What You Need To Know About Baking At High Altitude

Nov 25, 2019

As the holiday season approaches, you may be planning on baking pies, cakes and cookies. But as you may have discovered, baking at higher altitudes like the ones here in Colorado is different from baking at sea level. To find out more about what this actually means and what adjustments we should make so our desserts don't collapse, KUNC's Colorado Edition traveled to Colorado State University to get some advice. 

Why is baking different at high altitude? 

Marisa Bunning, a professor and extension specialist at Colorado State University, explained why baking is different at higher elevations. 

"It has to do with that lighter blanket of air," Bunning said. "Because we're at higher elevation, we have less air pressure here. So things like when bread rises because of the yeast it can actually rise faster, and cakes as well, but it doesn't properly set, it doesn't get a structure before it rises to a point that it actually collapses. So it seems like a good thing that things rise quickly, but it can turn into a product that doesn't turn out the way you want it to."

What are adjustments you can make for baking at high altitude?

According to Bunning, "You may need to adjust the time that you're cooking something, you may need to adjust the temperature, and you may need to adjust the recipe. And sometimes you might need to adjust all three.

"Because of the lower air pressure, leavening will actually work more efficiently here, so we suggest reducing the leavening. In other words, you may need to decrease the amount of baking soda or baking powder when you're baking cookies.

"The other thing is, because of our drier climate, you may need to increase the liquid. And this might mean adding more eggs or using larger eggs, or adding water."

"Another thing that may help is, especially with breads and cakes, you may need to raise the temperature of the oven, because that can help set the structure a little faster, and you can avoid the collapse of the baked product."

Bunning recommends trying one change at a time.

"It's a trial and error process," she said, "and we recommend that people take very good notes as they're make changes so they can remember what did and didn't work, so they can try it again."

Chelsea Didinger, Marisa Bunning and Erin O'Toole.
Credit Lily Tyson / KUNC

Tips for Baking Pie At High Elevations

Heidi Engelhardt, a masters student of Food Science at CSU, gave us some tips: "At higher elevations because there is less pressure above us, the water can evaporate quicker. And one of the main ingredients in pie crusts is water. And it's very pertinent that you hydrate the pie dough, again with cold water, because you don't want the butter to melt because that's what creates the flakiness in the pie.

"So oftentimes you might just need to add a couple tablespoons extra of water to what the recipe says. If you refrigerate it after it's been hydrated, again that butter will harden up and that will help the structure of you pie crusts when it's being baked because you don't want it to melt because that's when it will fall and get soggy."

And for the fillings, test the recipe first and see how it comes out. For a pumpkin pie Engelhardt recommends adding an extra egg if you need more structure. For other pies, decrease the amount of liquid to keep it from spilling over. 

Cookies with and without high altitude adjustments. The top two cookies were refrigerated before baked. The bottom two were not. The two on the left have high altitude adjustments. The two on the right do not.
Credit Lily Tyson / KUNC

Cookie Tips

No matter what altitude you are making cookies at, Chelsea Didinger, PhD student in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at CSU, recommends refrigerating cookie dough overnight.

"That will help the fat that you use, likely butter, solidify," she said. "That way when you do end up baking those cookies, they're not just going to melt and be all flat, they'll actually have a nice shape to the cookie."

And what about the mashed potatoes? 

"I've never lived in a place where it took so long to cook mashed potatoes as Colorado," said Bunning.

Because of the higher elevation, water boils at lower temperatures which means a longer cooking time for vegetables, like potatoes. So start earlier and expect a longer cooking time for your potatoes to cook. 

And the turkey? 

Bunning said that for cooking turkey there's generally no adjustment that needs to be made due to elevation but, she added, it is important to check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer to make sure it's cooked. The turkey should get to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. 

Do you need to change the green bean casserole recipe for altitude?

"No, that works everywhere," Bunning says. "No adjustments necessary."

You can find even more information about baking at high altitude here

This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for November 25. Listen to the full episode here.