02 May

Welcome to the first installment of my brand new series: “For Goodness Bakes!” 

Every month I will be diving deep into the baking mishaps and culinary stumbling blocks that can strip even experienced bakers of the joy that can be found in the kitchen. I'lll be serving up practical advice, professional tips, and some great resources to help YOU approach all types of sweets and treats with confidence. I love providing delicious desserts to every client I serve, but I’m also passionate about sharing the satisfaction and fun that comes from creating your very own special dessert right from your home kitchen. So follow along with me as I help home bakers from beginners to experts tackle the biggest issues and questions facing our kitchens today!

The baker’s battle, the skirmish of sweets, the chef’s conundrum… 

Today’s topic is by the far one of the biggest hurdles for novice and professional bakers alike: the murky waters of baking high above sea level (hence the dramatic title of this blog). While you may think it’s no big deal living more than 3,000 feet above sea level and trying to bake a cake, let me tell you this: it’s like stepping into the Thunderdome. Unlike the Thunderdome though, your adversary isn’t another person: it is the seemingly unyielding cakes, pies, cookies, and bars that collapse, crack, dry up, and fall apart after an afternoon of work and bowls full of wasted ingredients. Even though the disfigured and inedible confections may seem to be the obvious victims of this problem, it’s really the bakers who suffer most with the consequences. Parties are delayed to rush to the store, desserts are taken off the weeknight menu entirely, and more often than not, if recipe after recipe fails, most of us will resign to using nothing but premade mixes or store bought products. While there is nothing wrong with using a box mix or buying a simple cake from the store, it’s the acceptance and assumption that we simply can’t bake from scratch at high altitude that’s robbing so many of experiencing a joyful day in the kitchen and the satisfaction that comes from a hard earned dessert.

While I was born and raised in a high dessert area, my mom is from back east. Oh, how she would wistfully reminisce about cinnamon rolls the size of your face and baking bread every week without a hitch. Then, of course, she moved to the southwest where the air is scarce and always dry as a bone. Somehow her fluffy bread turned into lethal rocks (anyone remember that scene from About a Boy?). After trying so hard to make things work up in the mountains, she gave up her dreams of successful scratch baking from home. I too tried recipes for scrumptious sea level cakes out of a few popular cook books and got nothing but horrible confections crawl out of my oven. I was about to throw in the towel on baking my own desserts for good. I mean, come on! In Northern New Mexico, the average kitchen is 7,000 feet above sea level. That is practically on top of the mountain! Baking just gets too hard up here. Can anyone else relate?  Whether you were born at a high altitude or moved in from another state, it’s frustrating to see your hard work go to waste because you tangled with the High Altitude beast and lost. The good news is, once you know the basics of kitchen science and a few key adjustments, baking from scratch at 3,000, 6,000, or even 8,000 feet above sea level is not only possible, but delightful.

The information I’m about to share with you comes from a few trusted resources in the realm of baking and cooking such as America’s Test Kitchen and The Cake Bible. However, by far the most helpful resource I've found on the subject is a 3-video series on High Altitude Baking from chef Jacob Burton whose videos I’ve linked down at the bottom of this blog. He digs deep into the science of it all, and I’ll be summarizing his major points as follows (though if you want the in-depth science lecture, seriously, watch his videos). 

The first question most people ask is this: why and how does altitude affect my baked goods?

The answer lies in the science of atmospheric pressure. Ok, giant words and technical terms aren’t usually thrown around in baking blogs, but bear with me. Most people live at or just above sea level, so the vast majority of recipes are developed within those lower-level kitchens and can be baked in any similar environment with similar results. But when your environment drastically changes, it follows that the results of the recipe will change as well. As chef Burton explains, this problem lies in the science of the atmosphere. In laymen’s terms, when you live more than 3,000 feet above sea level, there is less air above you, which means less pressure is being exerted on you and your food. This mainly affects your food’s...

    Boiling point (the point at which your liquids will turn to steam, which will also affect the moisture level of your pastry)

    Structure/consistency (the ability of your dessert to support it’s own weight, maintain it’s shape or reach the desired texture) 

    Overall cooking time (the point at which your item is baked but not burned or raw)

While the terms may seem inconsequential, each of these factors are crucial to a successful and tasty dessert. Imagine having a cake you thought would be fluffy and moist, and you bite into a hard, sweet, brick? Or baking a pie for the suggested  time only to have it be soggy and raw in the center but black on the edges? The bottom line is this: when you have less atmospheric pressure in your kitchen, your baked goods will need to be adjusted in order to be edible, let alone presentable. 

