Elevation has many different effects on bread, and if you’re living at high-altitude and using a regular sourdough recipe, you’re likely running into challenges.
I know this, because I’m living it! I live in Golden, Colorado which is at 5,700 ft. When I first moved here I struggled with getting consistent results – my bread would come out flat, the dough was super sticky and impossible to shape, and I was getting super frustrated.
In this post, we’ll talk about what issues bakers at elevation tend to deal with, and why these factors even come into play.
Then we’ll discuss some changes that you can make when baking sourdough at high altitudes, and we’ll finish with a sourdough recipe specifically crafted for high-altitude baking based on my experience of baking at elevation.
So let’s get started!
The most common struggles that high-altitude home bakers deal with are:
- Struggling with shaping super sticky, wet dough
- Having trouble scoring their “pancake-like” dough
- Baking loaves that are wide and flat
- Complete lack of oven spring
- Dense crumb
Surprisingly, these five issues all boil down to ONE cause: over-fermentation! Let’s review:
- If your dough is super sticky and impossible to shape, it’s likely too high of a hydration, which caused it to become over-fermented at your high elevation. (Remember, the more water in a sourdough recipe, the faster the dough ferments – this is a bad thing when baking at elevation!)
- When you score your dough and it spreads out like a pancake, it’s over-fermented. This isn’t the worst thing in the world – those breads still taste pretty good – but it’s frustrating if you’re after better oven spring and more open crumb.
- The moment of truth arrives and you’re taking the lid off your Dutch oven only to find that your bread didn’t rise at all, and is a wide flat disc. Blame over-fermentation again! That dough has given all it could before it even landed in the oven, so it had nothing more to help it rise, hence the spreading out.
- A complete lack of oven spring is closely intertwined with #3 above. Dough that’s over-fermented has no more leavening power left once it’s put in the oven, so it simply doesn’t rise.
- As a result of over-fermentation, again, the crumb may be dense due to the lack of leavening power of your dough. The taller your loaf, generally, the easier it is to achieve a great crumb.
This is shocking, isn’t it? That all of these problems and challenges all come down to one simple oversight. This is what I dealt with for the first year of my sourdough adventures, until I got the courage to start experimenting with recipes and making my own.
Why elevation affects sourdough bread
Before we dive into this, please know I am not a scientist! I am presenting this information as I know it to be true, and that is anecdotally. I’m not able to delve into why there’s less oxygen at high elevation, for example, but what I do know and have learned from experience is summarized below.
Dry air = dry ingredients
High elevations are notoriously drier than their sea-level counterparts. For example, on any given summer day here in Golden, the humidity is usually between 10-20%. Further south and further east in South Carolina, for example, the humidity is typically 65-80% or even higher. The dry air here affects more than just your skin: cooking ingredients are much drier, and flour is no exception.
Clearly, humidity levels have a big effect on flour. This will come to light when we add our water to our flour. There have been times when I’ve tried to make a lower hydration dough (60-65%) and it was just impossible because my flour soaked up every ounce of water and was still dry! Because of this factor, I like to shoot for a 70-75% hydration. I find it’s enough to soak the flour, but not so much that I risk over-fermentation.
Fermentation happens faster at higher elevations
Don’t ask me why, but it seems to be true. I first realized this when I kept pulling flat loaves out of the oven, and reached out to a local sourdough baker for some guidance. He told me that my dough is likely over-fermented even though I was following the recipe exactly, and that it was probably due to being at elevation. Who knew?
And so, cautiously, I started experimenting with adjusting my bulk fermentation times. I reduced the time by 15 minutes, then 15 minutes more, than a half hour, then another half hour. Amazingly, my breads came out better, taller, and more consistent as I shaved more time off the bulk.
Then I started playing with increasing the number of folds to help build structure but within the same time period as before. So, for example, where I would have folded the dough every 30 minutes for two hours (a total of four folds), I started folding the dough every 20 minutes for 2 hours (a total of six folds).
By adding in two folds but not increasing the time, I was able to build stronger gluten networks and not over-ferment my dough.
The High-Elevation Sourdough Bread recipe below is based on these experiments and discoveries. Feel free to play with your own adjustments as well! Learn from my mistakes but be confident in adjusting your own times and folds to better suit your climate.
What changes are most important?
The two changes I made that had the biggest impact on my bread were reducing my hydration and shortening my bulk fermentation. These two adjustments are very easy to do, and if you find success with these tweaks, please let me know in the comments! I would love to hear about your experience with baking sourdough at high altitude and also if you’ve played with any further changes.
With all that being said, let’s get baking!
Oh, and by the way, if you’re looking for some more help understanding hydration, click here to check out The Beginner’s Guide to Sourdough Hydration.
And don’t forget I have a whole page of resources available to help you in your sourdough journey – click here to find it!
High-Elevation Sourdough Bread
- 200 grams Leaven
- 700 grams Warm water (80°F) reserve 50g
- 900 grams All-purpose flour or bread flour
- 100 grams Whole wheat flour
- 22 grams Salt
Day One: Leaven Day
- Before bedtime, build your leaven. Weigh 100 grams of lukewarm water in a mason jar and add 50 grams of your healthy, active starter, which you fed this morning (8-12 hours ago). Don't use freshly fed starter, it is not mature enough.
- Screw the lid on the jar and shake to incorporate the starter. Open your jar and add 50 grams whole wheat flour and 50 grams white flour (all-purpose or bread flour). Stir with a butter knife or spatula until all flour is incorporated.
- Place the lid lightly on the jar – don't screw it on! – and leave on the counter to ferment overnight.
Day Two: Mix Day
- Place your mixing bowl on the scale and weigh 650g of the water and 200g of your leaven. Using your hand, incorporate the leaven a bit by squeezing it through your fingers. Save the rest of your leaven as discard to use in discard recipes, if desired.
