High-up culinary disasters

A lot of people don’t realize that high above sea level you need to make adjustments
Julia McKinnell
High-up culinary disasters
Getty Images; Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

For Chip Olver in Banff, Alta., it was the soft-boiled eggs that foiled her. When she first moved from sea level in Hamilton to the high altitude of the Canadian Rockies, she had yet to figure out that water boils at a lower temperature the higher up you go. (Baking also requires adjustments in both oven temperatures and ingredients.) In Banff, as in Jasper, Alta., and Whistler, B.C., foods like eggs and pasta take longer to cook. Rice often needs more water, and for a Canmore, Alta., resident, making split pea soup is an all-day affair. Olver yanked the eggs from the boiling water too soon. “I cooked them but they weren’t done and I’d cut already cut the tops off. I had to start over,” she laughs, recalling the incident from 30 years ago. Olver and her friend Myriam Leighton went on to co-author a collection of high-altitude-tested recipes for a cookbook called A Taste of the Canadian Rockies.

Cecilia Lortscher, Canmore’s Cookie Lady, says, “Lots of recipes just won’t work here.” Lortscher runs a cookie business called Sweet Madeira. Her cookies are exquisite. She’s mastered the knack of baking at high altitude, but it’s been a trial-and-error process: “Buns like hockey pucks and cookies that run!” she explained in an email to Maclean’s. “A really fudgy chocolate cookie with lots of sugar and fat, that probably wouldn’t work here,” she says. Same goes for the cinnamon buns she once tried to make. “I just couldn’t do it.”

In Santa Fe, N.M., at 7,000 feet above sea level, chef John Vollertsen runs a cooking class (offered through the Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe and Cooking School) called “High Altitude Baking.” The ad reads, “Bring your high-altitude frustrations.”

At the sold-out class, Vollertsen hands out a fact sheet from the New Mexico State University on the “challenges” of high-altitude cooking. “First, leavened products using yeast, baking powder, baking soda, egg whites or steam rise more rapidly and often collapse,” it reads. “Second, foods such as vegetables and stews cooked with moist heat take much longer to prepare. Hard-cooked eggs require additional time. At 5,000 feet it will take about 25 minutes for eggs to cook.”

Vollertsen tells the class, “Up here, water boils at 198° F, instead of 212° F. When you first hear that water boils faster here, you think, ‘Oh, wow, cooking will be much quicker here because it’s physically boiling sooner.’ ” It doesn’t work like that, he says. “It’s weird, and it’s the same idea with sugar. Sugar crystallizes sooner but at a lower temperature. So a lot of things with sugar get over-crystallized and end up being harder. Paula Deen with her zucchini bread and two cups of sugar would be screwed here.”

He jokes the class is like a 12-step recovery program. “People come with their problems, and they feel so relieved that they’re hearing about other people with similar problems. ‘Let’s talk about what flops you’ve had.’ People feel like they have a bond.” A woman in the class puts her hand up and tells how she served undercooked rice to company on the weekend. “The rice was like bird seed,” she says.

Most people in attendance are new to the area, he says. “They’ve been wonderful cooks at sea level, and get here and go, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’ ” One woman from Boston was famous for her Boston cream pie. “She bragged to everyone she met, ‘I’ll bring a Boston cream pie.’ She made it and it was an absolute mess and she was mortified.”

In the class, students are given the ingredients to make baked goods like buttermilk biscuits and chocolate mint julep cookies. For the cookies, Vollertsen suggests that the original two cups of brown sugar be reduced by six tablespoons. “Reducing the sugar improves the texture and in a way improves the flavour, too,” he says.

The pain for him is when he vacations at sea level. “That first cup of coffee, I always burn my mouth because I’m so used to being able to drink it immediately. People move here and they buy a good coffee maker and they return it the next day. They say, ‘The coffee is cold.’ We tell them, ‘Warm your coffee mugs before you pour your coffee in there. When it’s brewed at 198° F, and you pour it into a cold coffee mug, it’s about 150° F by the time you sit down to drink it.”