I moved to Colorado in 2010 and have been writing and testing recipes here for the last thirteen years. While most recipes don’t need changes for high altitude cooking, it can be stressful for those of us at high altitude to try out a cookie recipe and wonder if it’s going to turn out as the writer intended instead of unintentionally crumbly or dry.
There are hundreds of wonderful baking recipes on Simply Recipes and so we wanted to bring you some basic information and tips on how you can ensure that your recipes turn out at high altitude just as well as they would at sea level.
What’s Different at High Altitudes?
If you have ever gone up in the mountains with a bag of chips, you may notice that the chip bag puffs up hugely. Sometimes they even pop! This is because there is less atmosphere pressing down on the bag and so the air in the bag pushes out harder.
You have maybe seen the reverse of this process also if you’ve ever driven to the beach from a higher altitude area. An empty water bottle will collapse under the weight of the increased atmosphere as you get to sea level.
As you might imagine, this hidden variable can indeed affect cooking and baking recipes!
What Is High Altitude?
There are no hard and fast rules here, but as far as baking is concerned, I would estimate that if you live under 4,000 feet elevation, you shouldn’t need to worry about making any changes to your recipes.
- If you live between 4,000-6,000 feet elevation, you might want to consider making small changes to certain recipes.
- If you live over 6,000 feet (some bakers I know in Colorado live at 8,000 feet), you will probably need to adjust most recipes you try if you want them to come out successfully.
How Does Altitude Affect Recipes?
There are three major issues that can happen in your kitchen at higher altitudes.
- Faster rising: Remember that bag of chips that expanded? Well, that will also happen to any leavening ingredient you use from baking powder to yeast. Recipes will rise faster and expand more than at sea level.
- Evaporation and dryness: Evaporation happens faster at higher altitudes. This mostly affects dry goods. That big bag of flour in your high altitude pantry will have slightly less moisture content than at sea level so your baked goods may come out dryer than at other elevations.
- Water boiling: Water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes. This doesn’t generally affect baking, but is worth nothing. While most people know that water boils at 212˚F, in my Denver kitchen it boils at 204˚F.
When to Adjust Recipes
It’s worth noting that you should read the recipe you are making to see if the author has any suggestions for high altitude adjustments.
Most recipes, even baking recipes, probably don’t need adjustments. You can make the recipe unchanged and it will be edible and good. Especially if you are new to cooking, it’s probably worth trying the recipe as written first and if it comes out wrong, then you can look to make some changes for high altitude.
Basic Advice for High Altitude Baking
When I’m looking to bake a new recipe, there are a few adjustments I consider making. I don’t always make them, but if something goes wrong in the recipe or it looks off, these are the places I will adjust before anything else.
- Reduce the leavening ingredients. This is an easy adjustment. Doughs will expand much more at higher altitudes. Reducing the amount of leavener in your dough (baking powder, baking soda, yeast) can be an easy fix. I usually start by reducing the leavener by 1/8 (12.5 percent) and then make the recipe as is. (So 1 teaspoon of baking powder becomes 7/8 teaspoon).
- Reduce the rising time. Things rise faster so you can use this to your advantage! If you don’t adjust the leavener in the recipe, expect to be able to shave a few minutes off of the rise time of the recipe. If a recipe has a two-hour proof time, I would check it after 90 minutes and see how it’s looking.
- Increase the baking temperature. Sometimes recipes will really expand in the oven at high altitudes. One trick to prevent this is to bake the item at a slightly higher temperature for less time. Adding 15-20˚F onto the baking temperature will set the dough faster and prevent rising. Just watch it closely so it doesn’t brown too much.
- Increase the liquid. As mentioned, it tends to be dryer at higher altitudes and this can drastically impact recipes. If you are working on a dough and it seems dry, dense, rough, or too thick, this could be why. Feel free to add an extra tablespoon or two of liquid to the dough to loosen it up.
Cooking Tips for High Altitude
Many high-altitude issues don’t affect recipes other than baking, but there is one exception. Because water boils at a lower temperature, this can drastically affect cooking times on things like dried beans.
I always recommend that my high altitude cooks invest in a pressure cooker device that will allow them to cook beans and similar items at a set pressure. Otherwise, expect to add a lot of time onto the cook time for dried legumes and similar foods.
Two High Altitude Examples
Here are two quick examples of recipes and how I would adjust them in my high altitude kitchen.
- Soft Sugar Cookies: These are lovely cookies and depend a lot on the lift of baking powder and baking soda to give them that soft texture. If they over-rise in the oven though, the cookies will collapse and deflate. If I were baking these in my kitchen, I would reduce the baking powder down from 1 ½ teaspoons to 1 1/4 teaspoons and keep everything else the same.
- Whole Wheat Bread: This recipe is a yeasted recipe and uses a full packet of yeast. While you could reduce the yeast, it’s kind of awkward to pinch out some of the yeast from the packet so I would probably leave it as-is but reduce the proofing time by 15 minutes and bake the bread slightly hotter than recommended (maybe 385˚F).
I hope those examples help. Remember that there are no drastic changes that should be made because you are cooking at high altitudes, but these little adjustments can help refine your cooking projects and lead to less stress in the kitchen!