A Comprehensive Guide to Baking at High Altitudes

Did you know you should you use less baking soda at higher altitudes?

October 11, 2022
Cupcake with caramel drop. Homemade pastries


Cupcake with caramel drop. Homemade pastries

Photo by: ekolara/Getty Images

ekolara/Getty Images

By Jessie Sheehan for Food Network Kitchen

Jessie Sheehan is a baker and cookbook author.

High altitude baking really does have a bad rap – and we’ll admit: some of it’s justified. There is little more frustrating than spending time and energy whipping up something delicious, only to find that, despite your best efforts, your cake has fallen AND is dry, your cookies have spread AND are tough, your pie dough is brittle, your bread rose and fell and your muffins are bitter. Just writing this makes us feel sad. That’s why put together this comprehensive guide to guide you to success at high altitudes.

Before you give the tips and tweaks a go, however, you might want to consider giving the recipe a try as written. We know this seems a little wasteful and potentially messy if things go as you expect them to (i.e.: badly). But there is always the possibility that the recipe will work. For example, there is some disagreement as to whether cookies even need adjustments when mountain baking. Some say yes and some say no. Same goes for pie dough, muffins and tea breads – some say they really won’t be all that affected, and others say the opposite. In short, the beauty of giving the recipe a try as written, is that even if things do not go well, you will be able to address the problem precisely the next time around. Making a whole bunch of changes before you even begin, hoping that one of them is going to help a problem that you’ve yet to identify, is a bit of a toss-up.

Finally, whether you wait to adjust until after you’ve made the recipe once, or adjust at the get-go, remember that none of the adjustments we are going to suggest work for every recipe, 100% of the time. Some may work at some altitudes and not at others; or for one house on your block, and not for another. Patience and flexibility are key, as is a taste for adventure (and yummy treats).

How Does High Altitude Affect Baking?

Baking is affected by high altitude because air pressure decreases the higher you go above sea level, and decreased pressure affects baking in some pretty profound ways. First of all, liquids evaporate more quickly due to low pressure, causing baked goods to dry out. Lower pressure also causes liquids to boil at a lower temperature than at sea level, causing baked goods to rise too quickly – often before they have properly set up – and then collapse. Finally, the gases produced by leavening agents (such as baking powder and soda) expand and react more quickly when the pressure is lower, creating tunnels and holes in batters and doughs, resulting in baked goods that lack structure and stability.

High angle view of freshly baked red velvet cake taken out from the oven


High angle view of freshly baked red velvet cake taken out from the oven

Photo by: Karl Tapales/Getty Images

Karl Tapales/Getty Images

How Should I Adjust a Recipe when Baking at High Altitude?

Although we really believe you need to try a recipe once as written before modifying it for high altitude, here are some general adjustments worth considering when “baking in the mountains,” as they say (or maybe we just say that?!).

1) First, you may want to increase the temperature of your oven by 25% and decrease the baking time by 5 to 6 minutes per 30 minutes of “sea level” bake time. The shorter time spent in a hotter oven prevents the baked good from losing moisture and rising too quickly (and the gases have less time to lay waste to the baked good’s structure).

2) Second, you may want to decrease the sugar in the recipe by 1 to 3 tablespoons per every cup. The sugar becomes concentrated due to the inevitable evaporation of liquid, and such concentration can cause your baked good to collapse.

3) Because of how quickly the gases produced by your leavening agents expand, you may want to decrease the baking powder or baking soda in your recipe by 15 to 25%.

4) Increase the liquid in your recipe (as some of it will inevitably evaporate) by adding another egg or using an extra-large one; or add 3 to 4 tablespoons of water per cup of flour.

5) Decrease the fat in your recipe as it inadvertently weakens the structure of your baked good. Because fat breaks down gluten, making baked goods tender, it can be detrimental to your high-altitude baking endeavors, contributing to a collapsed cake or cookie.

6) Substitute a high-protein flour for the all-purpose as it will provide more structure to your baked good which – we hope we’ve made clear – you want/need when high altitude baking!

3) Because of how quickly the gases produced by your leavening agents expand, you may want to decrease the baking powder or baking soda in your recipe by 15 to 25%.

How Do I Adjust a Cake Recipe for High Altitude?

Using the above suggested adjustments, when baking cake at high altitude, consider adding an extra egg to increase the liquid in your recipe, as well as decreasing the sugar to avoid a cake with a sunken center. You can also use bread flour instead of all-purpose flour and decrease the leavening and the fat. To avoid a dry cake, increase your oven temp, decrease your bake time and add a little extra liquid (about 1 to 2 tablespoons at 3000 feet and an additional 1½ teaspoons for every additional 1000 feet of elevation). And if your cake overflows in the oven, try reducing the leavening, increasing the oven temp and decreasing the bake time the next time you give the recipe a whirl.

How Do I Adjust a Cookie Recipe for High Altitude?

Many believe that cookie recipes do not need to be adjusted. But if you are not getting the results you want after giving a recipe a go, you can add a little liquid and increase the oven temp, particularly if your cookies are baking up dry. You can also decrease your leavening if they are collapsing post-bake. And to give them structure (if they’re having trouble “holding it together,” as it were) try decreasing the fat or sugar and adding a little flour or substituting bread flour for the all-purpose.

How Do I Adjust a Pie Dough Recipe for High Altitude?

Generally, pie dough recipes translate well from sea level to the mountains. But if you notice that your crust seems extra brittle once baked, you can try adding a little extra water and making a slightly wetter dough.

How Do I Adjust a Bread Recipe for High Altitude?

When baking bread at a high altitude, your rising time will be much shorter than at sea level. Consider decreasing the amount of yeast in the recipe by about 25% and refrigerating the dough during its first rise, to slow down the action of the yeast and allow the bread’s flavors to develop.

How do I Adjust Muffin and Quick Bread Recipes for High Altitude?

Like pie dough and cookies, many believe that few if any adjustments are needed when baking muffins or quick bread at high altitude. But if your muffins or bread have a slightly bitter or alkaline flavor, consider slightly decreasing the amount of leavening in the recipe.

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