COPPER MOUNTAIN — One of the great benefits of staying in one of our Copper Mountain condos is that, along with enjoying all the apres-ski action at eateries in the Village, you can also spend the night in preparing a home-cooked meal. But you might want to stay away from soufflé — at an elevation of 9,712 feet, even skilled chefs have trouble successfully finishing those lightly baked cakes made with egg yolks and beaten egg whites.
If you're visiting Copper Mountain from the East Coast or Midwest, high altitude cooking may be something new for you. So that means it's time to read the fine print at the bottom of the box to see if there are any high altitude directions.
Baking is especially tough up here in the mountains, and it's all due to physics, easy to understand if you think of our atmosphere as a blanket. At 9,712 feet, that blanket is nearly one-third thinner and lighter. At sea level, the air presses on a square inch of surface with 14.7 pounds pressure; at 10,000 feet it's only 10.2 pounds pressure.
As a result, water boils at a lower temperature and any foods with flour, baking soda or yeast will inflate far beyond what you find at sea level. Most packaged cake recipes call for adding extra flour to prevent baked goods from collapsing as they cool.
Along with the shame of a failed cake, there are some health and safety issues associated with high-altitude cooking, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has helpfully outlined in this FAQ website:
- What is considered a high altitude?
- How is the air different at high altitudes?
- How do high altitudes affect cooking?
- Why must cooking time be increased?
- How do high altitudes affect the cooking of meat and poultry?
- Why is a food thermometer helpful?
- Where to Place the Food Thermometer
- Recommended Internal Temperatures
- Is egg cookery affected at high altitudes?
- Is cooking affected when using microwaves at high altitudes?
- Is cooking affected when using small electrical appliances at high altitudes?
- How do high altitudes affect cooking with a slow cooker?
- Is cooking affected when using a pressure cooker at high altitudes?
- How should home canning processes be altered?
- Keep Hot Food Hot
- Keep Cold Food Cold
- Where to Get More Information about Cooking at High Altitudes
Getting a handle on high altitude cooking can be tricky. For example, some microwave cooking can take less time, but there are exceptions. Meat, poultry, pasta, and rice all require the maximum cooking time.
Colorado State University offers more product-specific high altitude cooking advice at this website.
Here are some of our tips, compiled after cooking at altitude for more than 20 years.
- Boiling eggs can take up to a 25 percent longer, so if you want them hard-boiled, plan on 10 minutes.
- Potatoes take longer to boil and to bake. Even though the USDA website says that oven-baking temperatures are not affected as much, plan on adding 20 minutes of baking time for you average-size Idaho spud. When boiling potatoes, be aware that they can go from hard to over-cooked in just a couple of minutes. You definitely have to add some cooking time, but keep an eye on the pot.
- Pasta presents a similar challenge, especially if you want al dente. Noodles that advertise a 10-minute cooking time will take closer to 15 minutes at Copper, and if you leave them just a minute too long, they'll turn to mush.
- As we mentioned, baking is one of the biggest challenges. Be sure to add some extra flower to brownies and cookies, as they otherwise tend to spread out too much.The biggest problem with cakes is that they tend to rise too high, and then collapse when they cool. Adding a little extra flour and cutting down on the baking powder can help, but it's a fine line. One good option is to find recipes that work and then stick with them, like this chocolate Bundt cake recipe that seems to work every time here in the mountains.
Colorado State University experts say cookies can be improved by a slight increase in baking temperature, a slight decrease in baking powder or soda, a slight decrease in fat or sugar, and/or a slight increase in liquid ingredients. Many cookie recipes contain a higher proportion of sugar and fat than necessary, even at low altitudes.
Finally, food cools much faster at altitude for the same reasons — the air is thinner, so those heated molecules can just lose their energy that much faster. So get that pasta on the plate and dish it up as soon as it's done boiling.