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Mastering High Altitude Food Preparation, One Flat Cookie At A Time

Dec 24, 2014

For some residents of the Roaring Fork Valley, mastering the perfect cookie is a challenge. The CSU Extension office hosted a class in Basalt recently on baking and cooking at high altitudes.
Credit Creative Commons/Flickr/Lara604

On Christmas Day aromas of cookies, turkey and other holiday foods will spill from kitchens up and down the Roaring Fork Valley. Baking and cooking in our region can be tricky because of its high elevation. Some food fanatics find it difficult to get their fare just right. Colorado State University’s extension office held a class in Basalt this month on how to prepare food in the high country. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen was there and filed this report.

Glenda Wentworth launches into a presentation about high altitude cooking. She’s the Family and Consumer Science Agent for the CSU Extension office. Twenty people are seated at the Basalt Library, listening closely. They came with questions.

"I just moved here in August and I’m pretty much a disaster right now," says Jamie Collins who moved from Wisconsin. She says her baked goods go flat here. "I’ve tried to make scones and bake all sorts of things and they’re just terrible. So I’m in desperate need of this class!"

Carol Dresner of Basalt says she’s been trying to master high altitude baking for eight years and still struggles.

"The cookies flatten out. I still try it and about sixty percent of the time they turn out like the picture and sometimes they don’t."

CSU Extension agent Glenda Wentworth says there’s a reason things don’t always turn out right.

"At higher altitudes, there’s lower atmospheric pressure simply because there’s less atmosphere pushing down on us, so as the altitude gets higher, there’s less air pressing down, so that PSI makes a difference in the baking."

The decreased pressure causes baked goods in the oven to expand quickly and if they aren’t set right, they can collapse.

"And that’s what we see a lot of times is that collapse of the cells and then your cake or bread falls and has a dip in it," Wentworth says.

To create a structure that will set correctly, she recommends decreasing the amount of leavening agent, increasing the baking temperature, slightly decreasing sugar and increasing liquid.

"This is my cookie recipe that I brought samples of," Wentworth says as she points toward a tray of chocolate chip cookies.

She lives in Edwards, which sits 7500 feet above sea level about 1000 feet higher than Basalt. She infuses high-altitude tips into her baking.

"One of the things that I did with the recipe years and years ago was add a little flour to strengthen the dough because adding the flour is going to add more protein. The other thing I do with my cookies is I use half Crisco and half butter so that the Crisco also provides some more structure for the cookie dough."

She also recommends chilling the dough for a half hour before baking, so it can firm up. Still, high altitude baking is all about experimentation, she says, and it takes time to get it right.

"We want to be successful up here and so many people aren’t and often if we aren’t successful at something, we stop trying. And we want people to be successful at what they’re making."

Her goal, she says, it to make people happy to present what they’ve made to family and friends. Wentworth had more advice on cooking and canning at high altitude. For more tips on high elevation food preparation, click here.