Baking at High Altitudes

Devils Food Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing on a tray.

I live in the Midwest, which is perhaps the flattest place in the country, so I am by no means the reigning expert on high-altitude baking, but I have baked in the mountains of Colorado, and this is what I learned.

Layer cake with piped frosting flowers

Baking Cakes at High Altitude

There can be a big difference in how cakes behave if you live above 5,280 feet / 1.6km. With less air pressure, the rising batter balloons up too quickly and then collapses abruptly, giving you a dense, if not sunken, result. The following adjustments can help you avoid disappointment.

  • Decrease the baking soda or baking powder by half.
  • Increase baking temperature by 15 to 25 degrees, which will set the proteins faster and stop the bubbles from expanding too much.
  • Decrease the baking time, due to the higher temperature.
  • Decrease the amount of sugar by just a tablespoon per cup. Sugar is a tenderizer, so it can weaken the structure of a cake. This means it can’t trap the gas as well and too much may cause the cake to collapse.
  • Increase the amount of flour by a tablespoon per cup. This will lend more structure to the cake.

Baking Bread at High Altitudes

There can be a big difference in how yeast behaves if you live above 4,000 feet (1,220 meters). With less air pressure constraining the rising dough, it balloons up too quickly and then collapses abruptly, giving you dense bread. The following adjustments can help you avoid that by slowing down the initial rise (the dough won’t be ready for the refrigerator in the usual 2 hours).

  • Decrease the yeast by half or even more.
  • Use bread flour to increase the strength of the dough, but you will also have to increase the water.
  • Assuming you like the flavor and aren’t on a salt-restricted diet, consider a saltier dough—salt inhibits fast yeast growth. If you go this route, use the higher end of our salt range in the ingredient lists. And decrease sure if there’s any in the recipe—it feeds yeast.
  • Do the initial dough rise overnight in the refrigerator and consider mixing the dough using cold liquids.

The techniques allow the dough to rise more slowly, giving it more time to achieve full height without collapsing.

Chocolate chip cookies

Tips for Other Baked Goods at High Altitudes

What about all the other desserts and treats we all love to bake? Here are a few tips for pies, cookies and more:

  • Muffins and biscuits often hold up well at high altitudes, but you can reduce the baking soda or powder slightly if you find yours have a bitter flavor.
  • Cookies may hold up fine due to the high level of sugar and fat, but you may improve results by increasing baking temp and a slight increase in liquid ingredients and flour.
  • Pie crusts generally aren’t affected by altitude.
  • Use direct heat for puddings and cream-pie fillings when a double-broiler is called for because the temperature of a double broiler is too low above 5,000 feet.
Roasted Squash Brown Butter Cake (Gluten Free)

Gluten Free Baking at High Altitudes

Gluten free baking won’t be dramatically different from standard backing when it comes to high altitudes. In most cases, you’ll want to decrease leavening agents, increase liquid and increase the baking temperature and bake time. Here are a few general guidelines.

  • Reduce each tsp of baking powder by ⅛ to ¼
  • Reduce each tsp of baking soda by ⅛ to ¼
  • Slightly increase the liquids
  • Increase oven temperature by 25 degrees F
  • Slightly increase cooking time
  • For yeasted breads, decrease the yeast by ¼ tsp and use less flour per cup of liquid.
  • For cake, reduce fat by 1 to 2 Tbsp and increase the amount of eggs in enriched cakes to improve structure.

You can find more details and specific information about high-altitude baking at the Colorado State University Extension Website, including some great charts.. For more info on gluten-free tips, Bob’s Red Mill has a great resource.

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