The other day while I was baking goodies for a local bake sale, I noticed it was taking longer for my cookies to set than the recipe called for. Then, I realized that I’d forgotten I’m baking at just over 5,000 feet above sea level, and it was highly unlikely that the recipe was written for our kinds of elevation out here in far West Texas.
Everything seems to take longer to bake in my Fort Davis ovens, whether new or old, full size or countertop ovens. I’ve been thinking it’s the elevation. But recently, I learned that specifically, it’s the air.
Until we moved to the Davis Mountains, I never paid much attention to the extra directions on cake boxes and recipes for high altitude. I was either in the flat Houston area (about 46’ above sea level), on Galveston Island at a whopping maybe-seven feet above the water, or in the Hill Country, at a not so high 1,405’ above sea level.
In baking, high altitude is considered 3500-6500 feet above sea level. Fort Davis is 5,050’ to 6,790’ depending on where you are; Marfa is 4,685’; Alpine is 4,475’, and Valentine clocks in at 4,432’ above sea level. All my tri-county neighboring bakers need to adjust baking times to reflect that we are indeed up higher than we realize.
Balmorhea sits at about 3196’ and Terlingua to our south is about 2891’, so high altitude adjustments don’t need to be followed in those areas.
A couple years ago, I made a Bundt cake that I’d made dozens of times over the years at lower elevations. I watched the cake grow in the oven here in Fort Davis to where it looked like it was almost double the height of the Bundt pan. I was excited that it was so big and fluffy.
When I removed it from the oven and put it on a cooling rack, that thing deflated like a balloon. It went from being about eight inches tall, to shrinking in height to roughly three inches of dense cake.
What I know now is that I should’ve added another egg or another tablespoon of water, increased the oven temperature by 15 degrees and reduced the cooking time.
So, why do we up in the higher elevations have to follow different rules for cooking and baking? It’s because of the air. The higher we go in the Earth’s atmosphere, the thinner the air gets. The thinner the air gets, the less resistance there is for leavening agents (baking soda, baking powder, yeast, etc.) as the push dough higher and higher, only to dry out quickly and fall flat as soon as you remove them from the oven.
It really is troubling until you get used to dealing with changing the habits you formed if you lived in the lowlands and baked successfully. But, with a few changes, you’ll be churning out your favorite baked goodies without the fear of the rise and fall of all things baked.
1. Increase your oven temperature by 15-25 degrees Fahrenheit. Evaporation happens fast up here – help get things baking faster by turning up the temp.
2. Add 1 tablespoon of extra flour to baked goods at 3,500’, with an additional 1 tablespoon per 1,500’. This helps your goods rise steadily and adds more structure.
3. Decrease sugar by 1 tablespoon per cup, because the evaporation of liquids happens faster at higher elevations, sugar’s concentration goes up and the level of your cakes and brownies will go down.
4. Increase liquid in your recipe by 1-2 tablespoons per 1,000 feet above sea level. Water, milk, oil or eggs will help keep it moist.
5. Baking powder and baking soda should be decreased by 20% above 3,500 feet, by 50% above 5,000 feet, and by 75% above 6,500 feet. This helps your baked goods to rise gradually in higher elevations. If you live at the McDonald Observatory, you need to only use 25% of the baking soda or baking powder your recipe calls for.
6. Only fill your cake pans and cupcake tins half full of batter rather than the standard two-thirds full – high altitude cakes just might overflow.
Better Than Scratch Lemon Pound Cake
1 (18.25 ounce) package lemon cake mix
1 (3 ounce) package instant lemon pudding mix
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 cup water (PLUS 1 tablespoon water for high altitude)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (365 for high altitude). Grease and flour one 10-inch bundt pan.
Combine cake mix, pudding mix, eggs, water, and oil in a large bowl. Beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Pour into prepared pan.
Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, checking for doneness at 45. Let cake cool in pan for 10 minutes then remove from pan and let cool completely. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar or frost with lemon frosting, if desired.
Printed with permission of the Alpine Avalanche