Introduction: How to Bake Cookies at HIGH ALTITUDE
I have lived in the mountains of Colorado and Utah, my entire life and love making cookies. Over the years I’ve met people who have moved here and tell me they can’t make cookies that turn out right, because of the high altitude. I won’t go into too many details about the science of why baking is different at high altitude, other than to say that because air is thinner, water boils at a lower temperature, and this causes problems.
First, in this instructable I’ll give you a really great chocolate chip cookie recipe and then I’ll give you some ideas for “tweaking” your own recipe so that it works here in the mountains. Here’s what you need:
1 Cup Butter/Margarine, softened
¾ Cup Sugar
¾ Cup Brown Sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon Vanilla
½ teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
3 Cups All Purpose Flour
12 Ounce package Chocolage Chips
A good wooden spoon or spatula
A good quality baking sheet (see step 9)
A cookie scoop - optional
Step 1: Preheat Your Oven
I know this doesn't seem like a big deal, and a lot of people skip this. But, make sure you preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Don’t put your cookies (or a lot of other baked goods) into the oven until it’s at the right temperature. If you put them in before the oven is the right temperature, they will probably burn on the bottom.
Step 2: Soften the Butter
Do NOT melt the butter, only soften it. If you are the organized sort, remember to put your sticks of butter out on the counter for an hour to soften. I’m not the organized sort, so I usually get a little help from my microwave. I put the butter in for 20 seconds on 50% power. You want your butter to still retain its shape, but be soft enough to easily stick a knife through it. It’s better to have butter too hard, than too soft, so err on the side of caution. The reason you don’t want your butter to melt, is if your butter is liquified, the dough will be too sticky and your cookies will go flat and burn easily. Or, to compensate for the sticky dough, you will add too much flour and your cookies will be tough.
Step 3: Blend in the Sugars
Next, add your sugars. Use your mixer and blend in the sugar. A cookbook will say to “cream” in the sugar. This just means to mix until well blended and creamy. If you didn’t get your butter quite soft enough, this will take a little longer. But eventually, the brown sugar will break down the butter and blend together. Be patient, keep mixing until it's nice and creamy.
Your eggs should be room temperature. If you are the organized sort, you would have put out your eggs, at the same time you put out your butter. If you’re like me, you need to warm them up a bit. Put your eggs in a bowl of warm water (not hot) for a few minutes. This helps them blend in more easily. Trust me, it makes a huge difference. Then add your eggs and mix them in.
Step 5: Add the Vanila, Baking Soda, and Some Flour
This is pretty straightforward. Add in the vanilla, salt, baking soda and 1 Cup of the flour. Mix in until blended.
Step 6: Add More Flour
Add the second cup of flour, and mix it in well. Then mix in ½ of the third cup of flour. Your dough will be getting pretty stiff at this point. Depending on what kind of mixer you have, you might have to finish mixing it in with a strong wooden spoon or spatula.
Step 7: Is Your Dough the Right Consistency?
It’s time to test your dough. If your dough is too sticky, your cookies will go flat and burn. If your dough is dry and crumbly, your cookies will be too. At my altitude and humidity, I need the remaining ½ cup of flour. Scoop up a spoonful of dough and pinch it gently. It should squeeze easily, but not stick to your fingers. If necessary, add the remaining flour. If your dough is still too sticky after adding the full 3 cups called for in the recipe, add a few tablespoons at a time until it feels right.
Step 8: Add the Chocolate Chips, Nuts and Raisins
Now add in the chocolate chips, nuts and raisins. My kids don’t like raisins or nuts, so I didn’t use them here. Here’s a cost cutting tip. If you buy your chocolate chips in bulk at Costco or Sam’s Club, it’s more economical. Two cups of chocolate chips are the same as a 12 ounce package. Again, if you have a good mixer, you can use it to mix in the chips, etc. If not, stir them in by hand.
Step 9: Get Your Baking Sheet
I prefer a heavy gauge shiny aluminum pan. Others swear by a Pampered Chef type stoneware sheet. They are both great. I don’t like most baking sheets sold at place like Walmart. Avoid the “non-stick” dark gray coated sheets, I don’t think they work very well. If that’s all you have, try turning down the oven temperature to 350 degrees for better results. I just saw Walmart selling bakeware for $.96 each. Don’t waste your money, it’s just garbage (in my humble opinion). Just make sure your pan is sturdy enough to conduct heat well and not warp. If you love cookies, a good baking sheet is a good investment. As you can see by the photo, my is well used and loved. I've had it for almost 15 years.
Step 10: Put Cookie Dough on the Pan
My pictures show a cookie scoop, but you don’t have to have one. It just makes it easier to get evenly sized cookies. Scoop out spoonfuls/scoopfuls of dough and put them evenly on your cookie sheet. I like to leave at least 2 inches between each scoop so they don’t all melt together. When you get to the end of the batch, you might not have enough dough to completely fill the pan. Put whatever you have left evenly on the pan. If I have at least 4 cookies I put them in the corners and then fill in from there. If I only have 2 or 3 left, I put them in the middle. This will help them cook more evenly and distribute the weight on your cookie sheet so the pan doesn’t warp.
Step 11: Bake
Put the cookies in the oven on the middle rack. Bake for 9-12 minutes. Start checking on your cookies after 7 minutes. Don’t open the door, if you can just look through the window. Ovens are each so different, the time that works for my oven might not work for yours. I need exactly 10 minutes, but you might need more or less. Keep a vigil and keep track of how long your particular oven needs.
Step 12: Remove Cookies From Oven
When the “knobby” parts of your cookies are just turning golden brown, take the cookies out. They might not look completely done, but they keep cooking after you take them out of the oven, so take them out anyway. Let them sit on the cookie sheet for a few minutes after you take them out of the oven. This lets them finish baking and set up so they are easy to remove with a spatula and still keep their shape.
Step 13: Cool the Cookies
Take the cookies carefully off the cookie sheet to cool. I have some baking racks I like to use, but they aren’t a necessity. If you don’t have one put the cookies in a single layer on plates, paper towels, or a clean, lint-free, kitchen towel. Let them sit a minute or two so you don’t burn your tongue off, then eat them up!
Step 14: Tips for Modifying Your Own Cookie Recipe
While the recipe I’ve posted is a really great recipe, you probably have other favorites you’d like to modify for high altitude. Here are a few tips. Start with the first one and experiment a little with my ideas to see what works best for your recipe. You might have to make a few batches of cookies to figure out exactly what works.
Don’t melt your butter, just soften it. I talked about this in step 2
Add extra flour. The high altitude makes the cookie cell walls weaker than low altitude. Sometimes you just need a little extra flour to strengthen the dough. Start with 2 or 3 tablespoons. I end up adding between ¼ and ½ cup of extra flour, usually.
Bake at a lower temperature. Because water boils at a lower temperature, the butter in the dough liquefies sooner, too. Keeping the temperature lower, lets the dough start to bake, before the butter liquefies and makes your dough go flat.
Try adding an extra egg. I know this seems counterintuitive to adding more flour. But, the egg white gives your cookies more body and gives strength to the cell walls, and the yolk acts as an emulsifier and helps everything blend together better. You probably need to add more flour with your egg, because the liquid egg will make your dough more sticky. Start with ¼ cup and add more if you need it. I have one recipe I really love, but to make it work in the mountains, I had to add an extra egg and a full cup of flour. Now they are delightful.
Because you are dealing with some scientific unknowns, like altitude and humidity, it will take some patience and experimentation to get your recipe exactly right for your conditions.