- Add both flours and mix dough together with your hand. Mix until you don't see any more dry flour in the bowl. The dough will become sticky, so it's useful to keep one hand clean. Dunk your clean hand in water, and remove the sticky dough from your other hand. Then dip your dough spatula in water and scrape the edges of the bowl, making it as clean as possible.
- Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel or plastic and let the dough rest for 30 minutes. This is called the autolyse, which allows the flours to absorb the water, activating the enzymes which begins the gluten development. This step is critical and cannot be rushed.
- After the autolyse, sprinkle the salt over the dough and then add the remaining 50g of water. Poke your fingers into the dough to press some salt deep inside, then fold over itself about a dozen times or so to incorporate the salt. Cover the bowl again; the bulk fermentation has begun. Set your timer for 20 minutes.
- The high-elevation bulk fermentation takes 2.5 – 3 hours. During the first two hours of the bulk fermentation, the dough must be folded six times, or every 20 minutes. This is similar to kneading but is much more gentle to preserve the natural gases that become captured in the dough, and is much easier on the baker. It's also two extra folds than a regular sourdough recipe, but within the same time period.
- To fold the dough, first imagine your bowl as a compass: the edge furthest from you is north, the right edge is east, the closest edge to you is south, and the left edge is west. Dip your hand in water and reach under the dough at the east point. Grabbing it gently but firmly, pull the dough out to the east and then fold it over itself toward the west. Rotate the bowl a quarter-turn, and repeat. Do this for each "corner" of your compass, then cover with a kitchen towel.
- Set your timer for 20 minutes, and repeat the process five more times.
- Your dough now gets to rest, covered and untouched, for 30-60 minutes. During this time, flavor and strength is developed, so don't rush this step. However, this is where over-fermentation can occur, so the higher your elevation, the shorter this period should be. I live at 5,700 feet and I usually let my dough rest for 45 minutes.
- After the bulk fermentation, pull all the dough onto a floured work surface using a dough spatula. With your bench knife, cut the dough into three even pieces. Scrape the bench knife under one piece, and move it away from the other.
- The pieces now need to be pre-shaped. Working with one piece at a time, pull the west side of the dough out and fold it toward the east. Then pull the east side out and fold it over and toward the west. Rotate your dough 90°, and repeat. Do the same for the remaining piece(s), then lightly dust with flour and cover with a kitchen towel. This prevents a skin from forming on the outside of the dough. Let rest for 30 minutes. This is called the bench rest.
- For the final shaping, care must be taken not to deflate the dough. Gently rub off any excess flour – the top of the dough will become the inside of the loaf, so you don't want any extra flour inside. Just as in the pre-shaping, pull the west side of the dough out and fold it toward the east. Then pull the east side out and fold it over and toward the west. Rotate your dough 90°, and repeat. Flip the loaf so it is seam side down on your work surface, and using both hands, twist the dough as you tuck it under itself. There are great YouTube videos with different techniques for this, but the goal is the same: to increase the surface tension without tearing the dough. You'll feel the dough tighten as you do this. Repeat for the remaining piece.
- Line your proofing baskets or medium-size bowls with basket liners or clean linen kitchen towels. Lightly dust them with rice flour (all-purpose flour isn't as good as rice flour for this job, but it could work if that's all you heave – use it generously!), covering the sides and bottom. This prevents the dough from sticking when you flip it out. Lift each piece of dough with the bench knife and flip it gently into the basket, so the seams are facing up.
- Now begins the final rise. You can cover the loaves and leave them on the counter for 3-4 hours if you'd like to bake today. However, what I recommend is using your refrigerator to slow the final rise so you can bake in the morning. This is called cold-proofing. To do this, slide each basket into their own plastic grocery or produce bag, and place in the fridge overnight. The plastic is used to prevent fridge odors from absorbing into the dough, and to prevent a skin from forming on the dough. The dough will continue to ferment over the next 8-12 hours.
Day Three: Bake Day
- In the morning, put your baking vessel and lid in the oven and preheat to 500°F. It's ideal to let your oven sit at 500°F for 30-40 minutes beyond the preheating phase, so your baking vessel is screaming hot. When it's ready, remove a basket from the fridge.
- Take a minute to get your things ready: Prepare a square of parchment paper on a thin cutting board, bring the flour close by, and have your bread lame (or razor blade) ready to go.
- Place the parchment square on the basket, place your hand on top, and gently flip the dough out into your hand. Place the dough on the cutting board. Dust the dough with flour and lightly rub it around the sides and top.
- Holding the lame at a 45° angle, score your loaf. This takes practice. Hold the cutting board with one hand as you slice the furthest corner of the blade into the dough. The easiest and most effective scores are a deep line about an inch or two from the bottom, running half the circumference of the dough, or a simple square. See my post on Scoring Techniques.
- Wearing heavy duty oven mitts, pull out your oven rack and remove the lid from your baking vessel. Working quickly but carefully, transfer the dough into the pan by holding the cutting board over it and pulling on the parchment. Replace the lid, reduce the oven temperature to 475°F, and set the timer for 30 minutes.
- When the time is up, carefully remove the lid from the pan and continue baking uncovered for 15 minutes.
- When the loaf is done, transfer it to a wire cooling rack. If you don't have one, tip it on its side so air can circulate around the bottom. To test doneness, knock on the bottom of the loaf: it should sound hollow. Allow it to cool for at least an hour or two before slicing so it can cool completely. Hot bread does not slice well.
- Set the oven temperature back to 500°F, and put both pieces of your baking vessel back in the oven. Let these heat for 10 minutes, then repeat above steps for your other basket of dough. Congratulations, you just made sourdough at elevation!