It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally I hear from a disgruntled reader saying something like, “I tried your recipe for whatever, and it was just awful and it didn’t turn out at all, and it burnt a hole in the ozone, and my kid ran away from home. . . ”
I’m really sorry. Rest assured I don’t post recipes here unless I’ve had complete success with them. There are lots of “not-bad-but-not-fabulous” recipes that I just don’t bother taking the time to photograph and do a write-up. And, of course, everybody’s taste is different. That isn’t the poor recipe’s fault.
The thing is, there are several factors that can influence how your baked goods turn out:
- Weather outside
- Type of baking pans
- Type of ingredients
- Temperature of ingredients
- Measuring methods
- Mixing methods
. . . we’ll keep it to that for now.
So we’re going to take those first three on the list and talk troubleshooting today. I’ll tackle the others in another post. I’ll also try not to get carried away, but the truth is, I could go on and on about this stuff. It’s SO COOL.
One more thing: I’ve done a crazy amount of reading and hands-on research, and can feel confident sharing what I’ve learned. But if you see something here that you think is completely false? Let me know! If you’re very polite, I’ll listen.
Let’s dig in.
This is a big one. My home here in Utah sits at roughly 4,500 feet. That’s . . . pretty high up. The higher you get, the lower the air pressure. Remember Chem 101 back in college? Pressure plays a big part in chemical reactions, especially where heat is involved.
Altitude will have the biggest impact on foods with a delicate crumb. So, mostly cakes. But also muffins, quick breads, and some cookies. At high altitude (over 3,000 feet), the gases produced by the leavening expand more quickly, and cause the cake to “fall” before the heat has had time to set the cake’s structure. The liquids in your batter will also evaporate faster and at a lower temperature than they will at sea level. So your cakes and cookies can dry out more.
Yikes. You still with me?
The simplest adjustment to make is to raise the oven temperature by 15-25 degrees (F) and decrease baking time however much you need. That will allow the structure of your cake to set faster. For a lot of your non-cake baked goods, it might be the only adjustment you’ll need to make.
Sometimes you have to actually play with the proportions:
- You can try decreasing the baking powder and baking soda by 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon, so your cake won’t rise too quickly.
- You can decrease the sugar by 1-2 tablespoons per cup. Too much sugar can weaken the structure of the cake. But be careful with that, because too little sugar will make your batter too dry. It’s a fine line to walk.
- You can increase the liquid by 1-3 tablespoons per cup. Sometimes you can do this by adding an extra egg, depending on the recipe.
The moral of the altitude story is: there are no hard and fast rules for adjusting for altitude, because every recipe is different, and every baker is different.
The key is to experiment around and see what works best for that particular recipe. In your kitchen.
Have you ever tried to make Divinity on an humid day? Neither have I, but that’s because I hear it’s a disaster — it’s just one of those foods that turns into a mess if the humidity is off.
Cookies baked on a rainy day will end up a little differently than cookies baked on a dry day. Utah’s air is pretty dry, as any disillusioned BYU freshman from out of state will tell you. (Also, barometric pressure from day to day will influence the outcome.) In this way, some of your problems are going to be similar to your altitude issues, especially when it comes to flour. Flour is like a sponge. In a humid climate, it won’t absorb as much liquid. And that affects your dough. Of course.
It’s a good idea to use the size of pan the recipe calls for. The pan size will affect how much batter you should put in, and what temperature you should bake it at, and how long it should bake. If you use the right size of pan, then you aren’t throwing off all these other details.
The material of your pan also makes a difference:
- Pans with a darker finish will cook more quickly, and can brown your goodies too much. You might need to adjust the baking time, and possibly cover with foil to prevent overbrowning. Depending on the recipe.
- Glass pans (such as Pyrex) conduct heat better than metal. For some foods, that’s good, and for others it’s not. Ceramic/stoneware doesn’t conduct heat as quickly as metal, but that’s not an issue for some foods, such as puddings and casseroles, where a precise temperature isn’t as critical.
- Silicone is great for it’s nonstick properties and bending-it-to-get-the-stuff-out properties, but remember that baked goods low in sugar or fat may not brown well enough in silicone.
- Aluminum with a dull finish is generally going to be your best bet with baking. It’s a great conductor, and it won’t over-brown your baked goods.
- Stainless steel is also pretty good, and easy to clean, although it doesn’t conduct as well as aluminum. Sometimes you’ll see a combination of the two, which is fantastic.
One more note: Cookie sheets with a thick base will bake and brown more evenly than those with a thin base. Cookies baked on a thin cookie sheet are more likely to be darker on the bottom, and the danger of overbaking or uneven baking is greater. As a side note to this note: A silicone baking mat (I am in love with my Silpats) also helps to prevent overbrowning.
Is that enough for one day? Yes. But stay tuned for Part 2!