Week Thirty-Four: High-Altitude Week
As you may recall, the original intention for this week’s theme was to make a control loaf of bread at sea level (or nearly so) in Chicago, bake a second loaf at a mile high in Denver to see what would go wrong, and then correct the recipe to be appropriate for high-altitude baking. I was going to bake the two most basic types of bread: one chemically-leavened quick bread, and one yeast-risen bread.
And, as you may also recall, the quick bread half of the experiment didn’t go exactly as planned. For those that don’t remember, or who haven’t scrolled down to that post yet, the unaltered high-altitude version came out better than the original sea-level version. Go figure. So today, I’ll be amending the original recipe to turn out better at low altitudes. The experiment is basically the same, just turned around a little.
As previously discussed, the main reason that translation is needed when baking at high altitudes is because of the decreased air pressure. Lower air pressure means your leavening works faster, which means you need to trap it more quickly to get the same rise. Therefore, to adapt a high-altitude recipe to sea level, you have to work backwards.
Instead of needing extra acidity, extra moisture, and decreased sugar, all of which help to set the gluten structure of the bread before the chemical leaveners give off all their gases (crucial in high altitudes), here we need the reverse. We need neutralized acid, less moisture, and increased sugar. To that end, I’ve added baking soda to neutralize the acidity, slightly reduced the amount of honey (but kept some in for the flavor), and added granulated sugar.
The flour level here actually needs to increase, despite the previous discussion that suggested the opposite, because there isn’t enough of a decrease in moisture to offset the dry ingredients. The original version was too dense from too much moisture, a characteristic that worked successfully in Denver, where the drier flour soaked up much of the excess. In the more humid Chicago, however, the flour simply couldn’t handle absorbing all that moisture.
This time around, back at sea level, the bread was far more successful. The fluffy texture from the high-altitude loaf made a welcome reappearance. The tender bread crumbled slightly as it was cut into slices, whereas the previous sea-level version cut as cleanly as a solid pound cake. The increase in sugar didn’t affect the flavor much, it was only a touch sweeter; but the change in texture was apparent.
The only mystery about this second loaf was the dark shadow in the crumb, running throughout the bottom and edge of the bread. Nothing like that has ever happened to a bread of mine before, but I’m assuming it had overbaked where it touched the pan, as I had elected not to adjust the cooking temperature. I’ve corrected the temperature in the recipe below; but for reference, know that temperatures should be increased 15° to 25° F when baking at high altitudes, to help set the crust of the bread earlier (and vice versa when adjusting recipes to low altitudes).
Aside from the presumed overbaking, though, the elegant and understated flavors of lemon first and olive oil second were in delightful balance, and the crust took on a slight crunch from the added sugar, though that faded away after standing. All in all, this recipe is much improved from the original version, and it’s a variation that I will certainly make again.
Sea-Level Olive Oil Quick Bread
Adapted from Epicurious.com
Makes one 9 x 5 inch loaf
12 1/2 ounces (about 2 3/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup honey
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 325° F. Lightly butter a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan, sprinkle with flour, and turn upside down and knock on the bottom to remove excess. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and lemon zest; set aside.
2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the honey, eggs, milk, and olive oil. Add the flour mixture, stirring until just combined, being careful not to overmix. Transfer the batter into the prepared loaf pan, and smooth the top.
3. Bake at 325° F for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool fully before slicing. Serve slightly warm or reheated.
1. This bread will keep, wrapped in plastic, at room temperature for 1 to 2 days; alternatively, it will freeze beautifully wrapped well in plastic and aluminum foil.