Wednesday, August 11, 2010

High Altitude Baking

After this unfortunate outcome, I decided it was time to do a little research into high altitude baking. I've never really given it a lot of thought. I use the high altitude directions for Nestle Toll House cookies--because otherwise my cookies end up flat--delicious, but flat. But that's about the extent of thought I've put into it before now.

And in my research I discovered that...wait for elevation doesn't even count as high altitude. I'm at 4,350 feet. The high altitude directions for Toll House cookies specify "5,200 feet". I visited Zuni this past weekend--with an elevation of over 6,000 feet above sea level. I'm guessing they probably need to make more alterations than I do. Which might account for the casual mention of lard in their sourdough...or not...but that's another blog.

Nevertheless I found some interesting information. This is from an article by Martha Archuleta, Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist at New Mexico State University:

At altitudes above 3,500 ft, increase the oven temperature 25° over the temperature required at sea level unless using glass pans when no increase is needed. (Glass does not conduct heat as efficiently as metal.) For example, cakes baked in metal pans at sea level at 350° should be
baked at 375° at all altitudes over 3,500 ft. Faster baking “sets” the cell framework within the flour mixture and helps prevent falling. Use this adjustment for all leavened foods that are high in sugar and shortening.

In areas of low humidity, dry ingredients (specifically flour) become excessively dry unless stored in air-tight containers. A scant decrease in flour or an additional tablespoon of liquid per cup of flour will often bring a batter or dough to the correct consistency. Recipes must be adjusted for flour mixtures that contain considerable amounts of sugar and shortening and
that are leavened with carbon dioxide gas from baking powder or soda and acid.

Some sea-level cakes are delicate and defy adjustment to varying altitudes. Other recipes, especially commercial cake mixes, are so well balanced that little, if any, adjustment may be necessary up to 5,000 ft.

Cakes without fat: Air from beaten eggs is the leavening agent. For angel food cakes beat egg whites until they form peaks that droop slightly; in sponge cakes, beat eggs or egg yolks until slightly thickened.
Cakes with fat: Solid shortening gives good results in high altitude baking because the emulsifier enables the shortening to tolerate a larger amount of liquid. Solid shortening is preferred for “speed-mix” cakes with a high sugar ratio.

You can find the whole article here (that's a downloadable pdf file).

Alton Brown corroborates much of what she says in his book I'm Just Here for More Food. In addition, he says about shortening, "Shortening is amazingly useful stuff because it's everything that butter isn't. It remains plastic between 98 degrees F and 110 degrees F, which means that shortening will be workable when butter would be either rock hard or soup." And, "Unlike butter, shortening is 100 percent fat."

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not advocating replacing butter with shortening in all of your favorite recipes. I am postulating that the all-butter situation is what caused my cupcake mishap. Butter is partially water and has a "narrow window of plasticity" according to Alton. So, it melts quickly and the water portion can cause "trouble". I think the reason for my success with cakes that contain SOME shortening (not all) is that the shortening tempers the butter's tendency to melt quickly. And I'm okay with using shortening--I don't believe it's the devil. I use organic, non-hydrogenated shortening, and usually in recipes that call for mostly butter, so they still taste delicious.

But, really, what do I know? And why does any of this effect me since I'm not really at a high altitude? Questions for another day. The bonus part of this: pies don't generally require any altitude adjustments!

P.S. Alton also has something interesting to say about baking bread at high altitude: "Rising times for yeast breads should be reduced slightly so that bread doesn't overproof. And when working with yeast, go with a high protein flour. A higher protein content will result in stronger gluten capable of stretching with quickly expanding bubbles."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, April. That's much more helpful than any cookbook I have, all of which have something different to say about the subject. I'm always checking the cookbooks because I'm at 5,500 ft., and this is usually a very dry climate (except for summer monsoons). It really does make a difference.

Miriam Latour said...

What kind of butter do you use, April? I mentioned that my all-butter cupcakes work fine... but I usually use a high milk-fat European butter. Most European style butters have less water content than American style butters do. Maybe that's why I don't have a problem(?)

High fat butter is expensive, but I'd do anything to avoid using waxy shortning in recipes.

Just a thought: Dave uses lecithin as an emulsifier in his baking, and I'm just starting to discover the magic myself. I've even found that using lecithin in homemade Philly-style ice cream can keep the fats from separating and make it a lot smoother. Anyway, if you used a teaspoon or two of lecithin, you wouldn't need to use shortening as a fat emulsifier, and lecithin is good for you (brain food!)... not to mention completely tasteless in recipes. :)

April Fossen said...

I just recently started using European butter in my baking--including in the failed cupcakes.

I don't taste the shortening when I've used it in cake recipes. It's a pretty small amount--the butter makes up at least 3/4 of the fat content. But maybe my tastebuds aren't that sensitive

I don't know anything about lecithin. Do you just add it to a recipe? Do you have to adjust other ingredients to compensate for that addition?

Piper Scott said...

April, I learned something recently from Melinda Lee (The food News) on KNX 1070. Crisco Shortening, which I realize you don't use but others might, has been changed to not contain any trans-fats. This apparently was a bad thing, even though other shortenings that still work didn't ever contain trans-fats. Crisco now doesn't work like it used to and many cooks have stopped using it.

Deja said...

Thank you! for the high altitude section. That is really helpful for me up in Lake Tahoe, CA. I can't believe Salt Lake isn't considered high altitude! My boyfriend and I are thinking of moving there. It's great to have found your blog.