High Altitude Baking

After a long hiatus, I return. Finishing up the school year, attending graduations of siblings, and getting ready for my summer job consumed much of my time. But now I am settled down and returning to my usual patterns, but in a very different place. I’ve left the east coast for the high mountains of Colorado and will be here all summer. So this entry is dedicated to my new surroundings and how they will influence my baking. All of my bread this summer will be baked at close to 9,000 feet elevation and in a fairly arid, montane climate. After some reading, here is what I have found.

Variation in altitude mainly influences the rising time of yeasted bread doughs. During fermentation, carbon dioxide is produced by yeast and trapped by gluten in the dough. Generally, longer rising times allow for better texture and flavor development in the bread. At sea level, this is more easily achieved as greater air pressure will resist the dough’s rise. As the altitude increases, however, air pressure decreases. At high altitudes, yeast will continue to produce carbon dioxide at normal rates, but the dough will rise faster because there is less external resistance to its expansion. This can detract from both the texture and the flavor of the bread.

This problem can be remedied in various ways. First, the bulk fermentation time can be extended by increasing the number of times the dough is folded, which decreases the loaf volume. Bulk fermentation can also be lengthened by keeping the dough at a cooler temperature. This can be achieved by using cold water in the initial mixing of the dough and by allowing the dough to ferment either in the refrigerator or in another cool location.

Secondly, in white breads, some recipes call for using less total yeast than in recipes made for baking at sea level. Whole grain breads, however, generally benefit from the same amount of yeast since they are heavier doughs and need the extra lift. I’ve also read that you should avoid using instant dry yeast at altitudes. I used it with my first loaves up here (see below) and they turned out fine. Just make sure that you use the appropriate amount if a recipe calls for active dry yeast instead (approximately 1/3 of the amount called for active dry yeast).

Various ingredients may need to be adjusted at high altitudes to accommodate the change in pressure. Sweeteners, such as sugar or honey, weaken the gluten in dough and can contribute to loaf collapse. Therefore, the amount used may need to be reduced. Salt, contributing to flavor and gluten development, retarding yeast activity, and extending bulk fermentation time, is essential at high altitudes. In addition, the human palate does not perceive salt as effectively at high altitudes, so increasing the salt content by a moderate amount with increased elevation is generally a good idea.

Lastly, the final proof can be shortened as well so that the dough has only increased roughly 1/3 in size (rather than close to double in bulk). This is important because oven spring is enhanced at high elevations. Generally, as a rule with high-altitude baking, it is better to underproof than overproof.

Another issue with baking at this altitude is the dry climate. Flour here is extremely dry. This affects how much water or other liquid is ultimately used in a recipe. All-purpose flour tends to absorb less liquid than bread flour due to its lower gluten content and is thus preferred by some high-altitude bakers. Furthermore, recipes created for sea-level baking will either need to have a the amount of flour reduced or the amount of water increased. Once the bread is in the oven both the dryness and the low air pressure encourage rapid evaporation and the loaf is at risk for crusting over immediately and stifling the oven spring. Steaming is therefore essential! Breads must also be stored wrapped in plastic wrap and another layer of foil to ensure that they do not dry out rapidly. It is dry enough here that the crust will stay crisp and crunchy even if this is done.

Over all, it seems that the best course of action when baking at high altitudes is to watch and feel the dough, not the recipe. You have to determine yourself whether it needs more water or whether you should fold it another time. You have to be a bit daring and willing to take chances. But that’s the fun of it … using your own creativity and problem solving skills to produce a tasty loaf.

The following recipe is a personal variation from the Back Home Bakery’s (http://thebackhomebakery.com/index.html) Multigrain Hearth Loaf. The only adjustments I found that I had to make was to increase the hydration. I kept all the other ingredient amounts and rising times the same. If you want to make this at a lower elevation, don’t add all the water at once. Reserve some and add it to the dough as necessary.

The most startlingly aspect of this bread was the oven spring. The loaves yawned opened like blooming flowers or hungry clams. The bread is delicious, nevertheless … light crumb, slightly sweet, and nutty. I’m looking forward to many breakfasts on the deck with a few slices of this bread and some butter and blackberry jam.

References: Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes, Susan G. Purdy

Multigrain Hearth Loaf

Yield: ~ 2 kg


90 g cracked wheat
90 g thick rolled oats
235 g water, boiling

Combine all ingredients of the soaker and let sit at room temperature for 12-16 hours.

Pate Fermentee:

358 g white all-purpose flour
206 g water
6 g salt
.15 g instant yeast

Thoroughly combine all ingredients of the pate fermentee so that all the flour is hydrated. Let sit at room temperature for 12-16 hours.

Final Dough:

454 g whole wheat flour
170 g white all purpose flour
315 g water
18 g salt
1.5 g instant yeast
45 g honey
All of soaker
All of pate fermentee

Combine flours and water. Knead until thoroughly combined and there is no remaining dry flour. This will be a very dry and stiff dough! Let rest or autolyse for 30 minutes.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the flour/water mixtures. Knead until all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Continue kneading until a medium level of gluten is developed.

Allow to ferment for 2 hours and 15 minutes, folding twice at 45 and 90 minutes.

Divide the dough into two pieces approximately 1 kg each. Shape each piece into a tight ball. Allow to rest covered for 15 minutes. Shape the dough pieces into boules and proof in a bannetton or proofing basket for 1-1.5 hours.

Bake the loaves on pre-heated stones at 410 degrees for 15 minutes with steam and another 20-25 minutes without steam. Turn the oven off, crack the door, and leave the loaves in for another 10 minutes. Remove the loaves from the oven and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before eating.

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