Even after we understand the premise of why our baked goods become baked bads at high altitude, when the time comes for us to change a recipe or experiment in the kitchen it can be confusing if not downright dreadful to try and rewrite a recipe. Making multiple batches, changing one thing at a time, and still facing the possibility of failure can make it seem impossible. Not to mention all of the not-so-helpful tips and conflicting or vague advice columns you find on the internet. I will be forever grateful that after a lot of digging I was able to find some great professionals who opened the curtain to high altitude adjustments amid years of experience in the kitchen and made it much easier to navigate. The following adjustments are easy to follow and quick to master, and I would highly recommend applying them to the next recipe you’d like to try. While they won't eliminate the need to tinker or experiment (as every recipe will vary and may be best with more or less of each recommendation), if you just follow the first five steps, it’s likely you’ll stop most of your baking issues before they even start.

Baking Adjustments for High Altitude: Essential Adjustments

1) Oven temperature- cakes are less stable at higher altitudes and more likely to fall and crack, so we want them to get cooked more thoroughly in less time so they’re too stable to catch a case of the collapse-sees. This means we have to increase the oven temperature by 15 degrees Fahrenheit at 3,000 ft above sea level and 25 degrees Fahrenheit at or above 6,000 ft above sea level. This means if baking in Santa Fe, you’ll want to increase your oven temperature from 350 to 375 in most recipes.

2) Sugar- sugars are affected by changing the amount of liquid and heat, so it’s best to decrease the amount of sweetener you use by 1 tbsp. per cup for all levels of high altitude.

3) Chemical leaveners- cakes rise more rapidly  (and therefore fall more rapidly) at high altitude, so to slow that process and give your cake a more stable rise, decrease any chemicals like baking soda or baking powder by 25% at 3,000 ft above sea level, and between 50-75% at 6,000 ft or more above sea level. Example- 1 teaspoon of baking soda should be cut to between ¼ and ½ teaspoon in Santa Fe (I would begin with 50% and only attempt a recipe with 75% less leavener if the cake or baked good falls in the center).

4) Liquids- from milk to water to juice, no matter what you’re using to moisten your pastry, you need to increase it. Liquids evaporate more rapidly at high altitudes, so you need to make up for that loss so you don’t end up with a dry morsel. Add 1-2 tbsp. extra liquid at 3,000 ft, and add an additional 1tbsp. per 1,000 ft. For Santa Fe and Albuquerque= add an extra 5-6 tbsp. of liquid.

5) Baking time- because our oven is much hotter and our cakes are now stabilizing at a normal pace, we’ll want to decrease our baking time by 5 minutes for every 30 minutes called for by the recipe so our dessert doesn’t burn or dry out. So if you’re baking in ABQ and the recipe says to bake for 30 minutes at 350, you’ll want to bake it for about 25 minutes at 375. 

6) Flour and eggs- this step isn’t necessary every time, but I like to do it anyway as a full-proofing measure. If you find your cake to be sub-par even after applying the methods above, you’ll want to try tinkering with the structure elements of your dessert, which in most cases is flour (providing gluten) and eggs. Increasing either or both of these will strengthen the structure of your pastry. At 3,000 ft above sea level increase your flour by 1 tbsp. plus an additional 1 tbsp. per 1,5000 ft. At a kitchen like mine at 7,000 ft above sea level, that means I would increase my flour by 3 tbsp. For eggs, add 1 additional egg per recipe at all altitude levels.

I hope this information has been helpful for you, and I want to encourage you to not be afraid of tinkering and adjusting these guidelines as you see fit in each recipe. If you liked this blog or found it helpful, please support TCLSF by liking my page and this post on Facebook, following me and my business, and of course sharing this post on Facebook or Instagram.

Have questions or comments? I’d love to hear them! Just post in the comments section below or on social media and be sure to share any other insights you’ve found helpful in your kitchen. Be sure to post pictures and tag #thatcakeladysantafe if you used these tips in crafting your desserts. I can’t wait to hear from you! 

Want to stay up to date on everything TCLSF has to offer and get this series sent straight to your inbox? Then sign up for my email list today by entering your name and email address at the bottom of my website. If you do, you’ll even receive a coupon for 15% off your first order- making a cake is always fun, but buying one is always hassle free. Stay tuned for more content to come...

Until next time, 

That Cake Lady of Santa Fe

If you can dream it, I can bake it!

Chef Jacob Burton’s videos here:





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