Saturday, August 28, 2010

Baking With Altitude

For those of us who began our baking life at sea level, attempting our favorite recipes at high altitudes is generally a rude awakening. Recipes that usually turn out light and fluffy are like lead. Cookies spread out across the pan and a mildly sweet cake can taste as overly sugary as a spoonful of straight Karo syrup. Baked goods of all kinds have an incredibly annoying tendency to turn out dry, coarse, and generally unappetizing.

Baking is essentially chemistry. Certain ingredients must be combined in very precise ways and then subjected to very specific amounts of heat in order to render the desired result. It is, in many ways, a science, and it is not forgiving. Add too much of X ingredient to a stir-fry, and you can easily correct it. Add too much of X ingredient to a soufflĂ©, and you’re doomed. There are very specific reasons that baking at high altitude is difficult (more on this later) but though the problems are identifiable, the exact solutions are not. They vary too much with the recipe, the precise elevation and even the weather.

Plenty of excellent cookbooks (see sidebar) provide tested recipes for baking at higher elevations. There are also any number of suggestions for how to adjust sea-level recipes, but I have never found any of these satisfying or especially useful. When I want to make my grandmother’s favorite Christmas cookies I want to use HER recipe, not a similar one adapted to altitude. And when I see a great cake recipe in a magazine (most magazine recipes are created for sea level baking), I want to try it, not find something vaguely like it adjusted for altitude in a special cookbook.

Mostly, though, what I find I lack is any way to systematically discover HOW to modify recipes. I know there are a few tricks and things you can try, but almost every book/blog/magazine says you have to just test a recipe multiple times in order to get it right. So I have decided to do just that. I intend to just start baking. And I’ll do each recipe again and again until I get it right. What I want, ultimately, is the final result of a perfect cake or cookie, but what I’m after in the interim is a way to assess the problem, so I can extrapolate from one recipe to another and not be constantly floundering.

I lived at near-sea level (Florida, New York City, Washingotn, DC, Seattle) all my life until four years ago when I found myself 7,000 feet up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s high, it’s dry, and it’s not an easy place to make a pound cake. There are some excellent bakeries in town and I have come to rely on them if I need a dessert for a special occasion. This being the case, I know that it IS possible to bake very successfully at altitude. People have been doing it for generations – hundreds of generations in the case of the Native Americans – but the most successful bakers I know grew up here or use only recipes that have been formulated for high altitude. And getting treats from a bakery, no matter how delicious, is just never the same as baking something yourself. Baking and cooking are acts of time and attention and care, and nothing makes me happier than sharing that with the people I love. I miss that and I want to bring it back to my life. So herewith, this blog, in which I plan to document my trials and tribulations with my oven and hopefully gain and share some useful knowledge.

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