Baking sourdough bread at high altitude can cause a few issues with your bread. Depending on how far above sea level you live, you may have issues with wet, sticky dough or lack of oven spring.
The main cause of problems when baking sourdough bread at high altitude are lower air pressure and drier air (caused by a lack of humidity).
If you are living in areas like Utah, Colorado or Wyoming, you might have found that your sourdough baking is affected by high altitude.
This article aims to guide you through the process of baking a successful loaf of sourdough bread at higher altitude. It's not as difficult as you might think - you will just need to make a few tweaks to your recipe.
Most Common Sourdough Problems at High Altitude
When baking sourdough bread at high altitude, the most common problems you'll run into are:
- Wet, sticky dough that cannot be easily shaped (after bulk fermentation)
- Dough that spreads out when tipped out of banneton (after proofing)
- Dough that is difficult to score and collapses after scoring
- Lack of oven spring (loaves are flat and wide with a dense crumb)
Many of these problems point to a single cause - over fermentation.
Over fermentation happens more easily at higher altitudes because of the lower air pressure and lower moisture levels.
While it may seem insurmountable, these issues are very easy to fix. You will be able to bake amazing sourdough at higher altitudes.
How Does Elevation Affect Sourdough?
Living at higher altitude means that you are living further above sea level than most people.
The higher above sea level you go, the less humidity there is. This means that the air will be drier. Drier air will dry your ingredients out.
Higher elevations also mean lower air pressure.
Drier Air Means Drier Ingredients
The higher you travel above sea level, the less humidity there is. This will make the air drier. On average, most higher altitude locations can experience humidity levels as low as 10 - 20%, in comparison to sea level locations, which can be as high as 80% humidity.
Drier air will mean drier ingredients. This is very important when using flour to bake sourdough. Flour at higher altitudes will be much drier and will absorb water differently.
This may mean you need to add more water to compensate for the drier flour. The trick is to not add it all at once because you may add too much!
When baking sourdough at higher altitude it's important to do an autolyse to make sure that the flour absorbs the water before you move on to the stretch and folds. This will give you an opportunity to add more water if necessary.
You may need to add up to 50g more water.
Lower Air Pressure Means Faster Fermentation
Higher altitude locations will have lower air pressure than locations at sea level.
Lower air pressure causes gasses to expand much faster than they would at sea level.
This is pertinent to sourdough because the wild yeast in your dough are releasing gasses as they feed on the starches in the flour. Bulk fermentation will happen much more quickly at high altitude because of these fast expanding gasses.
Now that we understand the effect of low air pressure on sourdough, you can see how easily sourdough bread can be over fermented at higher altitudes.
Temperature will play a part of course, as it does for bulk fermentation at any altitude. But even in cooler temperatures, the air pressure will make a difference to your dough.
To combat this problem, you can decrease the amount of starter you use in your dough.
Best Tips for Baking Sourdough Bread At High Altitude
As you can see there are definitely some easy fixes for baking sourdough bread at high altitude.
It's really just a matter of understanding what is causing the over fermentation of your bread and putting solutions in place to overcome them.
Here's an easy to follow table for how to overcome sourdough bread problems at high altitude:
|ELEMENTS AFFECTED BY|
|HOW TO ADJUST SOURDOUGH RECIPE |
FOR HIGH ALTITUDE
|Hydration||Increase hydration (after autolyse if necessary)|
|Amount of starter||Decrease amount of starter (to stop over fermentation)|
|Stretches & Folds||Increase to strengthen gluten network|
|Bulk Fermentation||Decrease bulk fermentation time (or amount of starter)|
|Covered Dough||Use plastic cover for resting dough on counter and |
in fridge to stop it drying out.
|Baking Temperature||Increase baking temp (or baking time)|
|Baking Time||Increase baking time (or baking temp)|
Like all sourdough baking, you will find that a little experimentation is necessary to get a better bake. For example, you might prefer to increase the baking time rather than the baking temperature.
In any case, there are definitely solutions for the causes of over fermentation of sourdough at higher altitudes.
Increase Hydration for High Altitude
You will find that you'll need to increase the hydration of your sourdough to accomodate for the lack of moisture in the air at higher elevations.
This will be particularly important if you are using whole wheat and whole grain flours, as they typically require more water anyway.
The best tip I can give you here is to not increase the hydration straight off the bat. Conduct the autolyse or fermentolyse period and then assess the dough after that.
If the flour does not feel hydrated enough after the autolyse period, add up to 50g more water.
My easy sourdough recipe sits at 71% hydration. Adding an extra 50g of water would bring it up to 81%. This is quite high hydration bread, but may be an essential addition to the success of your bread at higher altitudes.
You can read a guide to sourdough hydration here.
Amount of Sourdough Starter At High Altitude
The amount of sourdough starter can be important when baking at higher elevations because of the speed in which fermentation can happen.
Reducing the amount of starter in your dough can help to slow the fermentation down.
You could reduce the amount of starter in the dough down to 25g to help with this.
