High altitude wreaks havoc on breads, cakes. Why?

Climb every mountain and you’re apt to find a frustrated baker, like Barbara Kittelson of Volcano, California. Recipes she once used at the coast “now turn out a mess” at 3,900 feet. Because most baking recipes, including those in Sunset Magazine, are written and tested for use from sea level to about 3,000 feet, we enlisted the help of high-altitude baking authorities Pat Kendall of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension and Nancy Feldman from the University of California Cooperative Extension.

What does high altitude mean to the baker? Liquids boil at lower temperatures (below 212°), and moisture evaporates more quickly – both of which significantly impact the quality of baked goods. If you live at 3,000 feet or below, Kendall and Feldman suggest that you first try a recipe as is. Sometimes few, if any, changes are needed. But as you go higher, ingredient adjustments become necessary. Unfortunately, variables in recipes make it impossible to give across-the-board advice. Use the following suggestions as guidelines.

Q. “Why do my attempts at making sourdough end up with bread so heavy it could be used as boat anchors? We live at 5,800 feet.” – Al Hansen

A. Flours tend to be drier and will take up more liquid in the low humidity of high altitudes. You may need less flour than the recipe calls for, so mix in about two-thirds, then check the dough before adding more.

Sourdough and yeast doughs rise more quickly – sometimes twice as fast – in the reduced pressure of higher altitudes. If dough rises much more than double, its structure may be affected.

If a short rising time doesn’t produce enough sourdough or yeast flavor, punch the dough down after the first fast rise and let it rise a second time before shaping.

As wheat products bake, they are lightened, or leavened, as the heated moisture in them swells and forms tiny bubbles encased by thin dough walls. The bubbles expand until the flour mixture gets hot enough to become rigid and retain their impression. When bubbles form at lower temperatures, the flour mixture isn’t hot enough to firm up, and these walls break, producing bread with an uneven, coarse texture.

Two safeguards for baking breads at high altitudes: proof shaped yeast loaves less (until barely puffy) and bake them at a higher temperature (see chart below). Also, store baked goods airtight at high altitudes to keep them from drying out.

Q. “Why do I end up with a layer of yellow rubberlike substance on the bottom of my six-egg chiffon cake?” – Shelia Gumerman, Santa Fe

A. At higher elevations, delicate cakes are especially fragile. The adjustments you need to make depend on what makes the cakes rise.

Cakes leavened by trapped air. Cakes such as chiffon, angel food, and sponge are leavened by air bubbles trapped in whipped eggs or egg whites. At higher altitudes, egg mixtures whipped to the maximum can’t stretch much before they get rigid and break. Whip a little less – to soft peaks instead of stiff ones – to allow for expansion. Also reduce sugar slightly so the whipped mixture firms up at a lower temperature.

If the egg foam breaks, drainage forms a rubbery layer – and the cake usually falls. A little additional flour will strengthen the cake, and baking at a slightly higher temperature firms up the egg mixture faster.

Cakes leavened by baking powder or soda. At high altitudes, a slight increase in egg and flour (along with the changes noted in the chart below) produces effective results. Most cake mixes have adjustments on the package.

Cookies. Those high in fat tend to need more adjustments. Slightly decrease leavening, sugar, and fat. Or slightly increase liquid, flour, and baking temperature.

Quick breads: muffins, pancakes, and biscuits. These batters and doughs contain less fat and sugar, and a minor reduction in baking powder may be all that is needed. But if results are unsatisfactory, try the other modifications for cakes suggested in the chart.


Cooperative extension services have booklets or recipes for high-altitude cooking and baking. Call your county extension office or, for a good selection, write or call the Other Bookstore – Cooperative Extension Resource Center, 115 General Services Building, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523; (970) 491-6198.

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