How to elevate your baking game

Making bread at a mile high can be tricky, but with experience comes wisdom

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 12/18/20

Nothing brightens a home quite like the warmth and smell of baking bread, but life at a mile high means baking the perfect loaf can get a bit tricky. “High-altitude baking is definitely a skill …

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How to elevate your baking game

Making bread at a mile high can be tricky, but with experience comes wisdom

Posted

Nothing brightens a home quite like the warmth and smell of baking bread, but life at a mile high means baking the perfect loaf can get a bit tricky.

“High-altitude baking is definitely a skill that takes time to develop,” said Chelly Klann, the founder of the Good Food Project, Project Bake and Edible Revolution — a trio of Denver-area nonprofits dedicated to teaching kids and adults the finer points of cooking and baking.

But before understanding how to bake at high elevation, Klann said bakers should understand bread in general.

“Bread is a whole zen experience,” she said. “You can’t rush it. Cooking is an art — you just throw stuff in a pan and taste it as you go — but baking is both an art and a science.”

Bread is also “the purest food,” Klann said, built on just flour, salt, water and yeast.

Home baking exploded this spring during the early days of COVID-19 shutdowns, with flour and yeast flying off shelves as fast as toilet paper. Klann said she thinks that had to do with a renewed focus on personal skills when people are cooped up.

“Bread is aspirational,” she said. “Lots of people say someday they’d like to learn French, or play the piano, or learn to bake. Suddenly people had time for things. Everything takes longer this year, and bread fits right in with that.”

But many home bakers in Colorado soon discovered the trouble that comes with high elevation.

“Dough rises quickly here, but it deflates quickly too,” Klann said.

Loaves and wishes

She offered a few pointers: First, high-elevation dough needs more moisture.

“It’s better to have sticky hands than dry dough,” she said. “If your rolls turn out like hockey pucks, it’s because there’s not enough water in them.”

Next, increase the temperature in the oven, by as much as 25 degrees over what standardized bread recipes call for. That may also bring down baking time by several minutes.

Also, Klann said many home bakers simply don’t knead the dough enough.

“People ask if you can overknead bread, but you’ll get bored long before that happens,” she said.

Perfecting sourdough — bread made with fermented flour using naturally-occurring yeast — is worthy of an entire article, or even a book of its own, Klann said.

“It took me the better part of a year to get good at it, and I turned out some bad sourdough in that time,” she said. “It’s a pretty steep learning curve.”

Klann said a home baker’s best bet to get good at bread is the same as the way to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

“Find a recipe that came out OK one time, and make it over and over until you’re good at it,” she said. “If something goes wrong, you’ll figure it out quicker.”

Bread baking is also influenced by ambient conditions, she said, including outside weather, humidity, temperature and other factors.

“This might sound weird, but try keeping a bread journal,” Klann said. “Is it 100 degrees in your kitchen? Is it raining? Is it cold out? You think you’ll remember, but you never do, which is where writing it down comes in. Don’t fret — you’ll get there.”

Fine ingredients

For those looking to step up their bread baking game, ingredients can make a big difference, said Beth Ginsberg, the owner of Englewood’s Trompeau Bakery, which specializes in classic French breads and pastries.

“Grocery store flour can be weeks old, and it can sit in your cabinet a lot longer than that,” Ginsberg said. “Here at the bakery, we’re using fresh, high-gluten flours, which also have a much higher moisture content that dissipates the older it gets. We’re also using live yeast, not the dried stuff, which is a lot more finicky but produces some really wonderful bread.”

Trompeau sells smaller amounts of high-end flour and yeast to home bakers wanting to give the good stuff a try, she said.

Rande Smith, Trompeau’s head bread baker, said he hasn’t adjusted any of the bakery’s recipes to adjust for high elevation, but that’s because he works dough by feel.

“Every batch of flour is a little different,” Smith said as he dumped a sack of flour into a jumbo mixer. “It comes from wheat, which of course is a plant — wheat from different places, from different years will all have slight variations. Some absorbs more water, for instance, or responds to yeast differently.”

Smith said even without fancy ingredients, home bakers can improve their bread by avoiding common mistakes like letting the dough get too warm.

“People wake up their yeast with warm water, but you really don’t want the dough that warm,” he said. “Even a stand mixer like a Kitchenaid can warm it up too much.”

Good dough shouldn’t register higher than 75 degrees, he said, and many good recipes call for letting dough rise overnight in the refrigerator.

Baking through time

The intricacies of high-elevation baking go back to Colorado’s settler period, said Andrea Wilhelm, a historical interpreter at the Littleton Museum, which features a working pioneer-style homestead.

Many pioneer diaries and letter mention making alterations for elevation, Wilhelm said.

“Early cooks were intuitive cooks,” Wilhelm said. “There wasn’t so much science behind it as trial and error. Cooks were constantly asking themselves if the batter and looked and felt consistent with past experiences.”

Colorado was settled decades after places like California, Utah and other high-elevation locales, Wilhelm said, so settlers were already aware that baking would be trickier here.

Early recipes were also more “robust,” Wilhelm said, and were more forgiving of errors. Over time, though, “recipes became more delicate with refined flours and sugars, so the room for error increased.”

But just like in the early days, “so much of it is about experience,” said Smith, the head baker at Trompeau. “Don’t give up.”

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