High-altitude baking: CSU offers tips for your holiday treats

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’Tis the season for baking, and Colorado State University has some tips for making sure your high-altitude holiday treats turn out terrific.

“In Colorado, a lot of people don’t know that their elevation matters, or don’t know the elevation where they live,” says CSU Extension Specialist Elisa Shackelton. “Anything above 3,000 feet is considered ‘high altitude,’ and that’s all of Colorado.”

Shelter house on Fall River Road where Allison experimented with high-altitude baking
The Fall River Road shelter house where Allison experimented with high-altitude baking.

In fact, CSU is the birthplace of high-altitude cooking adjustments, thanks to pioneering efforts by Inga Allison and Charles Lory in the first half of the 20th century.

“Inga would drive to a high-elevation location, such as the Fall River Road shelter house near Estes Park, to do cooking experiments,” Shackelton said. “With the help of then-CSU Physics Professor Charles Lory, the high-altitude cooking laboratory was conceptualized and built in the Guggenheim Building in 1927. It consisted of a huge steel cylinder room with altitude controls, enabling Inga and her staff to work inside to test recipes for altitude conditions ranging from sea level to 12,000 feet.”

High-altitude cooking lab
The high-altitude cooking lab on campus

Prep for success, safety

CSU experts’ first tip is to make solid preparations before baking begins.

“Christmas cookies are often shared with others, so bring out your best food safety skills – start with clean hands, surfaces and utensils; put on an apron; put your cell phone away; and use quality ingredients,” says Extension Specialist Marisa Bunning, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. “Baking soda and baking powder lose their effectiveness over time, and flour can develop off-flavors, so check expiration dates before you begin. Also, it’s a good idea to use an oven thermometer to check the accuracy of the temperature setting.”

She also warns not to sample the raw dough – both eggs and flour have been associated with foodborne illness outbreaks.

High Altitude Baking Adjustments
Click to enlarge and print this quick-reference guide to high-altitude baking.

Shackelton and Bunning recommend making recipe adjustments one at a time, to isolate the effects that each change has. And take careful notes.

“The ingredients, their amounts and proportions, even the way they are put together, can impact the final result,” Bunning says. “We have an added challenge in Colorado because most recipes weren’t developed at our elevation, so cookies tend to flatten and spread out. But usually some adjustments can help to ensure you get the chewy, crunchy, delicious cookie you envisioned.”

For more detailed information about high-altitude cooking and baking, visit https://col.st/yM3vC.

Bunning is co-director of the Colorado Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence in the Colorado School of Public Health. The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

High-altitude baking tips

  • Consider increasing the recommended oven temperature, by no more than 25 degrees, to keep cakes from collapsing and cookies from spreading. But you will likely have to reduce the baking time, so keep an eye on your goodies using the oven light (opening the oven door lets heat out).
  • Slightly decrease the amount of baking powder or baking soda the recipe calls for, since leaveners or yeast react with more force at higher elevations.
  • By the same token, slightly decreasing the amount of fat and sugar can offset their tendency to become more concentrated at altitude.
  • Switching to a higher-protein flour can solidify the structure of rising baked goods at our elevation. Even those labeled “all-purpose flour” can vary between 10 percent and 12 percent protein. (And don’t forget to deposit the flour into your measuring cup with a spoon instead of scooping it out of the bag with the cup, since weights can vary widely by how hard the flour is packed.)
  • Use extra-large eggs instead of large eggs. They not only provide more of the aforementioned protein, but contribute more moisture to offset the effects of our high, dry climate. For this reason, a slight increase in liquid ingredients is advisable as well.
  • Using a dark baking sheet can make cookies too brown; place them on a sheet of parchment paper.

Baking tips poster

Baking tips poster

Baking tips poster