Disaster – Cookies Need Altitude Adjustment

Snickerdoodle Cookies

Sometimes I go on autopilot and forget to think about what I’m doing.  I’m sure most of you can relate to this predicament.  It happened this weekend and the results were….well not what I expected. I thought for sure I wouldn’t write about the mistake…how embarrassing. But after thinking about the mistake, and realizing famous people like Julia Child frequently made public mistakes, I decided to share the experience with you.  I’m sure I’m not alone with making cooking mistakes!

I’ve been living at altitude for a long time…more than half my life.  You would think I’d remember this fact after all of these years. As a child growing up on the east coast I remember looking at the cake mixes my mom would buy and reading the directions….”High Altitude (3500-6500  feet) add 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour” Growing up on the east coast no one could tell me why people at altitude had to add flour.  Just the same way that people couldn’t explain why Hellman’s Mayonnaise isn’t called Hellman’s west of the Rockies but is called Best Foods (I found out that story goes back to 1932).  As a child I just didn’t need to worry myself about people in the Rocky Mountains.

Fast forward and I found myself living in the Mile High City of Denver.  Remembering the back of cake mix boxes I realized I would need to learn to cook at altitude or at least I would need to add 2 tablespoons of flour to all of my baking.  Luckily the extension service provides excellent explanations of how to adjust recipes.

While I should remember to adjust recipes I don’t always remember to it which at times results in tasty…put not great looking food.   I find that many people just give up baking when they move up to the mountains and the common retort is “none of my recipes work anymore”.  When I’m in the grocery store in Park City during ski season and talk with people many question cooking at altitude and what can be done, if anything.

After many years of baking, loads of cooking classes, reading up on the chemistry surrounding baking I have an easy rule of thumb…cut the leavening in a recipe by one half.  That means any recipe that uses yeast, baking powder and baking soda should have those ingredients cut in half as a starting point.  That’s what I tell people in line at the grocery store and that’s what I normally do when I use a new recipe. Generally that recommendation works well and that’s the only adjustment that is needed.

While these simple adjustments work I’ve found that many people, even culinary professionals don’t know the trick.  I was an assistant instructor at a local cooking school and one evening I worked with a local, well-known “celebrity” TV chef.  As we prepped for the class and read the recipe for cupcakes I realized the recipe was developed for sea level because the leavening to flour ratio was not correct. I asked the chef if he wanted me to adjust the recipe by cutting down the leavening. He looked at me and said that wasn’t the way to adjust recipes for altitude and hadn’t I read the back of cake boxes…all we needed to do was add in 2 tablespoons of flour.  The students made the cupcakes using the additional 2 tablespoons of flour and each cupcake came out looking like a moonscape with with a large crater in the middle of it (great for having a lot of frosting, that’s for sure).  The students asked the chef why it happened and he confessed that he doesn’t bake so he didn’t know why it happened.  Since that time I’ve made the recipe and decreasing the baking powder by 1/2 worked perfectly.

This past weekend we ran out of cookies and I asked my husband what type he wanted me to make….Snickerdoodles.  As a kid, Snickerdoodles cookies were my sister’s favorite cookies and my family made them often so I’m pretty experienced at making them.

The interesting part of the cookie is the interaction of the cream of tartar and baking soda.  The cream of tartar, which is obtained from the sediment produced in the process of aging wine,  provides the tart flavor in the cookies and also reacts with the baking soda.  When the cream of tartar reacts with the baking soda the cookies puff up and then as they cook they fall slightly and the top of the cookie has a crinkly or crackled texture on top…a classic for Snickerdoodles.  The cookies are thought to be German in heritage and the American name could be a take on the German word “Schneckennudin” which is loosely translated to mean “crinkly noodles”…an appropriate description of the top of the cookies.

