Thin Air

File Jul 25, 10 05 36 AMLately, I’ve been baking high. Now before you go assuming I loaded up on edibles before crossing from Oregon to Utah, I’m talking altitude, not altered states. While the former might have been fun, it wouldn’t exactly endear me to law enforcement in my new home state.

My first encounter with high altitude baking was probably around the time I was ten or so, and first ventured to the baking instructions on the back of a brownie box mix. There, under the picture of an egg and some corn oil was a tiny asterisk, and High Altitude Instructions, in italics. I think I remember the font being smaller too, as though people living  a few thousand feet above sea level had sharper vision. Of course, being a smart little girl, and knowing I didn’t live on a mountain top but rather on the flat, sea-wrapped Isle of Long, I never paid any attention to the asterisk or tiny font rules.

My first time actually baking 5000 feet above the briny deep was about three decades later, when I was visiting family in Jackson Hole and baking birthday treats for soon-to-be sweet sixteen niece. I didn’t pay attention to the high altitude instructions then either. The result was Red Velvet Cake with Chocolate Guts. It’s name should give an indication of how well that turned out, though filling a cratered cake with the attitudinally challenged overflow of devils food cupcakes was a bit of a stroke of genius. I give my architect brother full credit for that one.

Previous experience aside, now that I live 4,000 some-odd feet above where I did before, it seems high time (sorry) to figure out just how to maneuver this baking high thing. Especially if I am going to continue my quest for tasty pastry world domination, mountain style. I could baffle you with the various whats and whys of baking up here, but there are countless others on line who do that much better (and more boringly.) So here’s how I look at it. There’s less air up here. Or rather, less of the stuff pressing down on your head and your baking goodness. What happens then? Well, first the air bubbles in your culinary confection puff up faster with their newfound freedom. Unfortunately they kind of get, well, how shall I put this….overexcited, and before the rest of the batter is ready, which results in sinkage. I’ll just leave it there.

Basically the fix for this premature rise and droop is a little less of this and a little more of that. Specifically:

  • Reduce baking powder: for each teaspoon, decrease 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon;
  • Reduce sugar: for each cup, decrease 0 to 2 tablespoons;
  • Increase liquid: for each cup, add 2 to 4 tablespoons;
  • Increase oven temperature by 25 degrees F.

As with everything in life, a little trial, error and practice is still needed, but I think I may have this baking high thing down. Sure there will be times of overexcitement and resulting disappointment, but as long as I don’t let frustration get into my head, I think everyone will be satisfied in the end.

My first foray into the high altitude oven were scones. Blueberry scones to be exact. And with adjustments described above, I managed to make a batch that brought moans of satisfaction for all involved. Below is the original recipe, with high altitude adjustments, naturally in italics.


Yield: 8 scones, about 275 calories each

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar (high altitude adjustment: 6 TBSP)
  • 1 TBSP baking powder (high altitude adjustment: 2.25 teaspoons)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Grated zest of one lemon
  • 1/2 cup cold salted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cold cream, or 1/4 cup cream and 1/4 cup buttermilk (high altitude adjustment: 6TBSP cream, 1/4 cup buttermilk, plus 1-2 TBSP more if the dough seems too dry)
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • An extra TBSP cream and some raw sugar to brush on the top and sprinkle before going into oven

Preheat oven to 400ºF (425º for high altitude). Whisk together the flour. sugar, baking powder, salt and lemon zest in a bowl or in electric mixer. Add the butter and mix until you get fine crumbs and the butter is well dispersed. Add in the blueberries and toss until the blueberries are coated in flour mixture.

In a measuring cup, beat together the egg, cream, buttermilk and vanilla. Add the wet to the dry slowly with the mixer going or mix together by hand with a fork until the dough just starts to come together. Dump out onto a floured board, and gather the dough together into a disk about an inch high. Don’t overwork the dough, just bring together until it holds shape.

FullSizeRender IMG_6058 FullSizeRender

Cut the disk into quarters, then each quarter in half to get 8 triangles. At this point you could put the scones on a tray and pop in the freezer, which is what I usually do with at least some of them. Once they are frozen, pop into a freezer bag. They’ll keep for a few weeks, and are easily baked off from frozen, just adding a little time to the bake.

If you are baking them right away, put the scones on a parchment-lined baking pan, brush with a little cream and sprinkle with sugar (I like to use turbinado sugar of this – makes a nice crunch.) Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the scones are golden and firm to the touch.

High altitude baking: Since things take a little longer to bake up here, I raise the oven temp to 425, and bake for about 20 minutes, then lower temp to 350 and bake another 5-8 minutes until firm. This prevents the bottoms from getting too dark before the inside is fully cooked.

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button). You can also see what’s cookin’ on my Instagram page. Thanks!  :-)


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