Bake

How to Convert a Baking Recipe for High Altitude

October  9, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Say you’re on vacation with your family. Say you’re in Denver. Say you rented a big Airbnb, where you all can cook and bake and stay up late watching movies. Say you want brownies; now everyone wants brownies, so you make your favorite recipe—but it turns out different. Why?

Because you’re a mile above sea level.

Today, we’re making sure no batch of brownies (or cupcakes or cookies) gets botched again. Enter: our handy guide on how to convert a baking recipe for high altitude. Let’s dive in. Or should I say climb up?


High-Altitude Baking 101

What is considered high altitude for baking?

If you’re at an altitude of at least 3,500 feet above sea level, you may need to adjust sea level–developed recipes accordingly. That said, as Colorado State University notes, “Do not assume that your sea level recipe will fail. Try it first. It may need little or no modification.” And when do you experiment with adaptations, start small, then gradually increase as needed.

Why do baking recipes need adaptations at high altitude?

It all comes down to air pressure. The higher a geographical location is above sea level, the less air pressure there is. The less air pressure there is, the more variances you’ll notice in cooking and baking, compared to the assumptions in most cookbooks and online recipes. For example, everyone knows that water boils at 212°F, right? At sea level, yes. At 7,500 feet above sea level, however, water boils at 198°F (“because there’s not as much air pressure to inhibit the boiling action,” according to The New Food Lover’s Companion).

What are the most common changes in high altitude baking?

  • Reduce baking powder. “Because of the decrease in barometric pressure at high altitudes, carbon dioxide gas expands more quickly and thus has greater leavening action,” according to The Joy of Cooking.
  • Reduce sugar. Due to quicker evaporation, sugar becomes more concentrated in baked goods, which means you won’t need quite as much of it to begin with.
  • Add liquid. Foods, such as flour, dry more quickly at high altitude. This means you’ll need more liquid to ensure the baked good doesn’t turn out dry or crumbly.
  • Increase oven temperature. “Since leavening and evaporation proceed more quickly, the idea is to use a higher temperature to ‘set’ the structure of baked goods before they over-expand and dry out,” King Arthur writes.

How do you convert a baking recipe for high altitude?

Bonus recommendations for baked goods at high altitude:

  • Increase oven temperature by 15°F to 25°F.
  • Decrease baking time by about 5 minutes (per every 30 minutes called for in a recipe).
  • Egg whites should only be whipped to soft peaks.

How to Convert a Baking Recipe for High Altitude

Now that we’ve learned the basics, let’s explore some examples. Below are three favorite baked good recipes from the site—let’s figure out how to convert them for high altitude.

Alice Medrich’s Cocoa Brownies at 4,000 feet

  • Decrease granulated sugar by 1 tablespoon.
  • Increase the oven temperature from 325°F to 345°F.
  • Decrease baking time by 0 to 5 minutes as needed.

Best Banana Nut Bread at 5,500 feet

  • Decrease baking powder by ½ teaspoon
  • Decrease brown sugar by ½ tablespoon.
  • Increase mashed bananas by 2 tablespoons.
  • Increase oven temperature from 350°F to 365°F.
  • Decrease baking time from about 75 minutes to 70 minutes.

Louisa’s Cake at 7,000 feet

  • Decrease baking powder by ¾ teaspoon.
  • Decrease sugar by 2 tablespoons.
  • Increase grated apple by 3 tablespoons.
  • Increase oven temperature from 400°F to 425°F.
  • Decrease baking time from 30 minutes to 25 minutes.

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What are your tips for converting baking recipes at high-altitude? Share in the comments below!
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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.

6 Comments

Pavani November 12, 2019
We recently relocated to CO and I'm nervous to try any of my old baking recipes for the fear of failure. I will start with the recipes/ suggestions here and hopefully will be able to bake some holiday treats. Thank you for sharing the tips.
 
mtnnewf November 12, 2019
I would also suggest the Denver Junior League's cookbooks--Colorado Cache, Creme de Colorado and, I think the last one is Colorado Collage. Friends and neighbors are good sources.
 
mtnnewf November 10, 2019
I live at 9200 ft elevation and have found that for quick breads and muffins, I switched to whole wheat flour (white or regular) and haven't done any further changes. For cookies, the first change I make is to reduce the sugary 1/4 and I will often add an egg yolk or whole egg (the egg yolk/egg add both moisture and fat which makes the cookie stay moist). Finally, as suggested by Leil, find a copy of Pie in the Sky by Susan G. Purdy; she not only has created recipes for basic baked goods, she has refined them for all altitudes from sea level to 10,000 ft. She also gives insight into why things change at each altitude so, if you desire, you can "altitude" your own recipes.
 
Pam October 10, 2019
I have to say I was an excellent baker when I lived at sea level. In moving to Denver 25 years ago, none of my recipes needed adjustment at that altitude. I moved up to 8200 feet 16 years ago and THAT was when all baking went haywire. I have discovered that "adjusting" certain recipes simply doesn't work. Example is my Perfect Pecan Pie I spent years perfecting is NOT workable at my altitude. I have tried reducing sugar, changing time, EVERYTHING, but have decided you can make it LOOK good at high altitude with the adjustments, but it will never taste the same if you start adjusting the sugar and butter requirements. Some things simply cannot be reproduced at high altitude. After 16 years of attempting some of my former recipes, I know some simply won't work. Some things just implode or even explode when baked. The taste is greatly changed when adjusting things that will make the baked item look good but the same taste is not there.
 
Leil October 28, 2019
Have you looked at Susan Purdy’s Pie in the Sky book? she shows the adjustments for recipes from sea level to 10,000 feet—and actually went and baked at each of the 6 levels. The ingredients are laid out in a chart so you can easily compare. I especially remember pecan pie and her story about it exploding at I think 8000 feet. Something about the sugar I think. She redeveloped the recipe to work at 8000 and 10,000 feet. Her overall conclusion was that there is no silver bullet for high altitude—it’s really recipe dependent. I do consult it sometimes when I am curious because the book covers a nice range of items so you can usually find something similar enough to compare.

I did find this article interesting. I live at 6000 feet. The main thing I have done is switch to weight measuring. I find it makes up for a lot of the issues. I do add liquid and sometimes will reduce sugar or raise the oven temp but it’s hit or miss.
 
mtnnewf November 10, 2019
I concur with looking at Pie in the Sky, by Susan G. Purdy. (Look in your library.) I live at 9200 ft and it's saved me. Not only does she have recipes adjusted for every altitude (unless you live in a cabin at 12000 ft), and gives some advice about "altituding" a recipe. As for your pecan pie recipe, Susan Purdy says that precooking the filling on the stove before filling the pie will help; it's saved my pie.