The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

High-Altitude Baking and Cooking, Explained: Here’s What Can Go Wrong and How to Fix It

Chefs share the perils and pitfalls of cooking at 10,000 feet above sea level.

Chef Mike Lata was getting ready to cook one of the most important dinners in his career: a meal at the top of Ajax Mountain at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen for 600 of the most influential food and beverage professionals in the country. Lata, chef and co-owner of Fig and The Ordinary in Charleston, had curated the menu to represent his restaurants and the city of Charleston — starting with an appetizer of boiled peanuts, to be served at cocktail hour. 

Lata had found some beautiful green peanuts — freshly dug, which make the best boiled peanuts — and put them in a pot and started cooking them. At home in Charleston, the boiled peanuts would typically take between 2 and 3 hours. But 36 hours later, the peanuts still weren’t done. What was going on?

Why does it take longer to cook at high altitudes?

The reason Lata’s peanuts didn’t cook the same way they would at sea level is due to a difference in atmospheric pressure, which impacts the temperature at which water boils.

At sea level, the air applies 14.7 pounds of pressure, and water boils at 212°F. The temperature at which water boils decreases as the elevation rises, to the tune of just under 1 degree for every 500-foot increase. The difference is negligible until you reach 3,000 feet, which is the altitude at which you need to start adjusting your cooking plans, according to the FDA

This high-altitude cooking chart from the Colorado State University Extension shows how the temperature at which water boils drops as elevation rises.

Table 1: Approximate boiling temperatures of water at various altitudes
Altitude Temperature
 Sea Level  212°F
 2,000 ft.  208°F
 5,000 ft.  203°F
 7,500 ft.  198°F
 10,000 ft.  194°F
Data: Colorado State University

At 10,000 feet, roughly the elevation Lata was cooking at, the boiling point is 194°F — a temperature that will require boiled foods to be cooked for double or even triple the amount of time they would at sea level. Despite refilling the pot and maintaining a boil for more than a day, the water the peanuts were cooking in was never going to get as hot as it did in Charleston. 

A good work-around for this — if you need to boil something and don’t have all day to do it — is to use a pressure cooker. Because no matter how high you turn up the heat, the water will never go above boiling point, causing whatever you are cooking to dry out faster. 

Water evaporates faster at high altitudes

High altitudes are also usually low in humidity, which allows for faster evaporation

Top Chef season 15 winner Joe Flamm discovered how dry the air was while cooking at 221 South Oak in Telluride (at 8,750 feet above sea level) as a cheftestant on the show. He had decided to make an agnolotti that he had been making with his grandmother for years in her kitchen … which was nearly at sea level and naturally had high humidity. As he struggled with making the pasta, Flamm realized that the extremely dry air was drying out the pasta dough. (He ended up using almost double the amount of egg yolks to make up for it.)

Moisture will also evaporate from cooking foods more quickly, as 2013 F&W Best New Chef Chris Shepherd learned while hosting a Gulf Coast seafood party in Aspen. His secret to making sure it all came out well was to cook the seafood in smaller batches and to put lids on the pots to help hold in the moisture. It’s a strategy that the University of Wyoming Extension, which publishes many resources on high-altitude cooking and baking, also recommends.

High altitude baking adjustments

The dry air, lower air pressure, and lack of humidity at elevation can also cause problems while baking  

Chef Nancy Silverton recalls her first time baking at the Classic. "I had no idea what to anticipate in working with yeast and being at that altitude. When I opened the oven and saw the brioche rising in there, I remember thinking, ‘Oh s--t.’" 

Gasses expand more at high altitudes — a phenomenon that meant Silverton’s brioche was rising way too much and too rapidly. “I don't remember how I knocked it down or how I compensated — all I know is realizing how little I knew about baking in high altitudes,” she says now. “Nothing that a little sautéed fruit and crème fraîche couldn't make look better.”

I had a similar experience at my first real kitchen job working as a baker at a coffee shop in Laramie, a town that sits at around 7,500 feet in the plains of Wyoming. My chef, John Guerin, had been cooking and baking at altitude his whole life. I wanted to introduce a chocolate cake that I had been making for years to the menu. I stirred, whisked, and poured it into the cake pan, then watched it rapidly rise in the oven — and immediately fall back down. 

The culprit was the different behavior of gasses at high altitudes — in this case, the carbon dioxide released by the reaction between baking soda and the acids in the batter. At sea level, the resulting bubbles would stay small, expanding just enough for the cake to rise. At a high altitude, they expanded too much, causing the bubbles to rupture and the cake to fall.

A few tricks that Guerin had up his sleeve helped me adjust my recipes after that: Reducing the baking soda or baking powder by half and reducing the sugar (which is acidic and interacts with the baking soda or baking powder) by 1 tablespoon per cup helps decrease the gasses in the cake. (See the chart below, from the Colorado State University Extension, for more detailed guidance.) Increasing your oven temperature while decreasing the bake time gives those gasses less time to expand. And lastly, increasing the flour 1 tablespoon per cup helps create a stronger structure to the cake, which can help prevent those tiny bubbles in the batter from bursting and the cake from collapsing.  

Table 2: Cake-recipe adjustment guide for high altitude
 Adjustment  3,500 to 6,000 ft.  6,500 to 8,500 ft.  8,500 to 10,000 ft
Reduce baking powder, for each tsp., decrease:  1/8 tsp. 1/8-1/4 tsp.   1/4 tsp.
Reduce sugar, for each cup, decrease:  0-1 Tbsp. 0-1 Tbsp. 1-3 Tbsp.
Increase liquid, for each cup, add:  1-2 Tbsp. 2-4 Tbsp. 3-4 Tbsp.
Data: Colorado State University

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again

If you’re baking or cooking at altitude, don’t assume a recipe won’t work — try it first. And if it doesn’t work, you may need to test it a few times. Try changing one ingredient at a time to isolate the problem, referring to the charts above. (And if you need more in-depth help, try the Colorado State University Extension website for more technical assistance and the USDA for more guidance.)

Many chefs have come up with creative work-arounds over the years. Chef and TV host Andrew Zimmern, a regular at the F&W Classic in Aspen, recalled being asked to compete in a culinary competition. With just 20 minutes to prepare a dish, he asked Jacques Pépin for advice. “No matter what, make a soufflé. If you make a soufflé, you win.” Zimmern protested that the soufflé wouldn’t stabilize and rise due to the altitude. “[Pépin] said, ‘Put about a quarter cup of cream cheese and pulse the whole thing in the food processor. Because you’re putting the cream cheese in there, it’s going to break up. It’s going to stabilize the egg whites in a different way,’” Zimmern recalls. “Sure enough, I turned around and literally watched them all go pop! Opened the door, plated, put it up, and I wound up winning.”

As for chef Lata, those peanuts weren’t completely tender after 36 hours, when it was time to eat, and though the peanuts weren’t exactly what he was aiming for, they were still perfectly delicious.

Top image by Marc Fiorito

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