How High Altitude Environments Affect Bread Dough, and What to Do About It
With the price of a single loaf of bread higher than the price of a bag of flour at most supermarkets, it’s no wonder that so many people are trying to learn how to bake their own bread. However, for millions of Americans who live at or above 3000ft (1/3rd of the US population according to the USDA), baking homemade bread can be a source of considerable frustration (especially in a bread cloche). When I first started baking bread while living near the Mile High City of Denver, Colorado, I turned out loaf after loaf of parched cardboard. It wasn’t until I learned to compensate for the many nefarious effects of high altitude that I learned to make bread my husband will actually eat. Here’s what I learned.
Because there is less air pushing down on the dough, yeast works more quickly. That means, at worst, a loaf that will rise so fast it later collapses in the oven, and at best, a loaf with very little flavor. If your recipe calls for active dry yeast, instant yeast, or bread machine yeast, reduce the total amount by 1/3rd. For example, one tablespoon yeast should be reduced to two teaspoons. One packet of yeast usually measures about 1 tablespoon, but reducing the amount will be a lot easier if you use the yeast that comes in a jar. Don’t use rapid-rise yeast. That kind of yeast has had enzymes added to make it work faster, and it works too fast to make good bread, even at sea level.
How Much Flour to Use
Most bread recipes call for “up to” a certain number of cups of flour. Since high altitude environments are usually dry and cold, the flour will dry out and soak up more moisture when used in baking. Most bread doughs have enough flour when they pull away from the side of the mixing bowl and look shaggy. If your dough does this before you’ve added all the flour the recipe calls for, do not try to add more flour, or your finished bread will be dry and gritty.
Use the full rising time called for in your recipe. Yeast rises best in warm, moist environments (though some recipes use a slower counter-top or refrigerator rise to develop more flavor). If your recipe says to place the dough in a “warm spot”, you can create the ideal environment by filling a cup with boiling water and putting it in the corner of your microwave. Then place the bowl in the microwave and close the door (do not turn the microwave on). Otherwise, use the rising location called for in your recipe. The dough rises properly when it has just doubled in volume. To be absolutely sure, poke it. Make an indentation about 1/4 inch (1 cm) deep. If the dent remains (doesn’t spring back or fill in), the dough rises properly.
Beware of over-risen doughs. Doughs that rise beyond double volume can collapse or taste boozy. If your dough has over-risen, gently flatten it (this is called “punching down”, though it’s actually a much more gentle movement) and allow it to rise again until it has just doubled.
Set your oven temperature at 25 degrees below what the recipe calls for. Due to lower air pressure, the dough will expand faster in the oven (this is called the “oven spring”), and a lower temperature will ensure the center doesn’t over-bake before the crust browns. You can ensure a good crust by brushing the formed loaf with water, oil, or a beaten egg. Also, it helps to put an oven-safe baking dish filled with water on the floor of the oven (lower rack if using electric). This creates humidity, which keeps the bread soft long enough for it to expand.
Knowing When It’s Done
Some recipes tell you bread will be done when you tap it and it “sounds hollow.” I don’t like that method, because over-baked hockey pucks also sound hollow (trust me on this one). Temperature is the most reliable method, but here we run into the last important point about high altitude: lower air pressure means lower boiling point. The bread that is allowed to reach a temperature above the boiling point of water will turn into cardboard. You need to remove your bread from the oven when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the loaf reads 5-10 degrees below the boiling point.
According to How to Boil Water, an easy way to figure out the boiling point where you live is to take the normal boiling point of water (212 degrees F) and subtract 2 degrees for every 1000ft above sea level. That means water boils at 202 degrees in Denver, so bread baked there should be pulled at 192-197 degrees F. Finally (and I know this is hard), let the bread cool at least 20 minutes before you slice it. Not only will you avoid painful mouth burns, but your bread will also set properly and you won’t end up with floppy sandwiches. Happy baking!