High Altitude Cooking

By March 16, 2020Uncategorized

At any elevation above sea level there is atmospheric change that becomes more noticeable  the higher one ventures.  It’s particularly apparent how high up you are when you try to bake for the first time at altitude.

            Up to about 3,000 feet minimal, if any, adjustments are necessary for most recipes.  But in Big Bear, where the altitude can vary between 6,000 and 7,000 feet, having some basic information can save you from repeated frustration.

            One thing you may already know is that water boils at lower temperatures the higher the elevation.  Decreased atmospheric pressure is the culprit.  This means that it takes longer to cook most foods at high elevations.

            Another consideration is that the higher the altitude, the drier the air becomes and liquids evaporate more quickly.  This combined with having to cook the food longer may leave you with dishes that are dried out and unappetizing. 

            Cooking time and moisture level are just two of the issues you will face when cooking in the mountains.  The last big problem is with the leavening ingredients used in baking breads, cakes and cookies.  The gases produced by baking powder, baking soda and yeast expand faster, again due to the lower atmospheric pressure, and then fall flat before cooking is complete.  So, cakes and breads will rise quickly and then collapse into an unappealing crater.

            In cooking savory dishes, only slight adjustments may need to be made.  Be aware of the moisture content and cooking time, especially when cooking meats, which will tend to dry out quicker at high elevations.  Oven-roasted meats are generally cooked at the same temperature and time as at sea level, but us a meat thermometer to ensure that it is cooked through.  Moist cooking methods may take a little longer, but do help to maintain the tenderness of the meat.

            Anything boiled in water may need extra time to cook and be sure to keep your eye on the water level.  It will evaporate away faster than you think causing the food to burn to the bottom of the pot.  Stews and beans will need extra time to cook and anything using the double boiler method.  Custards will also take longer to set.

Baking, though, is what will be the most challenging.  Many people find their favorite cake or cookie recipes turn out disappointing when prepared at high altitude.  Muffins and biscuits are more stable and don’t need much, if any, adjustment to the recipe, but they may end up having a rather bitter taste if the baking powder or baking soda doesn’t neutralize properly, so a slight decrease may be necessary.

            Cookies also need very little adjustment, but increasing the oven temperature by 20 degrees and shortening the cooking time a minute or two can help improve results.  Avoiding using insulated or double layer cookie sheets, as they will not allow enough heat to properly brown the cookie bottoms.  Single layer sheets are best to get your cookies nice and hot.

            Cakes and bread will need more care to yield the best possible results.  Baking powder and baking soda amounts will need to be decreased.  If egg whites are used for leavening, be sure to beat them only to a soft peak.  Overbeating will cause them to deflate too quickly in the oven.  Sugar may also need to be decreased by a tablespoon or more per cup.

            Flour tends to be drier at high elevations, so increasing liquid ingredients is suggested to maintain sufficient moisture content.  Sometimes just adding an egg, some sour cream or buttermilk can do the trick.  Also, consider decreasing the amount of flour a bit for yeast bread and increasing it for quick breads and cakes.

            The chart lists some standard adjustment suggestions; however, there is no one answer to perfect high altitude baking.  Some experimentation and conservative modifications is key to achieving and the best results – small changes can make all the difference. 

            There may be science involved with baking, especially at a high altitude, but it isn’t quantum physics.  Anyone with a little knowledge and some time to practice can bake dishes that are just as yummy as they would be at sea level.  So, now that you know the tricks the highlanders use to bake like pros, you can take on that cake recipe with confidence and don’t forget to have some fun with it, too.

For Baking At Altitude:
Ingredient                     5,000 Feet                          7,000 Feet              10,000 Feet
Liquid                                     2-4 Tbsp.                           3-4 Tbsp.                3-4 Tbsp. (Increase per cup)   Baking Powder/Soda           1/8-1/4 Tsp.                     1/4 – 1/2 Tsp.        1/2 – 2/3 Tsp. (Decrease per Teaspoon)   Sugar                                      0-2 Tbsp.                        2-4 Tbsp.               3-4 Tbsp. (Decrease per Cup)   Flour                                       0-2 Tbsp.                        3-4 Tbsp.               3-4 Tbsp.  (Increase per Cup)   *For Candy and Syrup: Finish temperature is decreased by two degrees Fahrenheit for every increase of 1,000 feet in elevation.   *For Deep-Fat Frying: Lower frying temperature approximately three degrees Fahrenheit for every increase of 1,000 feet in elevation.  

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