By Linnea Covington
The higher you go, the more you must adjust a recipe. A mountain resort pastry chef shares her tips on high-altitude baking.
When baker Shannah Primiano moved to Park City, Utah, from Florida, she suddenly found herself baking at high altitude—7,000 feet to be exact. Quite the adjustment! The Waldorf Astoria head pastry chef played around with ingredients, temperatures, and liquids, and now churns out some of the best cakes, pastries, and desserts around. Changing a recipe to adjust for high altitude starts at 3,500 feet above sea level, and the higher up you go, the more you have to alter. It can be tedious and challenging, but Shannah assures us that with a little patience and experimenting, those beloved recipes will taste just as good on top of a mountain as they do by the beach.
Are there any foods you think are trickier to bake at high altitude?
Shannah Primiano: For me, cakes or quick breads always give me trouble. They have the potential to rise too fast without properly baking through, and I had the hardest time keeping them from collapsing in the middle after cooling. Custards and cheesecakes take two to three times longer to set at this altitude.
What were some of the alterations you had to make when moving to Park City?
SP: I had to decrease the recipes by the right amount of sugar or leavening agents, but at the same time increase the recipes by the right amount of liquid, eggs, or flour. You also have to regulate yeast measurements in dough and their rising times, and understand what works at your elevation and what works with your oven.
Do you need to lower heat?
SP: I lower heat by about 15 degrees Fahrenheit when I am baking custards or cheesecakes because at high altitude I have found they take on an extremely literal version of the phrase, “low and slow.” I also bake my cookies at a lower temperature so they stay soft and slightly under-baked in the center but crunchy on the outside. Otherwise, they get too golden too fast and bake all the way through. Other than that, I don’t lower my heat. I have found an oven temperature of around 350-Fahrenheit with a high fan and use of the middle rack gives me a pretty consistent product.
Why do some recipes suggest adding flour to a recipe when altering for high altitude?
SP: The addition of flour, more specifically the gluten and protein in it, helps to strengthen the structure and foundation of the product to make up for the quick evaporation of liquids. If you were to not add any flour, the wet ingredients in the mix cook off too fast before the chemicals have had proper time to react and set the cake, resulting in an unevenly baked cake that would likely bake too fast and then collapse.
What are some tips and tricks you can tell the high-altitude home baker?
SP: Never give up or have low confidence in yourself if it doesn’t come out properly. Baking at high altitude can be incredibly daunting and challenging, and nothing feels better than when you get it right. Always taste your dough and finished product, and keep in mind that some adjustments work for one type of pastry but may not work for another.