Ask Wren: Vail Valley baking tips
Vail, CO Clorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –This week we have two questions about baking at high altitude in Colorado’s Vail Valley, so we turned to Shawn Smith for answers. Smith graduated from culinary school in 1995 and went exclusively into pastries shortly thereafter. He’s the owner of Mountain Flour, which specializes in wedding and specialty cakes in addition to gelato and sorbet.
Cakes always sink in the middle and are coarse grained – what’s the remedy?
I have a brownie recipe that works well at sea level. But when I use it in Edwards, the brownies expand and bubble over the pan in the oven when cooking. Do I need to adjust the recipe or ingredients for high altitude?
Greg Nelson, Edwards
The most common problem of high altitude baking seems to be the sinking middle of cakes and the coarse-grained texture. These happen to be fairly easy problems to explain.
The sinking middle occurs due to the rapid rising of your baked goods and the proportional lack of structure to accommodate this reaction. The lower atmospheric pressure at the higher altitudes causes any leavening agent (baking powder, baking soda, yeast and even air/steam caused by air pockets in whipped batters) to rise earlier and faster than at sea level. To counterbalance this you need to do a few things.
First and most obvious, lower your leavening agent. I don’t believe in any formulas to come up with how much to lower it. I’ve lowered it as little as 25 percent, up to 66 percent LESS than what the recipe calls for.
Second, you need to improve the structure of your product. When your cakes rise, they need some sort of structure to prevent the collapse. At high altitude you need a stronger structure that will set up faster. When flour is combined with liquid and friction (from mixing) it forms gluten strands which are high in protein. These can be compared to rubber bands in elasticity – like when pizza dough shrinks if you roll it out. Once the protein is heated, it coagulates into a firm structure. Fat (butter, shortening, etc.) and sugar “shorten” these gluten strands (hence the name, shortening), lowering your structure. For this reason you need to reduce your fat and sugar and increase the flour; 10 percent is a good starting point.
Another thing that increases structure is the addition of eggs. Eggs will add moisture and protein for your structure. For most home recipes, use extra-large eggs instead of large as the recipes are too small to add a full egg to your recipe.
Lastly, and this explains the coarse grain, baked goods dry out in the oven at a faster rate than at sea level because of the drier air. To compensate for this and the addition of the flour, add 10 percent more liquid than what is called for, or a tablespoon or two of water.
The biggest thing to remember is: Write down everything you do when you are making something. If it still falls a little, add more structure. If it doesn’t rise enough or is dry, add more leavening and liquid. Once you have your recipe dialed in, you are all set. Unless you are changing your baking location, the altitude will not change!
Shawn Smith, Mountain Flour
Ask Wren is a weekly culinary column. Send your questions to email@example.com.