Living at sea level, I’ve never given much thought to recipe adjustments needed when baking at higher elevations. A dear friend of mine (a seasoned pastry chef), Tweeted that she was nervous about baking in the clouds — it was a cry for help. I was happy to chime in and give her thin-air solutions.
First things first: Boiling water temperature is not universal. At sea level, water boils at 212 degrees F. At 10,000 feet above sea level, it drops to 195 degrees F. Go figure.
If we understand why cakes fall during cooling, fixing the problem becomes easy.
Follow me: the higher up you go, air pressure decreases, which causes leavening agents in baked goods to react too quickly. Liquids also tend to evaporate at a quicker rate. This causes cakes to fall and be dry.
So, this is what needs to happen to have a perfect high-altitude cake:
• I suggest using extra large eggs despite what the recipe calls. Why? The protein in eggs strengthens cell structure, which helps with dryness.
• Increase the liquid in the recipe, possibly replacing it with buttermilk or sour cream. Why? The acidity helps batters set faster in the oven.
Speaking of structure, you will need to add more flour. This sounds funny due to the fact that cakes bake drier the higher you go. Why add flour? The flour (actually the gluten) helps with cake structure. Here is a simple guide for varying elevations:
• Add an additional tablespoon of flour for 5,000 feet; add 2 tablespoons up to 6,500 feet and 3 tablespoons for 6,500+ feet. I promise it works.
• As the flour increases, the sugar must decrease. This will help the cake set quicker without deflating. Reduce the sugar by 2 ½ tablespoons per 5,000 feet; remove 3 tablespoons of sugar for 6,500+ feet.
Once all the math works out, do not over-mix the batter; just mix until combined. Now that you have moistened the cake and added structure to it, we need to look at baking times and temperatures.
If we bake at the recommended time and temperature, this will dry out the cake we just adjusted.
• Increase the temp by 25 percent and decrease the time it takes to bake by 5 – 6 minutes per 30 minutes. The cake will not fall or be dry. Here’s why: The longer time in the lower heat gives the cake more time to evaporate moisture.
Baking the cake faster and hotter is the ticket. If all this seems too fussy and you still want to bake a cake for Uncle Walter, use a packaged cake mix. Just add an additional extra large egg to the mix.
Hedy Goldsmith, a 2012 James Beard Award finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef, is the executive pastry chef for the Genuine Hospitality Group of restaurants including Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami and Grand Cayman, and Harry’s Pizzeria in Miami. Now in her second season of Cooking Channel’s Unique Sweets, Hedy has appeared on Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate and lauded in The New York Times, People, Wine Spectator, Bon Appétit, The Huffington Post and Food & Wine magazine. Hedy’s first cookbook, Baking Out Loud: Fun Desserts with Big Flavors (Clarkson Potter / Publishers), will be released October 2.