound for every thousand feet beyond elevations of 3,000 feet. So, water boils at a lower temperature (2 degrees less for every 1,000-foot increase in elevation), and chemical leavenings (baking powder, baking soda and yeast) expand far more than they do at lower altitudes. Plus, what little air we have is unusually dry, so all liquids evaporate faster and other ingredients become more concentrated.
These changes affect almost everything we cook but have the biggest impact on what we put in the oven. Many baked goods don’t cook through, collapse and stick to the pan, flavors are weaker and textures are dry and dense. Unfortunately, there are no universal rules we can apply to avoid these problems, but you don’t need to venture into high-elevation baking unarmed. Here are some tips and recommendations that increase your chances of success:
Use metal baking pans, grease them generously with a baking spray that contains flour and line them with parchment paper.
Increase flavorings (extracts and spices)
Use superfine sugar; it dissolves rapidly, so batters form more quickly and dry out less from evaporation.
Don’t cream doughs and batters as much as you would at sea level; creaming adds air to them which can weaken their structure and cause them to collapse when baked.
Wrap baked goods airtight as soon as they’re cool.
If you’re making cookies, a bar cookie or brownie is a good choice; most of them don’t get fussy in high-elevation rarified air. In fact, if their sea-level recipes don’t include a chemical leavening, they often can be made with little or no changes. But, if you want to bake a batch of your favorite chocolate chippers, be warned: Almost all drop cookies are notorious for spreading and drying out at high elevations. To prevent these problems, increase the flour in the batter, reduce the leavening by at least half and (sometimes) add more liquid. Line the cookie sheet with parchment paper instead of greasing it, and freeze the formed-but-unbaked cookies before putting them in the oven. Bake them less than you would at sea level, only until they’re set but barely colored.
Cheesecakes and flourless cakes shine in the mountains, needing little change in ingredients and only a reduction in oven temperature and timing to be successful. But most cakes made with flour and leavening require more than that. To avoid sunken centers and heavy textures, add about 15% to 20% more flour, decrease sugar and other sweeteners by 1-2 tablespoons per cup, and reduce the chemical leavening by at least half.
With only a few small changes, pies and tarts fare quite well above 7,500 feet. The dough for their crusts usually needs more liquid to come together than it does at sea level, and fruit fillings take longer to bake. Fillings that include corn syrup should be avoided; the sugar in it concentrates and gushes.
Yeast breads are surprisingly forgiving up here. A sea-level recipe will usually work, but the bread’s taste and texture improve if the amount of yeast is reduced and the dough gets an additional rising or time in the fridge to slow down the yeast action before going in the oven.
Even with these tips, baking when you’re over a mile high takes experimentation and fortitude. But if you’d rather not attempt your own alterations, don’t give up on making treats in your oven. Seek out recipes that have already been reworked for elevation and tested in our mountains, like the few here. They’re available in our local newspaper and in cookbooks written specifically for baking above 7,500 feet.
Chocolate Raspberry Cake
Adjusted for elevations of 7,800 feet and above.
Make in an 8-inch shiny metal springform pan.
- 2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon bleached all-purpose flour, spoon and level
- A little less than 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 pinches salt
- 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
- 1 1/3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (one stick), cut into 16 pieces
- 5 tablespoons superfine sugar, preferably baker’s
- 1/2 cup raspberry jam, preferably seedless
- 1 tablespoon crème de cassis, optional
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons raspberry jam, preferably seedless
- 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream, cold
- 2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Fresh raspberries
Make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the center position. Unlock the pan, flip over the bottom, so the lip faces down, and relock it in place (this will make cutting and serving the cake easier). Grease the pan with a baking spray that contains flour. Line the pan bottom with a circle of parchment and grease the paper.
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl and whisk to blend. Set aside. Add the two chopped chocolates and the pieces of butter to a microwave-safe bowl, place it in the microwave and heat at a low temperature (3 out of 10) until only small lumps remain. Remove from the oven and stir until smooth and shiny. If quite warm, cool slightly.
Using a whisk or an electric mixer, beat the sugar, jam, crème de cassis (if using) and eggs in a large bowl until they are completely combined. Add the chocolate mixture and stir to blend well, then add the flour mixture and stir only until a batter forms. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth and level the top.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 30-35 minutes (don’t overbake or the cake will be dry). Remove to a rack and cool for about 15 minutes. Take off the pan side but leave the cake on the pan bottom and cool completely. If the top is domed, trim it so it’s flat. Invert the cake, remove the paper liner, and place the cake (still inverted, the bottom is now the top) on a cardboard cake circle. At this point you can cover it airtight and refrigerate it for a day or freeze it for a month. If frozen, defrost the cake before continuing.
Top the cake: About 2 hours before serving, place the bowl you’ll whip the cream in and the beaters for your electric mixer in the freezer to chill (this helps the cream whip quickly). Stir the jam until smooth and liquefied. If necessary, warm it slightly in a microwave. Spread it over the top of the cake and set it aside to thicken until it’s only slightly sticky. Just before serving, whip the cold cream, sugar and vanilla in the chilled bowl with the chilled beaters until stiff peaks form. Pile fresh raspberries in the cake’s center, spoon the whipped cream in a pastry bag with a closed star tip, and pipe a border of stars around the cake’s edge. Serve at room temperature. Store leftovers in the fridge.
This recipe is a variation of one published by Pillsbury
Vera Dawson’s column “High Country Baking” publishes biweekly on Thursdays in the Summit Daily News. Dawson is a high-elevation baking instructor and author of three high-altitude cookbooks. Her recipes have been tested in her kitchen in Frisco, where she’s lived since 1991, and altered until they work at elevation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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