When we first moved up to our ranch in the mountains of southern Colorado, at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, I burned a lot of bread. Now, starting my eighth year of living—and baking—up here full-time, fortunately I’ve learned a few things. I’d like to share some of them with you. Although I don’t know a lot of folks who live this high up, perhaps my experiences and hearing what’s worked for me may help you, even if your “high-altitude” is a little bit lower.
I don’t know the science behind why what I do works; I can only tell you what I have learned from experience to work well, and work regularly for me up in this high country. Owning a guest ranch here, and spending time in all the different cabins during the various construction phases of our own cabin, I’ve baked in several different ovens, which I think has helped to teach me as well.
My favorite oven is my old wood cook stove. This beauty is in my kitchen at the heart of our cabin, and is fired up every morning, all year long. In this high country, one rarely gets too warm. Baking in, or cooking on, the old stove is almost always a comfort. Each wood stove is just a little bit different, and all I can say here is give it a try. Learn how your cook-stove works. Different types of wood, different quantities of wood, different drafts and air flows—all will have an impact on the heat produced in your stove. I don’t believe there is one right method that will work for all stoves, all the time. This is really a personal matter. Just fire your stove up and get to know it. And hopefully you’ll have a patient family who will forgive you for your mistakes in the beginning.
Here are a few tips I can share with you about baking, in general, at high altitude:
1. Double pan. I double-up every pan when baking anything—rolls, cookies, bread, you name it. Either I find two of the same kind of pan and keep them stacked together while I bake, or I place whatever pan I am baking in on top of a cookie sheet. No more burnt bottoms, which was something I did daily before I figured this trick out.
2. Reduce your heat by about 25 degrees. The insides of my breads and cakes were not cooking through, and tops were getting over-done. With the slightly lower temperatures, things tend to cook through more regularly.
3. Everything takes longer up here. I am sure there is a scientific reason behind this, but I can’t tell you what it is. May have a little to do with the reduced cooking temperatures I recommend, but it’s more than that. All I know is, if a recipe for cake says 25 minutes, it will probably take 30. If a recipe for cookies says 8 minutes, it will probably take 10. Other things can take even longer. Try baking a potato. It will take 2-3 hours to get soft. Beans, rice, and pasta all take nearly twice as long to cook up here. You learn to plan ahead.
4. Reduce your leavening agent by 25%. For each recipe that calls for baking soda and/or baking powder, just use less than recommended.
5. Things are quicker to rise… and quicker to fall up here. That means a rising for a loaf of bread may only take an hour here, when, down at sea level it may take you a couple hours. But my cakes, if not cooked absolutely perfectly through, will fall within seconds if I remove them from the oven before their time.
Hmmm… there are other tips I should share, I’m sure I’ll think of them later, but this is a good start. I’d say these are the basics that get me by. I have made more than a few mistakes. There are some things I have not yet figured out. I’m baking almost daily, and always looking to learn new things. If you have any ideas, let me know! I’ll be glad to share more in the future as I come up with new, helpful insight into the art of high altitude baking.
In the meanwhile, I’ll share a recipe for bread that works for me every time, and I bake this one, on average, twice a week, so it has been tested, tried, and true. I call it my High Mountain Rustic Loaf. It’s remarkably simple, and takes the bare minimum of ingredients: flour, salt, a little yeast, and water. Give it a try! No matter what altitude at which you bake.
Starting with bread
Living up here, as far from town as we are, and as infrequent as our visits to town may be, we stock our pantry with bulk items like flour, sugar, powdered milk, and canned goods. We’d need a mighty large freezer if we were to keep all the bread here that we consume during the winter months, so baking bread on a regular basis becomes a necessity. I also quite enjoy it. It is simple and easy… Really! And nothing makes the house smell better than freshly baked bread. Because of our high elevation, there are often many adjustments that have to be made to allow for a recipe to work here. But bread, well, that just works well up here. As I mentioned earlier, things rise faster up here, and fall faster. No problem with loaf bread, but big problem with cakes (I tend to bake cookies and pies instead of cakes, more often than not).
