by Kris Neri at the Femmes Fatales
I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I’ve never been much of a baker. Not only do we not eat many desserts in our house, it seems to require more precision than my cooking style lends itself to. I’m more the “let’s throw in something extra and see what happens” type. Often that’s a function of what groceries we actually have on hand. I suspect most desserts don’t benefit from replacing sugar with onions.
Making it even more difficult, we live at altitude, which comes with a unique set of challenges. Despite having lived here for many years now, since I’m also someone who avoids needless difficulty, I’ve mostly managed not to learn anything about what that demands.
Altitude does impact cooking, too, but only in the sense that the average gas stove will require an extra eternity or two to do everything. With the original stove that came with our house, we soon learned that if we required boiling water, we needed to start a day earlier to make that happen. Once we replaced it with a stove with power burners and a convection oven, we pretty much came up to standard speed.
But combine altitude with precision, and baking, I’ve found during my occasional attempts, rarely works exactly as they should.
Sure, I know — Google has made our lives easier. It has put all the information in the world at our fingertips and nicely arranges it for us. However, that doesn’t necessarily make all that info accurate. The problem when it comes to the adaptations necessary to bake at altitude, are that the advice is all over the place. Some sources will insist that altitude demands more flour, while others maintain it’s less. Same with liquid, and about everything else you might put into a concoction.
Even worse, the exact altitude will have just as big an impact. Three thousand feet above sea level is not the same as eight thousand. They each have to function with their own parameters, as do the various points in between. Making this even more special, there’s just as much adaptation misinformation and confusion in this area of altitude baking.
What if you don’t want to invest the rest of your life into figuring it out?
But I also heard from multiple people that baking really good bread is easy and fun. I’m all about easy and fun. Best of all, unlike other forms of baking, yeast breads are incredibly forgiving — I have yet to figure out what it would take to wreck a loaf, except maybe forgetting to take it out of the oven.
I did invest a little time in sorting through the altitude advice jungle. I gave up on the more-and-simultaneously-less conundrum, and just assumed I was on my own there. But as I said, you can’t seem to get that too wrong. But I did learn more accurately that altitude baking does require less yeast, and slower rises, and more of them, or the bread will be too dry.
Amazingly, that dovetails beautifully with the types of artisan breads that we love.
So, I’ve started baking bread, and it is as easy and fun as I’ve heard. It makes the house smell wonderfully homey. If you have anger issues, you get to punch something that revels in being punched down. And best of all, I’ve discovered that anyone can make great bread, even total non-bakers struggling with too little oxygen.
What new hobbies have you begun in this new year?