As a lifelong cooking enthusiast and chocolate fiend (colleague
Pinkfreud rightly allows that I'll answer anything that smells like
chocolate!), I found your query to be both interesting and
challenging. Questions about the culinary arts are always
fascinating, and it's a pleasure to find someone else to talk food
Please let me reassure you that while I'm not a professionally trained
baker, I had rigorous instruction under the watchful eye and
velvet-gloved iron fist of my great-grandmother for many years, and
have been cooking and baking for family and friends since I was a mere
slip of a girl - more than 20 years. I hope my extensive practical
experience will compensate for my lack of professional cooking
As you are already aware, there are a number of factors that influence
the way baked goods turn out. While minute fluctuations won't
necessarily ruin a recipe, a combination of these fluctuations can
significantly alter the texture of a given cake, bread, or pastry,
much to the chagrin of even the most flexible and nonchalant of
bakers. Perfectionists such as yourself will find this doubly
There are several things to consider when trying to determine what is
affecting your recipe: storage of your dry ingredients, temperature
and size of your eggs, mixing of your eggs, ambient temperature,
ambient humidity, temperature of your liquid ingredients, temperature
and moisture content of your flour, fluctuations in barometric
pressure, and how you measure your ingredients.
Much of learning to take these factors into account comes from day to
day experience in your craft. Some of it can be learned from
consulting the "authorities". I've attempted to provide possible
solutions based on hard references *and* personal experience here.
One of the first sources I consulted when researching your query was
Larousse Gastronomique, long regarded as *the* ultimate cooking
reference. Originally compiled by Prosper Montagne in 1938 and
currently edited by renowned chef JoŽl Robuchon, Larousse
Gastronomique addresses virtually every kitchen concern one could
imagine. Only virtually, alas. It did not, offer much detail about
brownies, save that brownies first appeared in the Boston Cooking
School Cookbook in 1896, written by Fannie Merritt Farmer. Further
perusal notes that flour can be affected by humidity, and that it is
necessary to pay careful attention to ambient conditions when
adjusting recipes to take these factors into account.
Not terribly helpful, but it was interesting to learn the origin of
the brownie, at any rate.
The Professional Chef, 7th Edition (published for the Culinary
Institute of America by John Wiley & Sons) likewise is fairly oblique.
Page 202 notes that one should store dry goods, flour included, in a
clean, dry, well ventilated place, well off the floor, and use the
first in/first out method of rotation.
Again, not terribly helpful. But fear not! There are solutions!
As you know, cooking at a higher elevation requires some little extra
tricks to make your recipes turn out well. About 25% less leavening
agent is required than recipes prepared at sea level, because the
decreased pressure allows leavened products to rise much faster. You
say your altimeter shows fluctuations of about 120 meters, but don't
indicate whether it's increased pressure (lower altitude) or decreased
pressure (higher altitude). I investigated both option, and found
nothing to indicate that such a relatively small fluctuation would
have much of an effect. You might want to tinker slightly with your
formulation to test, but from what you've indicated, it would seem the
difficulty lies elsewhere - namely, with your flour.
First, it's important to understand flour - how to choose it, how to
store it, what its moisture content should be, and how to be certain
that it's ready to be used. You're absolutely correct that for
decadent brownies, you'll want a soft flour. That's not your problem.
Part of your problem (I suspect) is that your flour is getting too
dry and causing your batter to seize and become uncooperative.
You say the moisture content of the flour you're purchasing is 7%.
According to The Joy of Baking, wheat flour (as opposed to rice, rye,
barley, potato or corn flour) should be at or near 14% moisture
content, so it would appear to me that you're already operating at a
slight disadvantage. Factor in Johannesburg's low humidity, and your
flour is practically crying for a drink! Flour that is too dry
requires extra care in storage, as well as extra liquids in recipes.
When storing your flour, the National Flour Mills FAQ recommends that
you keep it in a dark, climate controlled room, at a temperature
between 68F and 70F, with a relative humidity of 60% - 65%. Given
that your flour is already a little on the dry side, be certain to let
it bask in that lovely, slightly higher humidity, to get some of its
perkiness back, and store the unused contents of opened bags in
airtight containers to prevent later moisture loss.
Next, consider the preparation methods. How are you measuring? Are
these brownies being baked in small batches? Small batch bakers often
measure their dry ingredients by volume, not weight. This can lead to
inconsistencies from batch to batch, upsetting one's aesthetic
sensibilities. The Culinary Institute of America, Julia Child, and Le
Cordon Bleu all recommend the same prcedure for measuring: weight,
weight, weight! This is the best way to ensure that your formulation
will be consistent from batch to batch and day to day. It's much
easier to adjust for environmental factors on a given day if your
basic formulation is consistent. You say you don't do the baking
yourself anymore...check in on your bakers, and if they aren't
precisely weighing out the dry ingredients before starting the batter,
make them start.
