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So what’s the deal with baking at altitude?

Is Paul’s oven broken? Or is it the altitude?

Hey City Casteroids, it’s Paul.

Ever since my wife and I moved into our house a couple years ago and started taking advantage of our bigger-than-apartment-sized kitchen, we’ve had a long-running debate about our baking. She contends that we’ve been insufficiently tweaking recipes to accommodate the altitude. I think that our oven is broken.

Last week on the podcast, City Cast CEO and lifelong Washingtonian David Plotz came on to ask his most embarrassingly obvious questions about Denver, and guess what thermo-carbo-mystery came up? The issue of baking at altitude, of course. Is it a real thing?

Our host Bree Davies and producer Xandra McMahon did their best to answer:

Bree: Oh, gosh, you know, I’ve noticed it used to be on the packages. Like, I make cornbread a lot and the package used to give you altitude directions. And they’ve stopped doing that. 

Xandra: Because it’s a myth! I’ve baked all my life in Colorado and it’s never been a problem. I’ve never adjusted or used the high altitude instructions and my things come out fine.

Now we’re sitting under a pile of voicemails and emails from listeners with all different takes, and google was no help separating the wheat from the chaff, and I still don’t know what to do with my oven!

Who to trust?

There’s only one authoritative source when it comes to practical, science-informed advice for living in Colorado, and that’s the Colorado State University Extension. Founded in 1908, they have developed myriad resources for gardening, canning, disaster preparedness – all specifically designed for the Coloradan trying to not die. It really is an amazing site. Definitely worth bookmarking. 

According to the Extension’s extensive page on High Altitude Food Preparation, “at altitudes above 3,000 feet, preparation of food may require changes in time, temperature or recipe.” 

So that’s one big check off the list. This is no myth. 

“The reason—lower atmospheric pressure due to a thinner blanket of air above,” the page states. “At sea level, atmospheric pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi), at 5,000 feet it’s 12.3 psi, and at 10,000 feet only 10.2 psi.”

Apparently, decreased pressure can affect food prep in two major ways. First, liquids evaporate faster and boil at lower temperatures. Second, and much more germane, “leavening gases in breads and cakes expand more quickly.” 

So is my “mile high” oven broken or not?

This is where things get tricky. The Extension has some general guides and explanations, but when it comes to specific recipe tweaks, here’s what they offer: “Do not assume that your sea level recipe will fail. Try it first. It may need little or no modification.”

Fortunately, one of our listeners tipped us off to another good source: Susan G. Purdy, a professional baker and cookbook author based in Leadville, CO (Elevation: 10,151 feet). In a web excerpt from her book Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes, Purdy offers a helpful guide for adjusting recipes at altitude. Here’s what she has to say for us Denverites living around 5,280 feet:

Flour Increase each cup by 0-2 tablespoons

Baking Powder or Baking Soda Decrease each teaspoon by ⅛-¼ teaspoon

Sugar Decrease by 0-2 tablespoons

Liquid Increase each cup by 2-4 tablespoons

But of course, that same listener who shared the tip about Purdy’s book offered their own twist: “Most directions on boxes of baked goods advise you to add flour, but that just makes baked goods drier. So we ignore them.” 

And isn’t that really the lesson from all of this? There is no one way to cook or bake anything. There’s subjectivity inherent to how each of us experiences flavor, and altitude can affect the experience in other ways too. So in this humble amateur baker’s opinion, the only real answer here is that whether you’re baking a sourdough loaf or a baguette, you really just need to try and fail and figure out what’s best for you. 

In conclusion:

Megan, my dearest wife, forgive me for not lovin’ our oven. Let’s give this sucker a go.

— Paul Karolyi, City Cast Denver Producer and Bread Eater


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