Updated: Apr 23, 2019
I was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado at 5,000 feet of altitude. When I graduated high school, I moved to the East Coast for college and quickly lost my altitude advantage. I am an avid runner, and I remember returning home for my first winter break and finding what should have been easy training runs incredibly challenging due to the simple fact that my lungs had gotten used to the higher air pressure at sea level. Since I lived at altitude most of my life, I never really understood when people told me that higher altitudes introduce challenges in multiple different areas that aren’t present at sea level.
I decided to do some research. If high altitudes can affect my body differently when I’m running, what else do they change? As it turns out, higher altitudes change the way things bake, so recipes may need to be modified the higher we get above sea level. As someone who loves sweets (especially cake), I had to learn more about this phenomenon. Without further ado, here is everything you should know about baking at high altitudes.
Baking is a science. A successful bake depends on the right chemical reactions being formed within the ingredients. Therefore, it is very easy to make mistakes; recipes must be followed precisely. When you throw high altitude into the equation, everything becomes a bit more difficult. At high altitude, evaporation happens quicker, so it’s important to raise the temperature of the oven so that the bake can set before the moisture evaporates. Furthermore, since the oven is set higher than the normal recipe calls for, it is important not to overbake. It may be necessary to remove the bake before the recipe says to. Be sure to keep a close eye on your bake and check it frequently so as to ensure a perfect amount of time in the oven.
Additionally, since the moisture evaporates more quickly with less air pressure, it may be necessary to increase the liquid in the bake. Start with one or two tablespoons more of each liquid, then modify from there. You should also be aware that the structure of the bake might not be as sound at high altitudes. Therefore, you should increase the amount of flour you put in the bake, or use a flour that contains more protein. For specific information about how much flour to add to the recipe, head to King Arthur's extensive databases.
So, if you live at high altitude and can’t figure out why your bakes never turn out quite right, it may be that the environment is working against you. High altitudes throw in so many factors that can ruin even the best bakes—not enough air pressure, a different boiling point, and quicker evaporation. The only way to scale the mountain of a challenge that is baking at high altitudes (see what I did there?) is to modify recipes and test them until you find something that works well. It may seem troublesome, but trust me, it will all be worth it when you have a scrumptious cake to come home to after a long day of hiking or skiing.