Baking 101: How climate, weather impacts the way the cookie crumbles

Temperature control, humidity and altitude all factor into large scale bakeries

The temperature outside or humidity likely won't impact the cupcakes someone at home is making, but industrial bakers use many weather-related precautions to make sure a cookie tastes the same off the shelf in Colorado as it does in Florida. 

Rich McFeaters is a technical advisor to the American Bakers Association. He retired after 35 years with Nabisco, working through the years under different corporate changes.

"My claim to fame is Ritz Bits, Teddy Grahams and Snackwells. Those were all my babies that I developed and launched through the company," McFeaters said.

At the end of the day, whether you're baking at home or on an industrial scale, it's the same process.

"You take raw materials; you make it into a dough, you bake it in the oven and in the case of a major manufacturer. You package it, whereas at home, you put them out in the calendar, and they disappear."

However, home bakers have much more forgiving consumers. If your cookies are chewy or burnt on the bottom, they will get eaten.

"But when you're an industrial manufacturer, you're trying to attract customers. You have to have the same quality and the same product all the time," he said. 

McFeaters said the most significant impact weather could have is on employees working at industrial bakeries.

Newer bakeries have air conditioning, but some spaces can't be air-conditioned because you are creating too much heat during the baking process.

"When you get very, very hot conditions in a bakery, it affects employee morale, how employees react, and how employees work," McFeaters said, adding that's the big difference between working in winter and summer seasons."

Temperature and humidity levels are also critical for fermentation used to make bread or crackers. For fermentation, conditions should be between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 to 75% humidity. Some bakeries use proofing to keep the conditions just right for bread to rise.  

"Some bakeries in the world don't even have a proof room … say down through the Caribbean, Indonesia, India, they just have open spaces that they put out on the floor and let it prove under natural conditions," McFeaters said. "So if you did have a major temperature swing, that would affect the fermentation process on that."

Warmer, humid spaces keep the bacteria "happy" for a quicker proof, McFeaters said. Home bakers have more time to let the dough rise without the aid of a proofing drawer, whereas industrial bakers are working to turn around mass products on a deadline.

Doughs rise faster at a higher altitude and bakers adjust their recipes to make up for elevation. 

"Even the Betty Crocker cake mix box says 'adjust for high altitude' by adding in another tablespoon of flour or something," McFeaters said. 

Even baking ingredients need a suitable climate. Flour kept in large silos might be warmed up in the winter or cooled by fans in the summer before it's used in a recipe.

"The ideal temperature for flour would probably be about 72 degrees. So when you have flour coming out of the silo at 115 degrees, that's a lot of heat that you have to remove, and some bakeries and very hot climates build in special equipment to air cool that flour before it goes to the mixing department."

Big companies have bakeries worldwide, but some parts of the process are in states known for their wheat crops and producing the best baking flour.

MscFeaters said Nabisco has a flour mill in Toledo, Ohio, that grows "some of the best cookie flour in the country." General Mills is based in Minneapolis because of the massive wheat production in Minnesota. 

"It's the soil conditions in that particular area. It's the yields because it's very flat land out there. That's all the great lakes soil growing conditions out there," McFeaters said. "That type of flour grows best out there."

McFeaters said different areas are known for growing certain types of wheat used to make other food items.

Baking comes down to chemistry for McFeaters, who has a degree in food science from Penn State. 

"It's just as much a chemical operation as manufacturing, gasoline, or pharmaceutical drugs or anything like that," he said. "You want to be the most consistent. So you have the same dose, the same product coming out of the oven operations at all times."