Living at high altitudes makes baking (and cooking) a little more complicated, 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 the oven temperature and moisture content and, in some cases, the leavening agent (sourdough, baking soda, and baking powder). 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 successfully in my home kitchen.
First, let's look at the high-level things I always consider when I bake sourdough bread at high altitudes.
Real Quick: How to Adjust Bread Baking For High Altitude
|What to change for high altitude||How to change it for high altitude|
|Oven temperature||Increase oven temperature by 25 degrees over what the recipe calls for.|
|Bake time||Generally, increase baking time unless oven temperature increases.|
|Dough hydration||Generally, increase hydration.|
|Leavening (sourdough, chemical leaveners)||Sometimes a decrease, but not always.|
Adjusting Your Oven Temperature for High Altitude Baking
The biggest modifier when baking bread at a 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 depends on the bread; it is usually more for pan bread than free-form loaves.
While increasing the baking temperature will offset the time needed to bake a loaf fully, it only goes so far. If the temperature is too far, you'll burn the loaf's exterior before the interior is fully baked through.
Should I Bake Sourdough Bread With Convection?
You can use convection (fan assist) when baking sourdough bread if the bread is baked inside of a closed pot, like a Dutch oven or combo cooker. The pot traps the steam during baking, even with the fan running. However, I don't use convection with bread baked directly on a baking surface. The fan circulates air—and any steam—in the oven, and I've found it causes the dough to dry out prematurely.
If you're baking a loaf of bread that doesn't require steam, you can use convection. Bread like my sourdough pain de mie, which is either baked with the lid on or with an egg wash, doesn't require steaming the oven. In this case, convection can safely be used. Note that when using convection, it's common to either reduce the baking temperature or the total baking time.
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.
Ultimately, I don't usually use convection when baking sourdough bread in my home oven.
How to Adjust Baking Time for High Altitude
Related to the section above regarding baking temperature, I usually need to change the baking 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 a whole wheat loaf or a white loaf.
How Can I Tell When Bread is Done Baking at High Altitude?
For a free-form loaf, I indicate the internal temperature should be near 200-205°F (93-96°C). However, when baking bread at high altitudes, I've found that sometimes no matter how long I bake my bread, it never reaches that temperature. Look for a crust that is well-colored and crispy all around. The loaf should be lighter; a knock to the bottom sounds hollow.
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
- A gentle squeeze should have a satisfying crunch
- 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 at High Altitude
Flour is usually drier at high elevation2, and I can 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. Dough hydration is always relative to the flour used because flour is not a static ingredient; it's ever-changing. We should always be ready to either hold back water or add more water 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.
How Humidity Affects Dough Hydration at High Altitude
Sometimes, but not always, humidity is tied to elevation. Humidity affects 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 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 Your Dough Rest in Autolyse
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 a high altitude, even if it's a short 15-20 minute rest.
With sourdough bread and its 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 benefit baked goods with a short preparation timeline (like cookies). A short autolyse is always an option when you bake sourdough bread at a high altitude.
Reduce Leavening at High Altitude
Because air pressure is reduced at a higher altitude, you might find reducing your preferment—in our case, our sourdough starter or levain—in a recipe might help control fermentation rates when you bake sourdough bread at a high altitude.
If you have a dough that's extra sticky, slack, weak, fails the poke test, and shows 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.
How Does Altitude Affect My Sourdough Starter?
You might find that your sourdough starter has increased fermentation activity at high elevations, but I've 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 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 or Sourdough Home set to)—and I would make this adjustment whether I was baking at sea level or high altitude.
Are the Recipes at The Perfect Loaf Made for High Altitude?
I always bake sourdough bread at a high altitude 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 kitchen, whether it is hydration, oven temperature, timeline, or leavening percentage.
I hope this guide on baking sourdough bread at high altitude helps you modify recipes to work in your high-altitude kitchen. The recommendations here are general guidelines, so be sure to test them!
One last important point: be sure to store your bread properly when living at a high altitude in a dry climate to ensure it doesn't dry out quickly. Although honestly, even if you live at sea level, storing your bread properly is important to extend its freshness.
Try your hand at baking any of the following recipes, all of which will work well at high altitudes: