Is everything you're baking at high altitude failing? Too dry? Too crumbly? Too burnt? Cake with the texture of sawdust? Pies that fall apart? Cookies that are drier than the Sahara Desert? Check out my tips and resources for how to save your precious baked goods. If a bumbling baker like me can do it, you can too!
Baking was my gateway drug to cooking. I started baking butter cookies with my mum when I was 9 years old (maybe earlier?). While I still love baking, I gave it up after my lower back pain because bending into an oven is not good for me. But I can't resist. I still bake 3 to 4 times a year for special occasions.
Much like driving on the left side of the road when I'm home in Auckland, baking is a skill that never fully disappears, even if it scares the bejesus out of me. I try my best, remember the old turns, and usually flattering compliments. This all changed after I moved to Boulder, Colorado.
I heard legends that baking at high altitudes is as difficult as wrestling a brown bear. It leaves you exasperated, sweaty, and with bloody scars. But the reality is worse. After long hours of mixing batter and rolling out dough, the worst feeling is seeing your cake crumbling like sawdust when you first slice into it.
While I'm not an expert baker, I baked 9 chocolate cakes in January for my homemade trial on chocolate cake article for Nick at Macheesmo. So I've learned a trick or two about baking at high altitudes. For my future baking reference, I'm listing out the most important research to do, steps to follow, and resources to skim through so that next time I'm tending to the oven, I can succeed again in baking at high altitudes. Hopefully, these resources will help you too.
1: Find a great recipe
If your baking or cooking is failing, the number 1 place to point your finger at is your recipes, not yourself! Too many home cooks feel that failure is their fault when it's a poorly written recipe to blame!
For the American vs. French chocolate cake taste test article, I tried the Marmiton French chocolate cake recipe 4 times before I switched to David Lebovitz's French chocolate cake recipe. Within 1 try, David's chocolate cake produced a texture that was 10 times moister than the Marmiton version without any altitude adjustments.
Marmiton is a crowd-sourced recipe website, similar to the notorious Allrecipes.com. While there are gems in crowd-sourced recipes, the untested recipes can often lead to failure more than success. Arm yourself with solid recipes that you are confident will work.
Here are tips for how to find a well-written and rigorously tested recipe (partly inspired by Cassie's chat with Kate from the Dinner Sisters Podcast):
- Missing ingredients or steps: Read through the recipe once before you make it. Do the instructions mention an ingredient that's missing from the ingredient list? Do the instructions miss an obvious step? If so, this is a red flag. The recipe could still be awesome but it requires too much thinking for you to fill in the gaps. You should move on and find another recipe. After all, there are thousands more to choose from.
- High-altitude adjustments: Does the recipe specify it is designed for high altitude baking? If it's a sea-level recipe, does the recipe writer include adjustments for high elevation?
- Check the comments: There are often extra tips in the comments sections that benefit you. Plus, if it's a lousy recipe, you should see it in the recipe reviews and the comments. Skip the recipe if the comments seem negatively substantive and aren't just trolling the recipe writer.
- Precise measurements: I know Americans prefer baking with cups and spoons. Because baking is much more sensitive than cooking, if the recipe doesn't show me measurements in grams or ounces (even if the cup measurements take center stage), I'm immediately skeptical that the recipe will work.
- Tips for success: Does the recipe offer substitutions for ingredients? Does it explain how to adjust the baking time depending on the size of the cake pan you're using? What about recommendations for baking tins?
My favorite blogs for high-altitude baking
While these aren't the only trustworthy high-altitude recipes, I gravitate to these blogs because I know the recipes work.
- Dough Eyed: Nicole specializes in high-altitude baking and is based in Denver, Colorado. Dough eyed baker has amazing photos and well-tested recipes you can trust. Plus, Nicole is super nice and friendly.
- Use Real Butter: Jen has high-altitude baking recipes along with cooking recipes on her blog. She lives in Nederland, Colorado and shares breathtaking photos of the mountainscape she calls home.
2: Understand baking is sensitive
Higher elevations mean less atmosphere. Water boils at a lower temperature. There's less air pushing down on you and your cakes. This means your cakes will rise more than at sea level using the same amount of baking powder. Your cakes will dry out faster and sugar will be more concentrated (due to water loss).
The biggest impact thinner atmosphere has on your baking recipes is that the structure gets compromised and the texture dries out. Worse, your cake rises too fast and collapses to become a caved-in eyesore.
Luckily, there are ways to reinforce the structure of your cake and add moisture, including the following:
- Add milk or water: Having more liquid helps keep the cake and cookies moist.
- Reduce the chemical leaveners (baking powder and baking soda): There is less air to push up against so your cake will rise just as much if you reduce the baking soda.
- Add extra flour: Additional flour provides more structure.
- Add extra eggs: Eggs offer another
- Decrease sugar (and maybe butter): Sugar is more concentrated and can cause your cookies to spread.
