Yes, height really does matter
It was a disaster. I had lovingly tried to make pancakes for my mother while visiting her in Southern Colorado. "I have the best pancake recipe ever," I told her. And frankly I did—or at least it worked beautifully when I was whipping up flapjacks at my then-home in Brooklyn. Not so much in this tiny town where the elevation reached 7,890 feet above sea level. As I stirred in the milk, eggs, baking soda, and flour the batter looked normal. So I heated up the pan and started to fry up the breakfast cakes. Only, they didn't stay in neat little circles. Instead they pooled around the skillet in odd white clumps as if I had forgotten to stir the ingredients together.
"What's going on?" I wondered as I tried to flip the doughy mess. That didn't help either, nor did trying to cook a second batch. In the end, my mother got a plate of broken-up pieces of sweetened bread covered in maple syrup. The flavor was fine but the texture was off and the appearance was totally unappetizing. She gratefully ate them despite my protests.
In the end, I did manage to feed my family breakfast, but I still wondered what the heck had happened to this simple dish that I had never before screwed up so royally. It all came down to one thing: high altitude.
"Before I came out here from Pennsylvania I had always heard about the high-altitude baking, but I didn't really know what that meant," said Michael Bortz, owner of City Bakery in Denver. "I learned quickly since when I started baking cakes and they were all over the place."
Turns out elevation really can be a problem for bakers and those looking to make things like pancakes at home. So what's a dutiful daughter to do when when it comes to making tasty breakfast treats thousands of miles above sea level? The experts say practice is the only way to truly learn, though there are some adjustments that can help.
"Never stop trying, and remember to have patience," said Andrea Knight, owner of The Noshery, a breakfast joint in Denver. "I have been baking in Colorado for over 10 years and I still mess up all the time. Sometimes my failures have opened my eyes to a new way of doing things or it's good dog food or it goes into the compost, either way it's never a waste."
But before you can start playing around with recipes, it's good to understand what the heck high altitude even means. The main issue with a higher elevation is low air pressure and less oxygen, something that affects both people and cooking. Technically you aren't at high altitude until you reach 8,000 feet above sea level, but for many people it can cause discomfort and a radical change in areas lower than that. And in the baking world adjustments have to start being made as early as 3,000 feet.
Now how does this all affect your pastries, muffins, and Dutch babies? One common outcome is baked goods rising easier but losing moisture faster, an occurrence that causes them to dry out or ooze from the pan and all over your oven. One reason liquids dissipate so rapidly up here is because water boils faster and at a lower temperature. Given that technically the eggs, butter, and sugar you use in most pastries and biscuits are considered a liquid, it stands to reason that the moisture from these ingredients will also evaporate at a rapid pace. Then there's the gas factor, something that occurs because leavening happens faster, which can create large pockets of air in your batter and dough.
So, what's a baker to do? Do you add more flour as some recipes call for or adjust the baking temperature and time? Perhaps the secret of flawless high-altitude cooking lies in the amount of leavening or sugar. Turns out, it's all of that, depending on the recipe, just how high you are and the dryness of the air. Your best option is to experiment with different adjustments until you get it right. Then hold on to that altered recipe for the rest of your life.
"For most of my recipes I use a basic high altitude adjusting equation, and you can find really simple free high altitude adjusting calculators that have all the equations online," says Knight. "For some recipes I have learned to add different ingredients into the recipe that were not on there to begin with."
And, if you find yourself cooking in Aspen (8,000 feet above sea level) as Bortz did, you might have to invest in some inverted sugar (also called invert sugar), which is a mixture of glucose and fructose and comes in liquid form. The baker also adds more butter to his cinnamon roll batter to soften them up and turns up the oven heat. Knight too has found that teaspoon of xanthan gum keeps her French macarons from falling apart after baking.
As for those pancakes, while I haven't tried them at such a high elevation since that fateful day, I have found that in Denver, the Mile High City, an extra egg and a quarter-cup of milk have made my breakfast staple a winner, high altitude be damned.
Tips for high-altitude baking starting at 3,500 feet:
1. Increase liquid, adding approximately 2 to 4 tablespoons per cup. You can also use an extra egg as the added liquid.
2. Increase oven temperature by 15°F to 25°F.
3. Reduce sugar by about 1 to 2 tablespoons per cup.
4. Reduce baking time depending on what you are cooking.
5. Reduce baking powder by 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon per teaspoon.
6. Starting at 3,500 feet, add more flour—1 tablespoon per each additional 1,500.