How Altitude Affects Sourdough Baking


Bakers living at high altitudes have long known they must make adjustments to standard recipes. Altitude affects not only the baking time, but also the humidity or relative moistness of the finished product. That’s because the atmospheric pressure is lower at high altitudes and lower pressure makes water evaporate faster. In fact, for every 500-foot increase in altitude, water will boil at 1° lower than it will at sea level. Since water boils at 212°F at sea level, if you live at a 1000–foot elevation that means your water will boil at 210°F. This is not a significant difference if you live below 3000 feet, but it can change things considerably if you are living at 6000 feet. While the difference in the temperature at which water boils mainly concerns moist-heat cooking, in baking naturally leavened or yeast-leavened breads, this difference affects the length of time it takes to bake a loaf.

Generally, when baking breads at high altitudes, you will need to allow more time than a recipe calls for. How much more time depends on your elevation. The easiest way to judge when your loaf of bread is done is to use a thin-tipped instant-read thermometer inserted into the bottom of the loaf. Usually 195°F is a good temperature to shoot for. You can go all the way up to 205°F, but higher than that you may notice the bread is drier and more crumbly than you’d like or that it gets stale faster. Experiment with various temperatures and settle on the one that suits your taste. You may also want to raise the oven temperature by 25°F to account for the difference in atmospheric pressure.

You may also want to raise the oven temperature by 25°F to account for the difference in atmospheric pressure. If you are using a convection oven that automatically reduces the temperature 25°F, just set it at the temperature you want, overriding the auto-function. For example, if your oven has a setting for “convection bake” that automatically sets the temperature at 325°F, you can manually adjust the temperature to 350°F or even 375°F. Free-formed artisan loaves bake best around 400°F, whereas loaves in pans do fine at 375°F. It pays to get familiar with the idiosyncrasies of your particular oven.

The amount of water you use in a recipe will also vary depending on your altitude. The higher the altitude, the drier the flour will be and the more water it will absorb. You can probably use less flour than the recipe calls for when you are at a high altitude. How much less will all depend on your location. Start with about one-fourth less flour and add additional flour only as needed. If you are working with a baker’s percentage and you normally use a hydration of 68%, try using a 70% hydration. It’s easier to knead in a little extra flour than it is to add more water.

Rising times decrease as altitude increases, so remember to adjust for this also. Keep in mind that the longer the rise time, the more complex the flavors will be, and this is a desirable goal. Try rising at cooler temperatures. (An old refrigerator set at 50°F makes a good “slow proofing" box.) Giving the dough at least two risings also helps. When the dough has doubled, punch it down and let it double again. Usually the second rise is faster than the first rise. Once you shape the loaves and put them into pans or baskets to rise, cover the loaves to prevent them from drying out and forming a tough skin on top that will thwart the nice “oven spring” you want to have. You can use plastic wrap, lightly-moistened flour sack towels, or the shower cap-style covers that are available commercially to cover the loaves while they rise. You might also use a covered proofing box or set a large kettle or bowl upside down over the loaves after you have sprayed them with a fine mist of cool water.

If you want a soft crust on your finished loaf you can brush it with melted butter. For a crispy crust, water is a better choice. Spray the loaves (or butter them) one more time right before placing them in the hot oven to bake.

With a little practice and a healthy dose of patience you will find just the right technique that works for you. Bread baking is an art and as such, there is no absolute one right way to do it.



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