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Bake like an expert (at 5,000 feet)

Raise your culinary skills by mastering these high altitude tips

by Betsy Lynch

Winter in Colorado is the ideal time for baking warm goodies. However, our location (at nearly a mile high) can leave Grandma’s banana bread flat and Uncle John’s cookies brittle—until you modify the recipes to perform like true mountaineers.

cartoon mountaineer summiting cookie stackIt's easier than you might think, according to Patricia Kendall, Colorado State University Extension professor emerita and editor of High Altitude Baking: 200 Delicious Recipes and Tips for Great High Altitude Cookies, Cakes, Breads and More. You just have to be willing to experiment.

First, the science. At sea level, the earth's atmosphere applies 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi), compared to 12.3 psi at 5,000 feet.  Our "lighter air" can affect baking because it:

  1. Shortens rise times as yeast, baking soda, and baking powder release and expand gases more quickly
  2. Causes water and other liquids to boil at lower temperatures
  3. Allows moisture to evaporate faster, concentrating sugars and impacting baking interactions

Cutting back on leavening ingredients such as yeast will tame gas production so your dough doesn't rapidly inflate, then flatten. And because our climate is so dry, an extra tablespoon or two of water might be needed to make dough the right consistency. Slightly higher oven temperatures and adjusted bake times can also help you achieve the rise, texture, color, and taste you expect. Of course, not all recipes need modifying, so Kendall recommends testing the original before you start tinkering.

Yeast Breads
  • If dough is ultra-dry, increase liquid 1-2 Tbsp. per cup of flour to get the right dough consistency
  • Slow the rise by reducing yeast 10-25%  (1/4 to 1/2 tsp. per packet)
  • Pay attention! Only allow dough to double in size during each rise before punching down (before it collapses)
cake on forkCookies

Most recipes work fine, but they might turn out even better if you:

  • Slightly increase baking temperature
  • Slightly decrease baking powder or soda
  • Slightly decrease sugar and/or fat
  • Slightly increase liquid and flour
Cakes, Quick Breads & Biscuits
  • Reduce baking powder by 1/8 tsp. for each teaspoon required
  • Take out 1 Tbsp. from each cup of sugar
  • Increase liquid by 1-2 Tbsp. for each cup
  • Raise cooking temperature 15-25°F
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