The sweet smell of banana bread made my heart dance as I waited for the timer to go off. I didn’t bake much when I first moved to Denver – I didn’t have kids yet, and I lived in a small apartment with a tiny kitchen. So, my first loaf of banana bread was something special, a reminder of home in a strange but beautiful new town.
Ding! I rushed to the oven and opened the door to a warm waft of banana-y sweetness on my face. When I opened my eyes and reached for my indulgence, my heart sank, much like the center of my banana bread loaf.
I’ve made this recipe a thousand times! It’s the one thing I know how to bake! What happened?!
Disappointed, it was a while before I baked in Colorado again. Eventually, I learned the more banana I added to the recipe, the better the bread came out. I could have saved my frustration by learning about high altitude cooking when I first moved here. It wasn’t until my chemistry class at the University of Colorado at Denver that I understood what was happening.
High altitude cooking – It’s not you, it’s the pressure.
There’s one immediate concern when you first arrive in Colorado: when you walk up a flight of stairs, you gasp for air. This freaks out many visitors.
The higher the altitude, the less force gravity can pull. Lower gravity means less pressure on everything – including the air we breathe, which means there is less oxygen in every breath we take. It is this lower amount of pressure that also changes how things cook.
You may remember from elementary school that matter exists as a solid, liquid, or gas. The easiest way to get something from a solid to a liquid (think melting an ice cube) or from a liquid to a gas (boiling water to make steam) is to add heat. But another factor that changes the heat required to melt or boil something is the pressure.
At sea level, we measure the atmospheric pressure at 1, or 1 atm. To boil water, heat must be added to overcome the pressure and make the water molecules move so fast they turn into a gas. That happens at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at 1 atm. When the pressure goes down, as in Denver where the average pressure is .81 atm, there is less pressure for the molecules to overcome. Less heat is needed to boil water, and in Denver, water boils at only 202 degrees Fahrenheit.
How does this relate to cooking?
When you buy a box of pasta, for example, the directions are accurate for 1 atm. The cooking time in the instructions assumes a boiling water temperature of 212 degrees F. If you are boiling water in Denver, it is only 202 degrees F.
We cannot raise the temperature of the water or the pressure of the air, so the only leverage we have is to increase the cooking time. How much more time depends on what you are cooking. The easiest way to test the waters (pun intended) is to set your timer to the original time, then check your pasta (or whatever you are cooking) and continue cooking until it is done. Due to the lower temperature requirement for boiling, liquid also evaporates more quickly. When cooking for extended periods, such as in a slow cooker, you may need to add liquid as time goes on.
What about baking?
The water and other liquids in your dough or batter are also impacted by the lower pressure at higher altitudes. Since liquid evaporates at a lower temperature, moisture will leave your cake or cookies faster than the recipe assumes, making your baked goods come out dry.
Another common problem is your baked goods deflating, like my banana bread. This is because the structure of the cake or bread is created by the leaveners, the ingredients that make the batter rise.
Recipes use the amount of time it takes for a batter to rise and a temperature that will make the batter set at the exact time it reaches its peak. But since there is less pressure on the dough at a higher altitude, it will rise faster.
Following a sea-level recipe will cause a cake or other baked good to over-inflate before the batter is ready to set, then fall and become deflated before it reaches the right temperature.
If baking is a balance between the temperature required for the batter to set and the time needed for it to rise, how do we adjust our recipes to come out right at 5280 feet above sea level?
Maintain water balance
To compensate for the faster evaporation of water, there are a few things you can try. First, add water to your recipe. For Denver, you should add approximately 4 tablespoons of water to a basic cake recipe. For cookies, add 1 – 2 tablespoons of water for each cup of flour in the recipe.
For all baked goods, you can reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe because sugar binds with water, which means there is less water to keep the baked goods moist. For cookies, reduce the amount of sugar by 2 tablespoons for each cup of sugar required. For cakes, reduce about 1 tablespoon per cup used.
Slow the rising process
You can slow down the rising process by reducing the amount of leaveners, which usually include baking powder and baking soda. At 5280 feet, we can cut the amount of these ingredients in half! This will make it more likely your baked good will rise to its peak at the same time the structure sets.
Raise the temperature and reduce cooking time
You can get your batter to reach the temperature it needs to set more quickly by cooking your product at a higher temperature. In general, you can raise the cooking temperature 15 – 25 degrees above what the recipe calls for. This will decrease the time needed for baking to be complete, so you can reduce cooking time by 1 minute for every 6 minutes the recipe calls for. Less water evaporates in the shorter amount of time, and your batter will set when the leaveners reach their peak.
In Colorado, there are many different altitudes as you travel up and down the mountains, from Laird at 3,400 feet to Leadville at 10,151 feet. For more detailed instructions on how to alter recipes for your altitude, visit Stella Culinary with Chef Jacob. Chef Jacob explains everything in three easy-to-follow videos and is the primary source for the information in this article.
After 15 years of living and cooking in Denver, I finally have my favorite recipes adjusted for the altitude. My banana bread comes out perfect every time, and now it’s not just my heart that dances; my kids share my joy as I bake fond memories into their childhood. Happy cooking!