Baking in Durango doesn’t have to be a losing battle
By Wendy Rice
Newcomers and visitors to our area often experience physical ailments ranging from shortness of breath and faster sunburns to full-blown altitude sickness.
The same things that create these problems also affect baking. Fortunately, by understanding a few key ideas, you can win the high-altitude cooking challenge.
In this area, altitude and low humidity play games with baking. We have all had cratered cakes, tough-as-a-board biscuits and flat cookies. All these are caused by high elevation – Durango is at about 6,500 feet.
Luckily, these disasters can usually be avoided by making a few adjustments, which often involve more than just adding flour like it suggests on the cake mix box.
First, do not assume that a sea-level recipe will fail. Try it first. It may need little or no modification. If you do need to modify, make changes one at a time. One change may be all that is necessary.
The main factor affecting baked items is the low pressure resulting from the higher altitude. This leads to lower boiling points, faster evaporation and rapid rising. In addition, low humidity dries out things like flour, causing a dry, crumbly product.
In Durango, boiling liquids evaporate more rapidly, creating the need for more liquid in baking.
Decreased air pressure also means some ingredients have to be adjusted. Leavening agents (whipped air, baking powder and baking soda) cause the gases in breads or cakes to expand faster, so baked goods rise faster (often over rising then falling). One teaspoon of baking powder at 5,000 feet produces 20 percent more volume than at sea level. Bread also rises faster and must be watched.
The three basic adjustments for high-altitude baking are: to reduce baking powder (for each teaspoon decrease 1/8-¼ teaspoon at 6,000 feet, ¼ teaspoon for 7,000 feet or higher); reduce sugar (for each cup decrease up to 2 tablespoons at 6,000 feet, 1 to 3 tablespoons for 7,000 feet or higher); and to increase liquid (for each cup add 2 to 4 tablespoons at 6,000 feet, 3 to 4 tablespoons for 7,000 feet or higher).
Keep in mind that every recipe is different and any or all of these adjustments may be required. Keep notes of how you adjust recipes until you know what works best for your particular location. Start with these adjustments – if more adjustments are necessary, read on.
Dry ingredients, especially flour, should be stored in airtight containers in this low humidity. Often, less flour or an additional tablespoon of liquid per cup of flour may bring a batter or dough to correct consistency.
Cakes tend to stick more at high altitudes, so be sure to grease pans well and dust with flour or line with parchment paper. Exceptions are angel food and sponge cakes, which should be baked in ungreased pans. Also, fill pans only half full, not the usual two-thirds, as high-altitude cakes may overflow.
Typically, a decrease in leavening or sugar (or both) and an increase in liquid are needed. Ingredients such as eggs or butter are considered liquids.
In addition to these changes, increasing baking temperature 15 to 25 degrees (unless using a glass pan) helps "set" the cell framework to prevent collapsing. Baking time might need to be reduced by about 20 percent to prevent over baking.
Shortening can also be a problem. Too much fat in a batter will weaken the cell structure. The substitution of margarine for butter or shortening can noticeably affect the texture and produce an inferior taste. Solid shortening gives better results at this altitude because it holds more liquid.
Also, be careful not to over-beat eggs as this adds too much air and aggravates the rapid-rising problem. Higher egg content provides more protein for a better cell framework, so extra large eggs should be used at high-altitude. Without enough egg, the batter will be less stable and the final product will not be moist enough. Some cakes, especially angel food and sponge, require an even greater number of eggs.
Basic recipes for yeast breads are reliable at most altitudes. However, since fermentation of sugar is faster at higher altitudes, breads rise in one-third the time noted for lower altitudes. When baking yeast breads, carefully watch that the dough does not rise more than double its bulk. Since it rises faster, the flavor doesn’t have time to develop. Punching down the dough twice instead of once will improve flavor as well as texture.
Start checking for the first doubling in bulk after about 30 to 45 minutes. Check for the second after 60 to 75 minutes. Salt acts as a yeast retardant so don’t bake bread at high altitude without it.
Another problem with bread is dryness, and whole wheat and "dark" flours require more liquid than white. Fresh fruits and vegetables add liquid to dough in the knead cycle. The more liquid (to a certain point) the more interesting, complex and varied the crumb and crust.
Another approach to prevent dry breads is to decrease flour specified in the recipe just enough to make a stiff batter or soft dough that is handled easily (could be up to one-quarter less). Sifting flour can result in reduction of flour and on a humid day could add some needed moisture.
Bread machines are great places to knead and proof (rise) slack (wet) dough. The problem with baking a slack dough in the bread machine is that the vertical loaf cannot sustain itself and collapses during or immediately after baking.
To use the bake cycle in the machine, you must be very careful about the amount of additional liquid. Give up the "overnight" or time/delay mode. Gold Medal flour recommends using active dry yeast in lieu of bread-machine or Rapid Rise yeast. If the dough is coming out too dry, Fleischmann’s recommends adding a couple teaspoons of water to the dough until it comes out in a tight, shiny ball. If the bread caves in on itself, reduce the yeast by ¼ to ½ teaspoon.
Quick breads tend to have various textures from muffin-like to cake-like. If a bitter flavor is noted, try decreasing the baking soda or baking powder slightly. If they seem dry, reduce sugar. Usually, both shortening and sugar can be reduced by as much as one-fourth of the total amount and still provide tasty bread. For biscuits, try adding a tablespoon of milk to each cup of flour and reducing baking powder slightly.
If muffins seem dry, reduce sugar by at least one teaspoon. Be careful not to over-mix as this causes peaked tops rather than the preferred rounded tops.
Most cookie recipes yield acceptable results at high altitude, but can be improved by slightly increasing baking temperature. Cookies with lots of chocolate, nuts or fruit may need a reduction of baking powder/soda by up to half. Often, cookie recipes contain a higher proportion of sugar and fat than necessary. Up to one-fourth of the sugar can be replaced with nonfat dry milk without loss in quality.
To get a tender and flaky crust, have all ingredients at 70 degrees (room temperature) and preheat oven. Handle dough lightly and no more than absolutely necessary. Too much flour produces a tough crust; too little makes it soggy. Sometimes, adding more liquid (up to 25 percent more) helps to hydrate the flour. A non-shiny, metal pan generally helps achieve a good, brown crust.
Wendy Rice is a family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at 247-4355.