Living at high altitudes makes baking (and cooking) a little more difficult, especially when following recipes. I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at around 5,000 ft (1,524 m), and I expect to have to modify any recipe I'm looking to bake to adjust oven temperature, moisture content, and in some cases, the leavening agent (sourdough, baking soda, and baking powder) used. In this post on how to bake sourdough bread at high altitude, I'll run through the things I typically watch out for and modify to bake bread in my home kitchen successfully.
First, let's look at the high-level things I always consider when I bake sourdough bread at high altitude.
Overall baking adjustments for high altitude
|What to change for high altitude||How to change it for high altitude|
|Oven temperature||Increase oven temperature 25 degrees over what the recipe calls for.|
|Bake time||Generally, increase baking time, unless oven temperature is increased as stated above.|
|Dough hydration||Generally, increase hydration.|
|Leavening (sourdough, chemical leaveners)||Sometimes a decrease, but not always.|
Let's now look at each of these modifications for baking sourdough bread at high altitude in more detail.
Adjusting oven temperature for high altitude
The biggest modifier when baking bread at high altitude is the oven temperature. I've found that I either have to bake bread longer OR at a higher temperature to bake the loaf properly. Between the two, I usually opt to bake the bread for longer. The extra time needed really depends on the bread, and it usually more for pan bread than free-form loaves.
Note that while increasing the baking temperature will offset the time needed to fully bake a loaf, it only goes so far. If the temperature is increased too far you'll end up burning the exterior of the loaf before the interior is fully baked through.
Using convection (oven fan) for baking bread
I sometimes use a trick here in my home oven to reduce the bake time by using the convection option (fan). When doing this, I'll set the oven temperature to the temperature specified in the recipe even with convection turned on. Usually, when using an oven's convection mode, convention states you need to reduce your oven by 25 degrees to compensate—which I don't do.
For example, if a recipe called for a no-convection bake temperature of 350°F (175°C) for 20 minutes at sea level, I'd set my oven to 350°F (175°C) and bake for 20 minutes with convection turned on.
I don't like to use convection with bread baked open on a baking stone or baking steel, though. The convection fan circulates air—and any steam—in the oven, and I've found it causes the dough to dry out. But if the bread is baked in a Dutch oven or combo cooker, which traps steam inside the pot, using convection to reduce bake time and/or temperature works well.
Adjusting bake time for high altitude
Related to the section above regarding baking temperature, I usually need to change the bake time when I bake sourdough bread here at a high altitude. As I said above, I either change the total bake time (increased or the baking temperature (increased)—not both.
It takes bread (and other food) longer to reach a higher internal temperature at high altitudes. For a standard free-form loaf, on average, I need to bake 10 minutes longer, depending on the style of bread and recipe. Loaves with higher hydration always require a longer bake time, whether this is a whole wheat loaf or a white loaf.
But how can we tell when a loaf is fully baked?
When is bread fully baked at high altitude?
For a standard loaf of bread, I typically indicate the internal temperature should be somewhere near 200-205°F (93-96°C). However, at high altitude, I've found that sometimes no matter how long I bake my bread, it never reaches that temperature.
The best way to determine when your loaf is fully baked through is to use a combination of sensorial and measured inputs:
- Depending on the bread type, the internal temperature should be near 200-205°F (93-96°C), depending on the style of bread1
- The crust should be deeply colored throughout
- With free-form loaves, a gentle squeeze should have a satisfying crunch (indicating the crust has sufficiently hardened off)
- There should be no pale-colored areas on the crust
- The loaf should feel light in hand, indicating sufficient water has baked away
Adjusting dough hydration for high altitude
Flour is usually drier at high elevation2, and I can absolutely attest to that. But this isn't always the case, and like I always say: adjust the dough hydration to suit the flour you have on hand. Flour is not a static ingredient, it's ever-changing, and we have to be ready to either hold back water or add more, as necessary.
This is why in many recipes here at The Perfect Loaf, I call for water to be held back and added in thorough mixing. This way, we can be sure we're not over-hydrating a bread dough and using just enough to bring the dough to the desired consistency.
Humidity at high elevation
Sometimes, but not always, humidity is tied to elevation. Humidity plays a role in the amount of water your dough will ultimately handle. Here in New Mexico, we have a wide range of humidity levels, but generally, it's low, around 20-30%. To compensate, I usually need to add additional water to my recipes.
The important thing is to be aware of this and, again, adjust the hydration of your dough to compensate. I try to give extra cues (including photos) in my recipes to help you judge when your dough is hydrated just enough.
Let flour and water rest
Because the humidity at high elevations is typically lower, you might find it beneficial to allow your flour and water mixture to rest for a period before adding your preferment. Performing an autolyse, which is just mixing your flour and water and allowing it to rest, might be beneficial when you bake sourdough bread at high altitude, even if it's a short 15-20 minute rest.
With sourdough bread and it's requisite lengthy fermentation time, usually we don't have to worry about fully hydrating the flour in a recipe—it happens without any autolyse. This rest period might be more beneficial for other baked goods that have a short preparation timeline (like cookies). Regardless, a short autolyse is always an option when you bake sourdough bread at high altitude.
Recommended reading: How to autolyse your bread dough.
Adjusting leavening for high altitude
Because air pressure is reduced at a higher altitude, you might find reducing your leavening—in our case, our sourdough starter or levain—in a recipe might help control fermentation rates when you bake sourdough bread at high altitude.
If you have a dough that's extra sticky, slack, weak, and showing lots of large bubbles at the end of your proof, it may be over-proofed.
To adjust, reduce the amount of pre-fermented flour (sourdough starter or levain) in your recipe to slow fermentation activity. Alternatively, you can play with reducing the bulk fermentation time or final proof time to avoid the dough going too far in fermentation.
Recommended reading: What's the difference between a sourdough starter and levain?
How does altitude affect my sourdough starter?
You might find your sourdough starter has increased fermentation activity at high elevations, but I've honestly not found this to be a huge issue. Your daily refreshment cycle for your starter should always be reactive, adjusting to how it's performing and adjusting your refresh times and ratios as necessary.
For example, if you find your starter is overly acidic (super sour aroma and watery consistency), adjust by leaving less starter in your jar. I'm constantly adjusting like this based on the seasons and temperature in my kitchen (or what I have my dough proofer set to)—and I would make this adjustment whether I was baking at sea level or high altitude.
Recommended reading: My sourdough starter maintenance routine.
Are the recipes at The Perfect Loaf made for high altitude?
I always bake sourdough bread at high altitude here in my home kitchen, and the recipes posted here are tested in those same conditions. But I do slightly modify my recipes to work in kitchens at lower altitudes just as well. As always with baking bread, some adjustments will be necessary for your own kitchen, whether it's hydration, oven temperature, timeline, or leavening percentage.
I hope this guide on how to bake sourdough bread at high altitude helps you get a start at modifying recipes to work in your high altitude kitchen. The recommendations here are general guidelines, so be sure to test!
One last important point: when living at a high altitude in a dry climate, be sure to store your bread properly to ensure it doesn't dry out quickly. Although honestly, even if you live at sea level, it's important to store your bread properly to extend its life!
Try your hand at baking any of the following recipes, all of which will work well at high altitude: