Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Baking With Altitude - Leavening Agents

Welcome to Week 3 of How to Fix Common Baking Disasters.  

Week 1 How to Fix Common Baking Disasters
Week 2 Baking With Altitude - Flour

Chicago, IL (USA) 625 feet above sea level 
Santa Cruz (Bolivia) 1365 feet above sea level  
La Paz (Bolivia) 13,000 feet above sea level    

In this week's post I will focus on how leavening agents work and what changes need to be made when taking a low altitude recipe (from Chicago) and making it work at the higher altitudes of Santa Cruz and La Paz.


The three main leavening agents are baking soda, baking powder and yeast. Leavening agents are added to baked goods before cooking to produce carbon dioxide gas. The gas bubbles become trapped by the supporting structure (gluten and eggs) of the dough or batter. This causes the dough/batter to rise.
The gases that are created from leavening agents such as yeast, baking soda and baking powder expand quicker at higher altitudes. On the plus side, less time is needed to proof yeast dough. For cakes, quick breads and muffins however this accelerated rising may cause your end product to collapse when the gases expand and escape if the supporting structure can't support and trap the gases.
Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate):
Baking Soda
Baking soda starts to work the moment it comes in contact with liquid. It continues to expand in the heat of the oven. When using baking soda it is important to put the mixed dough/batter in the oven immediately. If you let the dough/batter sit too long outside of the oven after its been mixed your baked item will most likely fall and you will get a sunken cake or a flat muffin.

In order to create a pleasing texture and taste, baking soda needs to be combined with an acidic ingredient such as buttermilk. When the balance of baking soda to acid is not achieved your baked product might have a bitter or sour taste and the texture will be less pleasing.

Baking Powder (Sodium Bicarbonate and Cream of Tartar):
Baking Powder
Baking powder is a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar. Most often you will see baking powder listed as double acting. What this means is that the baking powder is activated both by the addition of liquids and the use of heat. Single acting baking powder is activated only by moisture. 

Baking powder is a more neutral mixture than baking soda alone so baking powder recipes usually call for other neutral ingredients such as milk. 

Chicago, IL (USA) - no change
Santa Cruz (Bolivia) - decrease either baking soda or powder by 1/8t
La Paz (Bolivia) - decrease either baking soda or powder by 1/2t or more

Dry Yeast
When using yeast at higher altitudes, the lower air pressure allows the yeast to rise/proof faster. Generally this is a good thing. However, if the dough over rises you run the risk of producing a heavy, dense and dry product. You may also have uneven rising and end up with a lopsided loaf of bread. The key to making a yeast recipe work at a high altitude is to keep an eye on the dough as it proofs. Use visual cues to see when the dough has doubled rather than relying on the proofing time listed in the recipe. You can also decrease the quantity of yeast slightly if baking at extreme altitudes like in La Paz.

Chicago, IL (USA) - no change
Santa Cruz (Bolivia) - decrease proofing time by about 15%
La Paz (Bolivia) -  decrease proofing time by 25-50% and decrease yeast by 1/3

If I take a high altitude recipe and try to make it work successfully in Chicago I reverse the adjustments. Instead of decreasing baking soda/powder I may add a bit more and I might let yeasted dough proof longer to completely double in size before shaping and baking. I may also need to adjust the acids/liquids of my dough/batter. I will talk more about this in the March post on Liquids.

When trying to convert recipes from one altitude to another try one adjustment at a time. Take note of what your changes produce. Sometimes it is just a matter of changing the leavening agents but other times you need to change liquid, cooking time and flour measurements as well.
Next week I will talk about Fats and how they contribute to baking results.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Chef Noly
To order saltenas please visit Noly's World Cuisine at
To read more about Bolivia please visit our friend Bella at

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