I have found the Holy Grail
Ok, maybe calling it the "Holy Grail" is a bit dramatic. But I've found something really amazing and useful and wonderful and I'm so excited to share it! But first... a little explanation.
As you've probably figured out if you've read my previous blog posts, I generally have no idea what I'm doing. I haven't taken any baking courses, with the exception of Home Ec when I was in high school. Decades ago. Literally decades. So besides what I learned from my mom growing up, my baking education has come from YouTube, episodes of "Good Eats," and from trial and error. Emphasis on the "error."
One thing that has been a struggle has been figuring out how to adjust for high altitude baking. I'm at 4,500 ft above sea level, and making from-scratch cakes at this altitude can be really challenging. Some cakes turn out fine, but others can be a serious pain. They'll be done around the edges but remain under-cooked in the middle. So the middle will collapse. And in the case of cupcakes, they also tend to rise too much too quickly, which makes them bake over the top of the cupcake liner and makes them flat. Flat with a SUNKEN MIDDLE.
I've looked online for advice on what adjustments to make, but all I found was conflicting and often confusing info. And a lot of the articles I found were geared toward really high altitude - like 8,000-10,000 feet. Even my amateur ass knows that the adjustments for that will be different than my piddly 4,500 ft. I became frustrated and opted to stick with plan B: wing it and hope for the best. And that's been my thing for quite a while. A lot of the time that actually works - it just depends on the recipe.
That plan changed recently when I found a heavenly looking recipe for an Oreo cake on Pinterest.
I saw it and I had to make it. I decided to do cupcakes because I always end up taking my baked goods to the boyfriend's job. And cupcakes are significantly easier and more clean than trying to cut a big huge cake in the middle of a newsroom.
I followed the recipe exactly as written, and they turned out sooooo delicious! The chocolate cake is gloriously rich and moist and wonderful. And the frosting? To die for.
BUT THEY FREAKING SUNK IN THE MIDDLE! AND BAKED UP AND OVER THE SIDES AND THE TOPS GOT ALL FLAT!
Not knowing how long the cupcakes would need, I let them bake for about 20 minutes, then sat and watched through the oven glass and tried to visually gauge it. I could see the middle struggling to rise, while the edges looked perfectly done. They ended up baking for about 25 minutes, but that didn't solve the problem.
It's kinda hard to see, but if you look closely you'll see how the middle sinks in and that the cupcake edges are up and over the papers. No one who ate them seemed to care - the insides were done and the craters were covered by mounds of glorious Oreo frosting. But I was frustrated and decided it was time to get serious about figuring this thing out.
The internet research I'd previously done had been limited to The Google. This time, I decided to search YouTube. Why I hadn't done that before is beyond me, but I honestly can't explain half the things I do in life. And I'm not a millennial, so I can blame my advanced age for my lack of internet prowess.
Anywho, I searched "high altitude baking" and I immediately saw this video:
This is part 1, explaining the science of why baking and cooking at high altitude is so different than at sea level. I'm not going to try to explain it - he does a way better job than I ever could. And it's lots to do with atmospheric pressure and the boiling point of water, which doesn't make for a very riveting baking blog. But this guy does a good job of explaining it in a way that keeps you interested. And come to find out he's in Truckee, CA which is right up the hill from where I'm located!
Side note: it might be time to take a nice drive up to the lake and see if I can sneak in to a certain culinary school...
After that, I watched part 2, which explains how to adjust and exactly what to do. He explains which ingredients need to be reduced, which need to be increased, and how much to adjust the oven temperature. It's like the Holy Grail of high altitude baking!
Altogether, watching these two videos will take up less than 20 minutes of your day. And if you live above 1,500 ft or so and have had any problems with your cakes baking unevenly, I HIGHLY recommend you take the time to watch them.
There is a little bit of math involved in figuring out how much to adjust your recipes, and it all depends on your altitude. Like I said before, I'm at 4,500 ft. So these are the adjustments I made for this altitude - good for any average from-scratch cake recipe:
Add 3 TBSP of water
Increase oven temp by 15-25 degrees
Decrease chemical leaveners by 1/4 (chemical leaveners = baking soda, baking powder, etc)
Decrease sugar by 1 TBSP per cup
If this isn't enough to make it bake correctly, you can try adding 2 TBSP of flour and/or adding 1 egg. So far, I haven't had to do the extra steps. The few changes above worked like magic!
Check out the chocolate cupcakes after making the adjustments:
Look at those beautifully shaped domes! LOOK AT THEM! Literally the exact same recipe, same amount of batter in each muffin cup, same oven. But those few minor adjustments made all the difference in the world. Here's what I did:
2 cups sugar
2 tsp baking soda
300 degree oven
2 cups minus 2 TBSP sugar
1.5 tsp baking soda
325 degree oven
added 3 TBSP of water
This batch only needed about 18-20 minutes to bake up perfectly! Seriously, where has this been all my life? Had I known it was that easy to fix the altitude problem, my cursing over the years would have been drastically reduced.
But now I know. And the cupcakes turned out great and made a nice addition to my son's school bake sale. The kiddo even helped make them... whilst shirtless and wearing a Star Wars apron. Because that's how he rolls.
To the guy in the video: THANK YOU! I wish I had the time and money to go to your culinary school. But I don't, so please keep making YouTube videos. Love, us.