In Gauteng even the dough is in a hurry!

We have been up to Johannesburg a few times this year to teach our Masterclasses. Baking at high altitude can be rather interesting. We found it quite exciting as everything kind of moves faster. In Gauteng even the dough is in a hurry!

These are a few observations and recommendations for those of you baking at higher altitudes… We always bake sourdough bread at sea level, so the recipes posted on Motherdough website are tested in quite different conditions from when we host classes in Sandton.  

Fermentation – your Motherdough

Your Motherdough has increased fermentation activity at high altitude. You may not even notice, but it does place some extra importance around time and temperature management when you feed.

You always want to make sure that your Motherdough goes into the fridge at the correct point after a feed to avoid running out of food before the next feed. This well help keep her in balance. Generally, at high altitude, your Motherdough will be ready to go back into the fridge sooner that she would at lower altitudes – so 60 minutes as we suggest in our materials is most likely too long in GP and surrounds.

Fermentation – your dough

As a result of reduced air pressure at higher altitude, fermentation happens faster. This is not a bad thing, but it does make it more challenging as you learn to perfect your baking. Dough can go from perfect to gloop a lot quicker than you would expect. In fact, I have found that some steps that would take 60 minutes in Cape Town at similar temperatures, are taking less than half that time to complete in Johannesburg.

It’s always going to be to your benefit to slow down fermentation, unless you really have your instincts perfectly honed.

To manage total fermentation and the rate of fermentation you can:

  1. Use less refreshed Motherdough. Reduce the recipe quantity by 25%-50% of the required amount. 
  2. Work cooler (which is going to be easy with winter on the way...)
  3. Reduce your bulk fermentation time – shorten the intervals between folds
  4. Reduce you final proof time

All of these steps will help you manage your dough and avoid you going into over fermentation.

It is important to remember that if you over ferment slightly at each stage, the sum of the effect of these slight over-fermentations is usually amplified.

Hydration – humidity, flour and water

Usually, humidity is lower at higher altitude.

Humidity plays a role in the amount of water your dough will be able to handle.  Flour stored at high altitude often has slightly less humidity and is “drier.”

It is important be aware of this adjust the hydration of your dough to where necessary by adding a little water. Most Motherdough recipes are quite high hydration anyway so you may not notice these effects.

Remember it’s OK to add a little water, but if you add flour you change all the ratios and therefore the recipe.

Baking – Oven temperature

When baking at high altitude you need to adjust the temperature and baking time.

  1. Increase the temperature of your oven by 10-20 deg.
  2. Increase the total baking time (recommended)
  3. A combination of both.

It takes food longer to reach a higher internal temperature at high altitude. Higher hydration loaves also take longer. For a standard loaf you are looking at an increase of 10-15 minutes in bake time.

We prefer to bake for longer and not increase the temperature. This way you get rich colour, fully baked bread while limiting the risk to burn the outside before the inside is cooked.   

Normally basic white bread is fully cooked at an internal temperature of 93 deg. C. Richer doughs like brioche closer to 96 deg. C. At high altitude, because water has a different boiling point often your loaf will not reach 93 deg. C.

As always, the best way to know when your loaf is done is by sensory assessment. Those baker’s instincts!

  • You should have a nice rich deep colour throughout the loaf – no pale areas.
  • The knock test should result in a clean hollow sound.
  • A gentle squeeze of the loaf should result in a crackle of the crust.
  • The loaf should be light to pick up in the sense that it feels light and area when you hold it. This indicated that sufficient water has left the loaf.