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Baking with Altitude: A Fluffy Obsession

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I know thin has always been in but, when it comes to cookies, I want them fat and fluffy. Baking at a higher altitude has complicated that for me. Since moving to Colorado, things are happening that high school chemistry didn’t prepare me for. I’ve had cookies so crumbly that they were barely being held together by a wish and a dream. Sure, I’ve tried adjusting ingredients. I’ve added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided, but my cookies are never fluffy.

 
I shouldn’t need to understand the restrictions of mass and external forces required for space exploration. These are cookies. At the same time, I feel like I’m in chemistry class all again trying to figure out what ingredients and how many to replace before something explodes in my oven.
 
It’s become an obsession because baking in Colorado seems to be based on a careful combination of science, hope, and dreams.
 
Here’s what I’ve tried:
  • Adding more flour. This is supposed to help strengthen the structure of baked goods. In my case, it turns my flat, crumbly cookies into fluffy cookies I can crack cement with.
  • Decreasing sugar. Increasing evaporation and sugar equals weak baked goods. If my end goal is to bake a cookie consisting entirely of crumble that’s the pastry equivalent of eating sand, then there are no sugar adjustments required.
  • Extra liquids. Adding more liquid in Colorado keeps everything from drying out—this applies to people too. I can increase liquids by adding one to two tablespoons for every 3,000 feet of elevation. Then, adding 1 1/2 teaspoons more for every additional 1,000 feet of elevation. Since math is more of a disability than a learned skill for me, I just toss in a few extra eggs or some water so that I can get the same results as not adding anything.
    *Note: If you live at 14,000 feet and don’t increase liquids properly, your cookies will disintegrate before they even get into the oven.
  • Turn the heat up and the baking time down. Increasing the oven temperature helps set the foundation of baked goods before they have a chance to dry out. So, if I bake cookies at a higher temperature, they’ll set faster. This obviously means I don’t have to bake them as long, but I have to remember they takes less time. So, my dream of getting fluffy cookies usually end with a pretty realistic ball of carbon formerly known as cookies.
Colorado’s low air pressure has three main effects on baking:
  1. Baked goods rise easier.
  2. Baked goods lose moisture faster.
  3. Baked goods mess with your psyche.
Anyone baking at 3,000 feet or higher will see a completely different result than their lowland friends. For example, two novice bakers set out to bake a basic yellow cake. One lives in Boulder, Colorado and the other lives in Rooshy, Ohio. Each person follows the same recipe and uses the same ingredients. The baker in Ohio produces a fluffy round cake that’s balanced with the perfect combination of moisture, spongicity, and all the delights of living at sea level. The baker from Colorado completes their task with an actual bowl that will crumble if you breathe on it.
 
So how do you make this baking at altitude thing work? You don’t. I’ve never seen a fluffy cookie anywhere in this state. Except at Walmart—where I’m 99 percent sure the cookies are baked in Rooshy, Ohio.
 
It’s been five years since I moved here, and I still have a mediocre cookie product. Maybe one day I’ll discover the right amount of flour and sugar by complete and total accident. That’s pretty much how I got through high school Chemistry. I might get lucky someday. If I don’t, then my cookies will just be flat. But, thin is in and flat’s where it’s at.

Christina lives in Denver with her husband, three kids, and two cats who still haven’t caught the red dot. She spends her time obsessing over how to bake fluffy cookies at high altitude and trying to predict the unpredictable weather patterns of the Front Range. When she’s not writing, she’s neglecting laundry, making mediocre meals for her family and answering the same question 147 times in a single minute. You can find her hiding in the closet and eating candy at www.christinaantus.net

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Comments
  • comment avatar Amber Johnson January 23, 2015

    I’ve had pretty good luck with high-altitude baking (and like you, I like my cookies fat and fluffy). I think part of it might be your oven…I’ve had differing results depending upon where I’m cooking. And part might be your recipes. And part might be how much flour you’re adding. Our silly oven cooks faster at the back than it does near the front so I have to switch my cookie sheets around partway through. Do you have an older or a new oven?

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson January 23, 2015

    Also, here’s my favorite no-fail recipe for chocolate chip cookies. I do 2 1/2 cups of flour and they work out perfectly every time. Of course, if you fail then they’re no longer “no fail” so tread lightly. 🙂
    http://www.marthastewart.com/344840/soft-and-chewy-chocolate-chip-cookies

  • comment avatar Christina Antus January 23, 2015

    It’s a newer oven – not the newest. My recipes from back home don’t seem to work very well here but I’m going to try your “no fail” recipe! I’ll report back on the results…

  • comment avatar Katherine M January 23, 2015

    I actually use a brown butter chocolate chip cookie recipe from Cook’s Illustrated and I add 1/3 cup extra flour. I had tried 1/4 cup at a friend’s suggestion, but it still produced flat cookies. The 1/3 cup does the trick. It’s a fantastic cookie! Since it’s Cook’s Illustrated, I can’t paste the link unless you have a membership. 🙁

  • comment avatar Shawnda January 24, 2015

    Chill chocolate chip cookie dough in the fridge for at least an hour before you bake. It helps the dough from overspreading. NPR did a great article on the science of chocolate chip cookies. I can finally bake amazing cookies!

  • comment avatar Time & Place January 24, 2015

    2 really easy changes will make a big difference: More flour and less leavener. Baked good rise faster at high altitude, but then they sink faster. So you need more flour to support the rise. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of flour for each cup. Reduce your baking soda or baking powder by a pinch and you’re good to go!

  • comment avatar Regan January 24, 2015

    I don’t know why but I haven’t had many baking issues since moving here from sea level Connecticut. Certain quick breads sink in the middle but other than that I’ve been lucky so far *knock on wood*. This may sound odd but I get fluffier cookies if I use cheap butter.

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