Anyway, there are so many different types of bread to make, it is fun to experiment. As with all recipes up here, if we don’t have exactly the right ingredients (which we rarely have, and obviously cannot just run out to the grocery store to go pick something up), we learn to improvise. It’s creative that way, and it usually works. Usually…
If you have never baked bread before, or if it’s been a while, please don’t be intimidated. Just try it. This recipe is a good one to start with, because I don’t think you can go wrong, and it’s so simple. It only takes the bare minimum of ingredients and just a few minutes “work” each day. The end result is a big, chunky, rustic loaf. It really impresses folks. They see this big, beautiful loaf and figure I’m a really good baker or something, and I smile inside, because I know I’m not – the recipe is just really easy and the bread is awesome, so it makes me look good! Like riding a good horse…
So, here’s the recipe:
High Mountain Rustic Loaf
In a medium bowl, mix together 2 cups all purpose flour and ¼ teaspoon yeast. Slowly add one cup of cool water, and stir with a fork until you have a really thick-heavy-pasty-goo of a dough-ball, all stuck together in the middle of the bowl. If it is too soft, sticky, and wet and sticks to the bowl more than to itself, just add a little more flour. If it is a little too dry, and not holding together and remaining crumbly, add just a bit more water. I use a fork to mash this up together, no kneading required. Takes about 2 minutes. Stir it up good, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and leave it on the counter all day. Several hours later or at the end of the day, put it in the fridge over night.
In the morning, take the dough you made yesterday out of the fridge and let sit on the counter for about an hour to get it back to room temperature. In a larger bowl, mix together 3 cups flour, 2 tablespoons (yes, tablespoons) of salt, and 1 teaspoon yeast. Slowly add water, about 1 1/3 cups, until you have a thick, reasonably dry, but completely mixed dough. Don’t add any more water than you need—keep it reasonably dry, not soft and sticky. Again, if it’s too wet, just add a sprinkle more flour. I use my hands to mix this mess, but you don’t knead it, just mix it, blend it, fold it all together. Then with your fingers, scoop out the dough from Day 1, and fold it in to the new dough. Squish the two doughs together well. Cover the mix with plastic and let sit a couple of hours.
Then, around lunch time, dig your fingers in the mix and mush it all up together. You may need some flour along the sides of the bowl and on your hands to prevent sticking, and possibly a sprinkle more flour on your dough to keep it from being to soft and sticky. Mash it all together until it becomes a rather smooth dough. Cover again and let the mix sit another couple of hours.
Some time mid-afternoon, mash it up again, just lightly knead it for no more than a minute. Now you’re ready to shape the loaf and give it a final rising. On a lightly floured surface, press it down with your finger tips until it is a rectangle about 8” x 10”. Fold in the corners, from the upper outside edges into the center, and pinch it into an oval loaf.
Place the loaf, seam side down, on a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. (As mentioned above, I always double pan everything I bake up here—so use two baking sheets to prevent the bottom from burning.) Cover loosely with plastic, and let it sit until doubled in bulk, maybe another hour or so.
When you’re ready to bake it (be sure your oven is hot—preheat it to 400 degrees), use a good sharp knife to score the top with a few diagonal lines, then pour ¼ cup of water over the top. This makes the crust extra crispy. Bake for 10 minutes in a well pre-heated, hot oven (400 degrees). Then turn the oven down to 325 degrees, and bake for another 30 minutes. The outside will be nice and golden brown, and if you tap on the “shell” it will sound hollow inside. Don’t worry, it will be done! Take it out of the oven and let it cool a little on a wire rack before slicing or ripping open—if you can wait! Smear with butter, and enjoy. You can store in an open plastic or paper bag on the counter for a couple days. Don’t close the bag up or the bread will not remain crispy on the outside. If you want to make the bread in advance, you can wrap it up tightly in plastic and keep it in the freezer.