- Start testing the doneness of your cake earlier: Your cake can overcook if following the baking time for sea-level recipes. Insert a tester at least 5 to 10 minutes earlier than the recipe instructs to make sure you don't overcook your cake.
I don't have recommendations on this article on how to adjust your recipe because it depends on what the ingredient ratios are. Instead of issuing blanket guidance on how to adjust, look at the resources below for advice.
My favorite ingredient adjustment resources
Baking is ridiculously finicky. That's why it's important to learn how baking works and how high-altitude in particular works. Here are my favorite resources on learning about baking and high-altitude adjustments.
- Baking Sense: Eileen conducts experiments on how ingredients work in baking recipes. It was helpful to learn about how eggs add structure, what sugar does, and how different kinds of flavor change your cake texture. It's not specialized in advice on high-altitude baking. However, it offers background information that makes the next resources on high-altitude baking more helpful.
- Denver Post's profile on Nicole from Dough Eyed: Nicole offers direct and practical adjustments for different kinds of baked goods. Worth reading for actionable tips.
- CSU Extension: This is an all-purpose high-altitude cooking and baking guide. It explains the science behind what's happening and has great advice for ingredient adjustments.
- King Arthur's Flour: Offers practical guidance on how much of the ingredients to reduce or increase down to the 1/2 and 1/4 teaspoons rather than vague suggestions like "add more of this and less of that."
- Cook's Illustrated: I liked the problem-solution approach categorized by different baked goods (cookies, cakes, bread, etc.) If you can identify a specific problem you're having (my cookies are too thin), then you can find the quick adjustment to try.
3: The secret trick to locking in moisture
As someone who usually prefers cake without frosting, I'll concede that frosted cakes stay moist much longer at higher altitudes.
If you've ever hiked in the mountains, you'll be nodding along. It only takes 1 experience with dehydration to never forget that you should always drink way more water than you think you need to because of rapid water loss.
So add some frosting or a glaze to your cakes. If you're turning your nose at the idea (as am I), make sure to tightly wrap the cake with plastic wrap once it has cooled. I find aluminum/aluminium foil leaves too many gaps. Sally from Sally's Baking Addiction has good advice on how to prepare your cake for freezing.
Check out my easy cream cheese frosting recipe adapted from Macheesmo which you can use for frosting your cakes to keep them moist.
- Mixing Bowl
- 1/2 cup butter (1 stick of butter, softened, I used salted and it was OK)
- 8 oz Cream Cheese (1 brick, softened)
- 1 tablespoon vanilla (vanilla essence)
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar (sifted)
- Gather the ingredients.
- Whip the softened butter and cream cheese until fluffy, about 3 minutes using a stand mixer or hand mixer.
- Combine the vanilla extract into the cream cheese and butter mixture.
- Fold in the powdered sugar until evenly combined. Your frosting is ready to use on the cake.
- Gently brush the cake you intend to frost with the cream cheese frosting. A spatula works well for this purpose. Enjoy your cream cheese frosting!
4: How to fix dry cakes
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the cake comes out crumbly, caved in, and an utter disappointment. There's no way you can serve it as is. Here are tips on how to salvage the cake.
- Make cake pops
- Make chocolate truffles using chocolate cake as a starting point
- Make an English trifle where you drench the dry pieces of cake in pudding, flavored liqueur, and/or whipped cream. It ends up looking very civilized and nobody will wise up to the fact that the cake was dry. Example of a trifle recipe and another one.
- Make a "poke cake" like this Better Than Sex Cake which is made with a chocolate sheet cake that is poked and drenched in caramel sauce.
- Brush simple syrup over the top of the cake and give it 1 to 2 hours to soak into the sponge.
5: Bake the cake without adjustments
OK, real talk. All these adjustments and variables are overwhelming. I was sweating from reading the instructions on decreasing leavening, increasing liquids, bolstering structures. I didn't want to bake the cake 15 times. I just wanted the cake to work!
So, if you're overwhelmed and cowering behind your mixer, here's my advice.
- Start by baking without adjustments: The recipe might work without any tweaks at all. This is excellent advice as a starting point for any recipe (thanks to Alex & CSU Extension).
- Make adjustments based on observation: Once you observed that the recipe failed, notice what you don't like about it. Is the cake texture too dry? Did the center of the cake cave in? Are the cookies thin and brittle? Is the pie burning outside but not cooking inside?
- Adjust 1 variable at a time: Pick the first variable to adjust and follow the advice from the adjustment resources. My favorite ones to tweak first are:
- Reduce the leavening: This is easy to tell because your cake is collapsed.
- Increase the liquid: Also easy to tell because your cake or bread is dry.
- If all else fails, email the recipe writer: If your adjustments continue to lead down the path of failure, email the recipe writer for help if it's a high-altitude adjusted recipe. Otherwise, email one of the high-altitude bloggers I mentioned and ask them if they'd be willing to help you adjust the recipe. If all else truly fails, you can ask a bumbling baker like me for help (email me at email@example.com).
Leave a comment if you have tips to share about how to succeed at baking at high altitudes!
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