We’ve all heard baking is a science. As an artisan cake maker, I can tell you this is true. And when you live above 3000 ft in elevation, that science needs adjusting.
I’m no scientist, I’m a cake artist. As a coastal California native, I never had a reason to consider making altitude adjustments for my cakes. I’d bake up my layers, again and again. Pans would go in the oven and come out looking beautiful and tasting delicious. Baking was a piece of cake. No pun intended. It wasn’t until I moved to Jackson Hole, WY, with an elevation of 6,800 ft, that everything changed.
As my tried and true cake recipes began to sink, dry out, and harden, I quickly lost all confidence in my skills as a baker. Clueless for weeks, I convinced myself our new home had a faulty oven. I even considered purchasing a new one. It wasn’t until a neighbor mentioned I should be drinking more water in the mountains, because our bodies lose water faster at high elevation, that the lightbulb went off. Our bodies lose water faster…my cakes were losing water faster, too.
It wasn’t my lack of skill or a bad oven that was causing my cakes to fail. It was the change in altitude. Going from sea level to nearly 7000 feet in elevation is quite a leap. The scientific formula I followed, along with nearly every baking and cookbook, no longer applied. I had to adjust my formula to high altitude. It blew me away that millions of people live well above sea level yet there was so little information about this.
Now, I mentioned I’m no scientist. But, determined and stedfast, I researched, I experimented, I ate a lot of cakes. The result is a set of simple guidelines to make the science of high altitude baking a little easier to understand and practice.
What it all boils down to.
When baking at high altitude, it all comes down to water and atmospheric pressure. At high altitude the atmospheric pressure is less than at sea level so water responds differently. For every 1000 ft you climb the boiling point of water drops roughly 2°F/1°C. For example, at sea level water boils at 212° F/100°C, at 3000 ft above sea level water boils at 206°F/97°C. In Jackson Hole, WY, we’re at 6800 ft, so the boiling point would be 200°F/94°C.
A climb in elevation causes the boiling point of water to decrease. So water is evaporating at a faster rate and lower temperature. Hence the cracking and drying. Less atmospheric pressure is causing the cake to rise faster. The chemical levelers, baking powder and baking soda, are accelerated. The cake rises before hitting the needed internal temperature to set. Hence the dreaded collapse.
Not too complicated, right? Now, here’s the solution. Adjusting your ingredients will compensate for the water evaporation and low atmospheric pressure:
- Liquid. You’re losing liquid faster so simply add more. At 3000 ft, add 1-2 tablespoons of water. For every additional 1000 ft add 1 tablespoon more. Here in Jackson Hole, which is 6500 ft, I add 5 tablespoons.
- Sugar. Sugar binds to water. The loss of water makes the sugar, in basic terms, more intense. Decrease your sugar 1 tablespoon for every cup.
- Chemical leveners. High altitude pushes them into high speed. At 3000 ft, decrease your leveners by 1/8 teaspoon; 5000 ft, by 1/4 teaspoon; 6000 ft or above decrease by 1/2 teaspoon.
- Oven temperature. Increase your oven temperature to help it set as it rises. At 3000 ft increase by 15° F. At 6000 ft and above increase by 25°F.
- Baking time. Because you’re raising the temperature start checking for doneness about 5 minutes sooner.
- Flour. Adding flour will give the cake more structure. At 3000 ft increase the flour by 1 tablespoon. Add 1 tablespoon for every additional 1500 ft.
- Eggs. Protein creates setting power. Add an egg.
My research also lead me to discover fellow cake artists and bakers, creating and baking beautiful masterpieces at high altitude. It’s no easy feat. You can find my list of favorite artisan bakers in the Rocky Mountains on the CurEat App. If you don’t have the CurEat app, you can download it for iOS or Android.