You can read more about the amount of starter to use and why it matters here.
Stretches & Folds
Stretching and folding is a common technique used to develop a strong gluten network in sourdough bread.
The gluten also strengthens during the bulk fermentation period.
Because you need to shorten the bulk fermentation period when baking sourdough at high altitude, it can be helpful to perform extra stretch and folds to ensure the gluten network is strong enough.
This will also help with the structure of your sourdough, making for easy shaping. It will also help your dough not spread out when you tip it out of the banneton.
Shorter Bulk Fermentation Time
Given the lower air pressure at higher altitudes, you'll need to decrease the bulk fermentation time you give your sourdough. In short, fermentation time decreases as altitude increases.
The only way to get around this, is to reduce the amount of sourdough starter, as discussed above.
It's best to keep a close eye on your dough during bulk fermentation, at least until you are confident with timing.
Covering Your Sourdough
We know that the air is drier above sea level due to the reduced humidity. This will not only dry out your flour before you mix your dough, it can also dry out the dough while it's fermenting and proving.
You should cover your dough with a plastic cover while it's in bulk fermentation and especially during proofing.
Elasticised plastic food covers are great for this purpose. They will ensure that your dough does not develop a dry and tough skin, which is is detrimental to good sourdough oven spring.
A plastic bag, like the type you get your fruit and vege in at the supermarket, is also a good option.
Baking Time and Temperature at Altitude
You will need to increase the temperature at which you bake at altitude. This can be difficult for sourdough though, because it's already baked at high temperatures.
The general advice is to increase the baking temperature by about 25C. The alternative is to increase the baking time to ensure your sourdough is baked through.
While it's not essential, you can use a thermometer to check for doneness. You're looking for an internal temperature between 90.5 - 96C (195 - 205F).
Does Altitude Affect Sourdough Starter?
Altitude does not have a profound affect on your sourdough starter. While there are many adjustments you'll need to make for a successful loaf of sourdough bread, your sourdough starter is more forgiving.
If anything, you'll need to add slightly more water to compensate for the lower humidity levels and drier flour. If you are using whole wheat or whole grain flours, you may notice this more. In that case, a little more water will be necessary.
You many notice that your starter peaks quite quickly - this will be due to the lower air pressure. It's not a problem, however, if you want to extend the rise, you can feed the starter at a higher ration (1:2:2 for example).
If you don't already have a sourdough starter, you can use this easy guide to create your own sourdough starter from scratch.
Frequently Asked Questions
No - you can use the sourdough recipe you prefer. You will just need to make the adjustments listed above to ensure you have success at higher altitudes.
You will need to increase the baking temperature by about 25C from what is instructed in the recipe. The alternative to this is increasing baking time. You may need to experiment to find what works for you.
It's not essential to add more water to your sourdough starter if you live at higher altitude, however the lower humidity will cause the flour you use to be drier. If you feel that it's too dry, adding a little extra water will not hurt it.
You'll need to make sure you cover your shaped dough with a plastic cover once it's shaped. The drier air at higher altitudes will mean that your dough can develop a dry skin which can be detrimental to good oven spring. You need moist dough to create the steam necessary for your sourdough to bloom in the oven.
Want More Info?
If you found this article on Baking Sourdough At High Altitude helpful, you might enjoy these:
- Why is my dough so wet and sticky?
- How to Know When Bulk Fermentation has finished
- How To Make Sourdough Taste More Sour
- How To Reduce The Amount of Starter You Use
- Weirdest Sourdough Questions Answered
High Altitude Sourdough Bread Recipe
- Mixing Bowl
- Digital Scales
- Dutch Oven
- 500 g Bread Flour
- 400 g Water (only add 350g to start with)
- 25 g Sourdough Starter (fed and bubbly) you can increase or decrease further as you see fit (see notes)
- 10 g Salt (increase or decrease according to your taste)
- Autolyse - Premixing The DoughWeigh out your sourdough starter and 350g water into a large ceramic or glass bowl. Remember to only use 350g for the first part, you can add more after autolyse has finished if the dough is too dry.Mix the water and starter together briefly. Then add your flour and salt and mix whole lot together to form a shaggy dough. I find a dough scraper the easiest way to mix it as you can keep the sides of bowl clean.The dough will be fairly shaggy and only just brought together (see photo). You might wonder how this will turn into bread, but just wait, time is your friend and the dough will change in around an hour.
- Cover your bowl with cling film or a damp tea towel and let it sit for around 30 minutes (up to one hour is ok).This process is called the "autolyse" and allows your flour to soak in all the water and become hydrated. You can see how the dough has changed in this photo.
- High Elevation Tip - Increase the Hydration if NecessaryCheck the feel of your dough. If the flour was absorbed all the water and is still dry, add half the extra water and see how it feels. You can add up to 50g extra water if necessary.
