A Quick Self-promotional Note: Starting this week I’m going to be one of four featured bloggers on Tablespoon.com’s Taste of Adventure section! I’ll be writing up a recipe a week for them so bookmark it! All the writers on the site are really cool and I think you’ll find a lot of unique recipes there.

Ok. Sorry. Back to the post. Let me first say, Calm down people! This post is about elevation not inhalation.

As my pumpkin biscuits taught me over the weekend, baking at high altitudes can be a bit of a tricky beast. Since Washington DC is almost at sea level I never actually considered what the difference would be between baking there and baking deep in the Rockies.

But trust me. Science works. And there is a difference.


The Problem is in the air! (Warning: AMATEUR SCIENCE CONTENT)

When someone uses the expression “Light as air” around you next time, be sure to correct them because it turns out that air isn’t actually that light. Or more specifically, there’s so freakin’ much of it that even though a tiny amount of it is almost weightless, in huge volumes (atmospheric volumes) it starts to add up.

If you’re sitting on the beach at sea level and you have a small little piece of paper that is exactly one centimeter square, there will be about 1 kilogram of pressure being pushed down on it just from the atmosphere!

Now imagine that you go up 5,000 feet into the atmosphere. Obviously there’s now less air above you so there will be less pressure on that little piece of paper.


An Example. Have you ever been on a road trip where you go from high elevation to low elevation? If you happened to have an empty bottle in the back of your car when you start, the bottle will be slightly crushed when you get to sea level! Why? Because the pressure has increased on the plastic bottle and crushed it!

How does this affect Cooking?

At first it might seem as if this wouldn’t have much of an effect on cooking, but it actually has a huge effect. Here’s a few of the ways decreased atmospheric pressure affects almost everything you cook:

  • Boiling Water gets easier. Water boils when there’s enough energy (heat) in it to overcome atmospheric pressure. If there’s less atmospheric pressure then water will boil at a lower temperature. This isn’t always a good thing. (I’m at about 4,600 feet now and my water boils at 204 degrees instead of 212 degrees.)
  • Evaporation is quicker. In general liquids evaporate faster. Things dry out faster. This can obviously affect cooking in a number of bad ways.
  • The air is dryer. Even though evaporation happens faster (because of air pressure), the air tends to be dryer. This affects some ingredients like flour.
  • Rising is faster. Since there’s less pressure holding in gases that cause rising in foods, it occurs really fast. Anything with yeast, baking powder, or baking soda is going to be really active. Too active probably.

Two Examples

Even though I’ve only been cooking in high-altitude for a little over a week now, I’ve already noticed that it affects almost everything I cook. Here’s two quick examples:

1) Boiling pasta takes longer! I have a very standard kind of pasta that I’ve used for years now and I always cook it in the same pot. I’ve noticed here that it takes a minute or two longer than normal to cook. This is most likely because the water isn’t actually as hot as it as at sea level. Not a big deal for pasta but for beans and long cooking items, it means a much longer cooking time.

2) When I made my rainbow donuts for Tablespoon last week, my dough tripled in size in the time that it would normally double. It was exploding out of the bowl! Luckily this didn’t affect the recipe since I just punched it down and rolled it out to make the donuts, but it was pretty obviously rising faster than it should be.

Adjusting Recipes for High Altitudes

This might not surprise you but unfortunately there isn’t a magical formula on how to adjust recipes for high altitudes. There are just too many variables depending on your exact altitude, recipe, humidity, etc.

Here’s a few tips that I’ve picked up though from various sites and references on the subject. Depending on the recipe you might want to try some of these to get the results you want.

  • Once you hit about 5,000 feet, decrease the amount of baking powder you’re using by 1/8. This will help your rising stay under control.
  • For most baked goods, raise the baking temperature by 15-20 degrees and decrease the cooking time by a few minutes. This will help the baked item set faster so there’s less of a chance that it will collapse.
  • Try adding an extra Tablespoon per cup of flour to also help your baked goods stay together and not rise too fast.
  • Since things are dryer, consider adding an extra Tablespoon (per cup) of liquid to most recipes.
    NOTE: For those keeping track, yes, I just recommending adding more liquid because it’s too dry and also adding more flour. It works out.
  • Buy a pressure cooker. If you’re cooking a lot of beans or braising a lot of things, you’ll really want a pressure cooker. It’ll take twice as long to cook some things without one. (Note to self: Buy a pressure cooker)

These rules are pretty loose I know, but in general, if you’re starting with a recipe at sea level (most recipes are written for that unless otherwise stated) then adjust on the small side to start and if you get bad results then note it and adjust it more the next time you try the recipe.

For me, and for this blog, I’m going to still try to write my recipes assuming you are at sea level. I’ll try to also note what changes I made for high altitude.

I’m still in the beginning stages of cooking at high altitudes so I’d love to hear from any of you who have experience with it.

Leave a comment if you have any tips or tricks!

Rockies photo by Kahtava.

Some resources I used for this post:

– Wikipedia on High Altitude Cooking.
– The USDA sheet on high altitude cooking.
– Great page at King Arthur Flour