When it comes to cooking and baking in Breckenridge, there is one super tricky ingredient infused in every dish…high altitude.
Even when following the “high elevation” directions on a brownie or cookie mix, things don’t usually go right at 9,600 feet. You often end up with hockey pucks or a pan full of brown paste. Local cooking guru Vera Dawson, author of Cookies in the Clouds and Baking Above it All says the first rule to follow when entering the kitchen at altitude is to avoid instant mixes altogether, since most of them are designed for elevations up to no more than 7,000 feet.
Another hard truth is that there are no steadfast rules for cooking and baking at high altitude, just the chemical reality that water boils at a lower temperature and gases expand more in lower pressure.
“The first thing to know is there is no formulaic way to approach it,” Dawson says. “Each recipe needs its own changes. But there are some general tips.”
Muffins, biscuits and light pastries
– Decrease sugar and baking soda or baking powder, sometimes by half or more, depending on the recipe. Increase water or milk by a tablespoon and flour by a couple of tablespoons.
“You’re always decreasing chemical leavenings,” Dawson says. “When I’m making Madeleines, I eliminate the leavening agent entirely because they puff up enough on their own with the egg whites if they’re really beaten.”
Again, decrease the baking powder by at least 25 percent, add an additional egg or moist ingredient but don’t overbeat the eggs. Add at least one tablespoon of flour per cup in the recipe. Be sure to grease the pan with both oil and flour or use a spray that has both. Fill pans only halfway to avoid overflowing. Increase baking time.
“I use smaller pans than I do at sea level,” Dawson says. “Textures get denser here as liquids evaporate. I’ll use a 6-inch Bundt pan and make it twice rather than a 12-inch pan and an 8-inch pan rather than a 12-inch.”
Happily, pie crusts cook well at altitude, but if you’re making it from scratch, add a little more water to make sure the dough holds together and isn’t too dry.
Do NOT grease the cookie sheet. Use parchment paper instead. When whipping up the batter, you might decrease the butter. Decrease the sugar slightly and add at least two tablespoons of flour. Bake at a lower temperature for a couple of minutes longer and keep a close eye on progress.
“Often with a cookie I don’t want to spread I put in the freezer for 5 or 10 minutes until it’s firm. Also with drop cookies – like chocolate chip – we under bake them at altitude. If you see that pretty golden color … here that means they’re over baked.”
Also, wrap all baked goods immediately after they cool or they will dry out rapidly in the high, dry air.
Unless you have a pressure cooker, it’s nearly impossible to soften dried beans or peas to the point that they’re no longer crunchy, so use canned instead.
Pasta and rice
Water boils at a lower temperature here. Plan to keep it on the stove longer and add more water to account for faster evaporation.
Turkeys and hams
They take longer to cook thoroughly. A meat thermometer is key. Plan to do more basting and add more flavor as flavors and liquids disappear quickly at altitude.
They’ll take longer to cook through. Be sure to keep the meat away from the direct flame to avoid charring it and grill at a lower heat to avoid drying it out.
Soups and sauces
All liquids evaporate quickly. Add water – a cup or more – and extra spice.
When in doubt, track down a specific high-altitude recipe.
“You’ll have to experiment,” Dawson says. “I learned all that I know through a lot of trial and error.”