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Adventures in High Altitude Baking

You might have heard that Taylor and I are getting married this June.

You probably saw that he proposed to me entirely in cupcakes.

And you’ve likely read that I’m crazy enough to try to bake my own cupcake wedding cake. No bakery, no professional cake decorator – just me (and maybe a few helpers), a whole lot of sugar, and a single oven. Certifiably insane.

But what you don’t know is that I’ll be doing all this at 7,346 feet above sea level.

And that folks, makes baking cupcakes kind of tricky.

Nashville, where we’re living now and have been baking all of our testing cupcakes, sits at a comfortable 600 feet. That’s nearly a mile and half of sheer height between here and there. Oh boy.

What I find almost humorous is that typically, high altitude directions (on that box mix of devils’ food cake, for example), come into play at a whopping 3,500 feet. See, to me, growing up in the mountains of Colorado, 3,500 feet is practically sea level. Wimps.

This past week we spent visiting Taylor’s family, and at a moderate 4,728 feet, was a good place to start testing what exactly I’d need to do to make sure my cupcakes stayed cupcakes, and didn’t sink into oblivion. So test I did. Lucky for me we had a nice big Taylor’s-family gathering, an event that just begged for two dozen Mexican Hot Chocolate Cupcakes. :)

Testing my recipes on the future inlaws? I couldn’t think of anything more perfect.

Baking Cupcakes at High Altitude

Batch 1:
After googling extensively about recipe conversions for information on high altitude baking (much of which applies to cakes and cookies, not cupcakes), I made a few arbitrary adjustments to the recipe. Reduced the baking powder, added some more coconut milk, reduced the sugar, and upped the temp. 25 degrees. They still tasted good (I knew they would), but got a bit droopy in their inner parts, and were a bit overdone on the tops and sides (nice and crunchy, almost brownie-like actually).

High Altitude Cupcakes

Batch 2:
Better. We’re getting there. Added a bit of extra flour, reduced the leavening even more, and used Taylor’s mom’s fancy schmancy new convection oven feature. They didn’t fall quite as much, and actually puffed more like a souffle than a cupcake. Still had crispy tops, but once they got frosted, no one could tell the difference between this one and the last batch.

Ok, ok. So it’s far from scientific. But my time in the clouds was limited.

Come June, I’ll have about 1 1/2 weeks before the wedding to experiment like a mad scientist, lab coat and all (ok maybe not the lab coat). I’m envisioning a control group, and then batches of half a dozen cupcakes at a time, each with one variation to the original recipe, whether it be leavening, liquid, oven temperature, or just luck. Sure, we may end up with hundreds of sunken cupcakes, but we’re bound to stumble upon just the right formula for perfectly domed cupcakes, even at 7000 feet.

I know I could just as easily (or easier) go out and find a cupcake recipe meant for high altitude, but I’m so attached to the taste and texture of my recipes, and don’t want to change that.

Has anyone had experience baking cupcakes at high altitude? Vegan cupcakes in particular? Any tips or tricks you care to share that might make my endeavor a bit more manageable?

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10 CommentsLeave a Comment →

  1. 1
    Posted On February 10, 2009 at 2:32 am

    That is the coolest proposal ever! Obviously, I hadn’t see that post :)

    I lived at 7000 feet for the first 7 years of my baking life … and things definitely like to rise there, which means, too much leavener will cause deflation in the end (as you got in the first batch). More flour, less leavener, is usually all I needed to adjust to make things work. Yeast breads work beautifully as is, but unfortunately don’t make good cupcakes :)

    Reply

  2. 2
    Posted On February 10, 2009 at 10:00 am

    Aloha there, I have some experience baking at around 9,500 feet in Quito, Ecuador (I lived there for a year recently). I did not make cupcakes but I made muffins and brownies in a small electric oven plugged into the wall with no temperature controls. I have pictures and it was quite entertaining. I didn’t change anything in the recipes because throughout my reading about baking at high altitudes, at a certain point, it doesn’t matter and no change is necessary. I think the most I ever did in my baking was add a little extra baking powder and that might have been to pancakes. Everything came out fine. I have faith in you! I think you should try to make them without changes to see how they come out and what you need to do to compensate for the altitude. I know you don’t have a lot of time but if you try a batch without any alterations, you’ll see what you are working with. GOOD LUCK and BEST WISHES!

    Reply

  3. 3
    MET
    Posted On February 10, 2009 at 10:07 am

    I am so happy that you are posting about this. I have the fall in the middle issue every time I bake and I’m never sure what to do about it. My typical fix is to add extra frosting to cover it up. :)

    Reply

  4. 4
    Posted On February 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    they still look awesome! i don’t think i would be able to figure it out on my own, but it looks like you’re getting the hang of it.

    Reply

  5. 5
    Karell
    Posted On February 10, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Heh, I’ve lived at 7,000+ all my life and we always giggled at the directions on cake boxes. The highest I’ve lived is right around 75, 7600, and right now I’m at an easy-to-breathe 7200 feet. I don’t really follow the directions where you reduce the leavening by 1/4 tsp for every thousand feet over 3500, because I then I end up with negative amounts or something silly. I usually just use a half tsp measurement and use the curved side of a butter knife to level it off so it’s on the scant side. That usually works pretty well, but more than anything it just ends up being intuitive. Do a couple batches and you’ll figure it out. I know that isn’t very helpful, but good luck all the same.
    -long time lurker, first time commentor

    Reply

  6. 6
    JLuu
    Posted On February 11, 2009 at 2:17 am

    I think it is amazing that you are taking on you own wedding cake!! I CAN’T WAIT to finally try your cupcakes–at least something from your kitchen–as I oogle over everything you post :)

    Reply

  7. 7
    Posted On February 14, 2009 at 7:29 am

    So delighted for both of you. It’s quite an adventure, isn’t it? I echo the others’ amazement at tackling your own wedding cake, but I’m sure someone with your skills will figure it out.

    Reply

  8. 8
    Rachel
    Posted On February 24, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Just moved to Colorado from sea-level Rhode Island 4 months ago. This is the conversion chart I use – so far, it’s worked perfectly: http://www.highaltitudebaking.com/ Sounds like Susan Purdy is the authority on the subject so you might – given it’s a WEDDING we’re talking about! – want to look at buying her book “Pie in the Sky”. Good luck!

    Reply

  9. 9
    Posted On October 9, 2009 at 9:17 am

    I live in Quito and have been using “Pie in the Sky, Successful Baking at HIgh Altitude” with excellent results. It’s available at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060522585. Good luck!

    Reply

  10. 10
    young baker
    Posted On August 13, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    i am a young baker living in colorado. Being a teenager with high ambitions to be a baker and raging emotions, i sometimes get frustrated about recipes not working before my loving mother comforts me saying it may be the altitude. though i must admit i usually don’t have the patients to try out the recipes again, cupcakes are unavoidable. after talking to experienced high-altitude bakers, i think you are on the right track. keep it up you give us all hope!

    Reply

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