What about the temperature of the ingredients? Are the temperatures
of each ingredient about the same (at or near room temperature?)
Wayne Gisslen notes in Le Cordon Bleu's Professional Baking manual
that it's important to make sure that your ingredients all fall within
the same temperature range. If your flour is too cool or your eggs
are being used straight from the refrigerator, or your water is too
cold, or the chocolate too hot, you're going to "shock" one ingredient
or another and affect the finished product's density and texture.
Either leave the eggs out for an hour or so to let them come to room
temperature, or if you're in a bit of a rush (i.e. someone forgot to
pull them out), plop them in a hot water bath (NOT boiling!) until the
shells are slightly warm to the touch. If you've properly stored your
flour, and properly cooled your chocolate, you're ready to go as soon
as your eggs are.
How are your eggs being handled during the mixing process? Mr.
Gisslen explains in the brownie instructions on page 420 of Le Cordon
Bleu's Professional Baking manual that overbeating the eggs will cause
your brownies to become too light, too caky. If your bakers are
"foaming" the eggs, they're mixing them too hard and introducing too
much air into the batter, causing them to be more like cake and less
like fudge. Also, at higher elevations, it's recommended that you use
extra large eggs because they offer a bit more moisture (especially
important when the humidity is lower).
If, after adjusting these variables, your brownies are still too caky
to suit you, consider adding an extra (gently beaten) egg to the
batter. At higher elevations, the cell structure of baked goods can
become fragile due to the decreased air pressure - without the
"heavier" air of lower elevations pressing down on the surface of the
brownie, the cell structure can expand too rapidly. An extra egg will
add body and texture, and bolster the structure of the brownie to keep
it from expanding too rapidly or exploding altogether.
Bruce Weinstein, author of The Ultimate Brownie Book, offers some
-- For the "fudgiest" brownies, only use enough flour to hold the
butter, sugar, eggs and chocolate together. (Try decreasing your
flour a little bit, especially on drier days, until you're satisfied
with the mix.)
-- Sift your flour, then weigh it. If you use cocoa powder instead of
melted chocolate, sift that too. Sifting "fluffs" the dry
ingredients, allowing the wet ingredients to bind more quickly and
-- Weigh *everything*.
-- Always thoroughly mix your dry ingredients in a bowl separate from
your wet ingredients. This ensures even distribution of your
leavening agent, and keeps your leavening agent from getting too happy
and going to work before you're ready. Add your wet ingredients to
the dry ingredients, and mix them thoroughly but *gently*.
-- If practical, pick the pans up about halfway through the baking
cycle and give them a gentle but firm rap against the oven rack. This
will cause the brownie to "fall", keeping it dense and toothsome.
To this, let me add my great-grandmother's considerable wisdom: Taste
and touch everything as you make your adjustments. When your mix is
"on", you'll know it by the way the batter feels on your fingers and
on your tongue
Of course, I can't guarantee that these tips will ensure that every
batch is perfect - your own artistry and tinkering will have to do
that! - but these will certainly get you on your way to being happy
with your product again. Bakers are often their own harshest critics,
so it might help to get one of your assistants to help out with taste
testing while you tinker.
I used the following sources when composing your answer ( books marked
with a * reside in my personal collection, the rest were borrowed from
*Larousse Gastronomique - Prosper Montagne, JoŽl Robuchon (Editor)
*The Professional Chef, 2nd Edition - The Culinary Institute of
Published by Institutions Magazine, 1969 (Out of print.)
*The Professional Chef, 7th Edition - The Culinary Institute of
America - 2001
Le Cordon Bleu's Professional Baking, 3rd Edition - Wayne Gisslen
Brilliant Food Tips and Cooking Tricks - David Joachim
*The Ultimate Brownie Book - Bruce Weinstein
Baking with Julia : Sift, Knead, Flute, Flour, And Savor... - Dorie
*Understanding Baking - Joseph Amendola
Humidity and the effects on baking
National Flour Mills FAQ
Cooking Q&A: How to properly store food
Joan's Pie and Pastry Primer
Temperature and humidity including measuring & controling instruments
High Altitude Baking
If you're inclined to do a little reading for the sake of your craft,
consider writing to the Colorado State University Cooperative
Extension to purchase a copy of their cookbook:
A Complete Guide to High Altitude Baking - Editor, Patricia Kendall
Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, 2003,
CE42, 6 x 9 paper bound, 190 pages, ISBN.1-889593-06-0
The book is only $14.95, and the CSUCE will ship overseas if you
e-mail in advance of your order to ask for shipping rates. The book
is written for the high altitude cook, and contains additional tips
and tricks to help *all* of your dishes come out the way you want them
to, every time.
I hope you find this information as helpful as I found your query
interesting! If I can be of furhter assistance, please just ask for
clarification. I'll be happy to help. Mmmm...now I'm hungry for
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...plus the noted books and twenty years of practical baking