So below is the recipe I used, it works well at sea level.  But I didn’t make the adjustments for altitude so my cookies turned out like crackers….very flat, but tasty.  I’m going to make another batch when these are all eaten and I will make several adjustments.  Instead of the 1 teaspoon of baking soda I’m only going to use 1/2 teaspoon (remember, cut leavening in half for altitude) and I may decrease the sugar in the cookie dough by 2 tablespoons (another adjustment for altitude which I haven’t discussed).  I’ll let you know how the next batch turns out.

Snickerdoodle Cookies (recipe not adjusted for altitude)

  • 2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups (10.5 ounces) sugar
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  1. Preheat oven to 350, get cookie sheets ready by lining with parchment, Silpat or greasing them.
  2. Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt.
  3. Cream the sugar and butter together until fluffy with an electric mixer.  Slowly add one egg at a time and blend until smooth.
  4. Turn mixer to slow setting and add in the flour mixture.  Blend until just mixed.
  5. Mix the 1/4 cup of sugar and the cinnamon together is a small bowl
  6. Pull pieces of the dough and roll in your palms to make a 1 1/2 inch ball.  Roll the ball in the sugar/cinnamon mixture.
  7. Place balls on cookie sheet about 3 inches apart and bake for 8-10 minutes, rotating pans half way through baking.  Cookies should be golden.
  8. Take pans out of over and place on wire racks for 1 minute to let cookies set up.  Remove cookies from pans and let cool on wire racks.
  9. When cookies are completely cooled you can serve or store them in an airtight container.

Great tasting, but a littlethin. A big glass of milk would be great with these.

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9 Responses to Disaster – Cookies Need Altitude Adjustment

  1. Haven’t we (and by “we” I mean Mountain States residents) all experienced this? I don’t usually cut the leavening by half but I’ll have to give that a go. I usually decrease it by 25%. I’m guessing that most cookie and quick bread recipes are fairly forgiving on the proportions of leavening. Sometimes I also increase the oven temp by 25 degrees. That sets the batter faster so it can’t fall from over-rising.

    • Jane says:

      Yea, I think everyone who lives at altitude can relate. Like you mentioned, there are other things one can do for the adjustment like increasing the temperature, decreasing the sugar, etc. I always start with decreasing the leavening that’s what’s worked best for me. The dinner rolls I made last night turned out perfectly with just half the yeast.

  2. I’ve had more baking failures than I’d like. Funny– I am putting a post together for high altitude baking as well. Great minds must think alike!!

    • Jane says:

      I wasn’t planning to write about baking at altitude but when I screwed up I decided it was time. The funniest incident was when a friend sent out recipes to make for our cooking group. The person never tested the recipes and there was a large rectangular cake to be made. The poor person who got the cake recipe made the recipe 3 times and each time it was a disaster. The finished product looked like a Viking schooner….high on the sides and flat in the middle.

  3. Kieran says:

    Jane,
    I remember asking my mom the same question as I helped her bake and by help I mean “cleaning” the batter off the beaters. Thank you for finally explaining this to me! Last year was my first year baking on my own and I encountered a new challenge – no sugar baking. My dad and a few coworkers are diabetic so I didn’t want to leave them out of the yummy treats….but so many of them were dry. So that’s my suggestion for future blog posts. Hehe.

    • Jane says:

      Wow, I’ve done a lot of gluten free baking but haven’t done sugarless baking. If sugar is taken out it changes the chemistry of baking. My sister is diabetic too so I should know what to do. I’ll look into it and see what I can find.

  4. Hi Jane, I have seen other chefs look on in disbelief when baking in high altitude. This is why I love to teach High Altitude Baking in my cooking school. Keep up the good work informing home bakers. J

  5. Carla M. says:

    And to think for all these years I’ve just accepted the fact that my baked goods are just plain ugly! OK – I have tried some of the other adjustments…but not with great results. Will give this a go the next time I bake!

  6. Christi says:

    I have seen cookies like that and wondered why. We live just low enough that I haven’t had to make adjustments to cookies but I am thinking that there have been more sunken cakes and banana breads in this household than I would like to admit.

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