- Forming Up The DoughAfter the dough has been through autolyse you need to bring it together into a ball. Work your way around the bowl, grabbing the dough from the outside, stretching it up and over itself, into the centre, until a smooth ball is formed. You shouldn't need more than about 20-25 stretches to form the ball.You'll notice that the dough is fully hydrated after soaking all the water up. It will be fairly sticky but as you bring it into a ball, it will become smoother and shinier.
- Once the dough has formed into a smooth ball, pop the cling film back on and let it rest for 30 minutes. It's really important to keep the dough covered at high altitude to ensure that you don't lose any moisture.
- Stretch & Fold - Strengthening GlutenOver the next few hours you need to create some structure for your dough by "stretching and folding". Aim to do around 6 sets of stretches and folds. For each set, stretch the dough up and over itself 4 times. Leave around 15 minutes in between each set. Again you do not have to be exact with time, but you need to do at least 6 sets over 2 hours.
- Bulk FermentOnce you've finished your stretch and folds, place the cling film back over your dough and let it rest and ferment (a plastic cover is a better option for this stage).Remember that you need to watch the bulk ferment carefully at high altitude as it will happen faster. You're looking for the dough to double, but this will happen faster than you think.
- Shaping The DoughOnce your dough has finished it's first ferment, it's time to shape it into either a boule or a batard. It's better if you don't use any flour for shaping as this will dry the dough out - and you want to avoid this at high altitudes.Use a silicone dough scraper to gently ease the dough out of the bowl. You want it to land upside down on your counter so that the smooth top of the dough is on the countertop and the sticky underside is facing up. This will make it easier to shape.You want to pull the edges of the dough into the centre and then flip it over so that the sticky side is now underneath. Using the stickiness, gently pull the dough into a tight ball.You will need a banneton to put your dough into. If you do not have a banneton, then a bowl or basket lined with a floured tea towel is perfectly fine. Make sure your bowl isn't too big though, you want your dough to retain some shape.Whatever you're using needs to be liberally floured with your rice flour. If you're using a banneton - liberally sprinkle it with rice flour. If you're using a cloth or tea towel, rub the flour into it to ensure it becomes non stick.
- Placing Into A BannetonOnce the dough is shaped into a tight ball, place it into your banneton smooth side down, so your seam is on the top - this way the top of your dough will get the pretty lines from the banneton. If you're using a cloth or tea towel in a bowl it's ok to put your dough with the smooth side up. Just make sure the dough is tight.Make sure you place a plastic cover over the banneton to stop the dough from forming a dry skin.
- Cold FermentNow the dough is in its "shaping container" cover it loosely with a plastic bag and place into the fridge. Try to leave it in the fridge for a minimum 5 hours up to a maximum of around 12 hours. A shorter cold ferment is better in higher altitudes as it has less chance of over proofing.
- Preparing To BakeOnce you're ready to bake your sourdough, you'll need to preheat your oven to 260C/500F. Place your Dutch Oven into the oven when you turn it on so it gets hot. Try to preheat for around 1 hour to ensure your oven is super hot - but you know your oven so just adjust this time if you need to.Leave your dough in the fridge until the very last minute - placing a cold dough into a hot oven will give you a great "spring".This oven temperature is higher than I would normally bake sourdough - it has been adjusted for higher altitudes.
- Bake Time!Now it's time to bake!When your oven is at temperature, take your sourdough out of the fridge. Gently place it onto a piece of baking paper. Make sure that you make the baking paper big enough to use the edges as a handle to lower to dough into your Dutch Oven.Gently score your bread with a lame, clean razor blade or knife. At minimum a large cross is sufficient, but you can get as artistic as you like. Try to score it fairly deep to ensure the dough opens up.Carefully take your dutch oven out of the oven. Place the sourdough into the pot using the baking paper as a handle. Put the lid on and place into the hot oven. If you want to you can spritz your dough with extra water before you put the lid on.BAKE TIME:30 Minutes with the lid on at 260C/500F plus10-15 Minutes with the lid off at 240C/464FRemember that longer baking times may be needed at higher altitude, so if your bread does not look or feel done, you can leave it in the oven for up to 15 minutes longer.
- Finishing The BakeWhen you remove your dough from the oven, carefully remove it from the dutch oven as soon as possible and place on a wire rack to cool.
- Notes on Flour: This recipe is written using strong Bread Flour. Bread flour has a higher protein content than All Purpose flour. If you choose to use All Purpose flour you may have a different result because of this. You can read more on this here.
- Notes on Sourdough Starter: This recipe is based on you having an active starter that you have fed a few hours before starting your bake. For information on whether your starter is ready, go here. The amount of starter has been decreased to 25g (from 50g) to accomodate higher altitudes. You can increase it back to 50g if you want to - see notes in the article above for more information.
- Notes on Stretch & Folds: If you are going to do the stretch & folds on your bench top, spray your surface with water mist rather than using flour. You can leave the dough in the bowl if you want to. Wet your hands to stop the dough sticking - although it shouldn't be too sticky. It will get less sticky as you do your stretches and folds.