Is Your Altitude Undermining Your Success?
You’re short of breath and thirsty. That single glass of wine has gone to your head in a hurry. Is it the wine, or have those potatoes been boiling forever- and still not become tender enough for mashing? And what’s with the crater in that cake?!
If you find yourself in this predicament, you better check your altitude. That’s right, stop, take stock of your surroundings and adjust to your environment before your altitude leads to disappointment, failure and despair. Cooks in the western states in the U.S., as well as cooks in mountainous terrains around the globe, are accustomed to thin air and familiar with the quirky characteristics their culinary creations exhibit at high altitude.
Skiers, mountain climbers and snowboarders know the toll extreme heights take on their bodies, and they prepare themselves by regularly hydrating, gradually increasing their activity levels, and slowly introducing adult beverages to their high altitude diets. Likewise, cooks and bakers working at high altitudes are well-advised to heed expert advice regarding cooking and baking at substantial elevations.
When it comes to altitude, “high” is usually defined as 2500 feet or more above sea level. At these heights, cakes and baked goods often collapse while cooling, water boils below 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), and yeast becomes an irritating over-achiever. At 3000 feet and above, according to the USDA Fact Sheet, meat and poultry may require longer cooking times and covered cooking vessels.
Susan G. Purdy, author of Pie in the Sky, Successful Baking at High Altitudes (William Morrow Cookbooks, $29.95), explains that standard recipes are developed for sea level preparation. In an article published on Epicurious.com, Purdy points out that adjustments made for 2500 feet are not likely to work at elevations of 3500 feet or 5000 feet. Problems intensify because air is drier and less oxygen-rich as altitude increases and atmospheric pressure decreases at higher altitudes. Rather than elaborate on these science-based principles, suffice it to say these environmental factors can wreak havoc on meats, eggs, casseroles and baked goods.
But a productive and satisfying high altitude kitchen life is within reach once a cook comes to terms with atmospheric pressures. Purdy, the USDA and other experts counsel cooks and bakers to accept nature’s peculiar antics and to respond with a few minor adjustments. Collaborating with the environment will lead to peak performance. Here are a few high altitude factors to consider:
Higher altitude means lower boiling temperatures. So foods will take longer to cook because boiling water is simply not as hot at high elevations as it is at sea level.
Lean meats, due to their high water content, may dry out more quickly at high altitudes. Longer cooking times and added moisture may be required.
Low humidity often accompanies high altitudes. This can cause the liquid in foods and dishes to evaporate more quickly. Covering foods while they cook helps foods retain their moisture.
Leavening agents react more quickly at 2500 feet and above. This will cause cakes to rise in the oven, but collapse while cooling. Suggested adjustments include reducing the measure of baking powder, baking soda and other leavening ingredients and strengthening batter by reducing sugar, adding eggs and slightly increasing the measure of flour the recipe calls for.
Yeast often rises too quickly at altitude. Decreasing the amount of yeast or using cold water rather than warm water when proofing may extend the rising process over a longer period and result in breads that keep their shape rather than collapse.
Eggs added to batters may strengthen baked goods as well as contribute to richness and tenderness and decrease the drying effects of baking at altitude.
Most baked goods are enhanced by substituting acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, yogurt or sour cream for regular milk.
Breads and baked goods dry out quickly in the dry mountain air and therefore must be tightly wrapped in plastic as soon as they have cooled.
Flavors lose their punch at higher altitudes. Consider adding more spices, herbs and flavorings to dishes- taste as you go and adjust appropriately.
A mountain of information regarding the challenges of high altitude cooking and baking, as well as proven antidotes to common problems, can be found in Susan Purdy’s “High Altitude Baking” guide at www.epicurious.com and the USDA website, www.usda.gov . The information and tips shared on these sites are guaranteed to elevate every cook’s high altitude achievements.
Written By: Jane Staley Boaz
Jane is a freelance food and wine writer. Her website is jsboaz.com.