Two years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to get me to step foot in a kitchen. Using a knife, stirring a pot, kneading dough, waiting for the oven to preheat – these were all things that gnawed at my patience and frustrated me to my core.
Fast forward to present day: I am twenty-four years old, fresh out of college, and no amount of chamomile tea can calm the roaring waves of stress that keep me up at night (Thanks, student debt!).
It was 10:00 PM in July and I had a sudden urge to bake a pie. I had never baked a pie before; in fact, I had never baked anything other than a Betty Crocker cake. Yet, I found myself watching YouTube video after video on how to bake a pie from scratch.
The next day, I rushed home to do what I once thought was unthinkable. From cracking the eggs to pressing the cold butter, flaking the flour between my fingers, smelling the lemons as I zested them, to rolling out the dough, I was completely focused and at peace. What student debt? What dentist appointment? I tossed some corn starch into a bowl of fresh Hammonton blueberries and watched as the juices pulled out. The vibrant colors put a smile on my face and I decided to throw on some classical music to really set the mood for myself. I felt myself falling madly in love with baking, completely immersed in the experience. I went so far as to cut the pie dough into strips to create a lattice! Who would’ve thought that my clumsy fingers could braid dough with such ease? For the first time in my life, kitchen work felt therapeutic instead of stress-inducing.
When the pie came out, it had been close to four hours. For the first time in a while, I was tired – not exhausted, but peaceful and happily ready for bed. I felt accomplished and stress-free. I woke up the next morning to a beautiful, cooled down blueberry pie for breakfast. That day, I knew that baking was my therapy. Since then, I’ve baked everything from a key lime pie to a cherry cobbler to calm the racing thoughts in my head.
So what is it about baking that makes it such a stress-buster?
There is something so rewarding about making something for someone else. There’s a reason food is often used as an expression of care when something unfortunate (or fortunate) happens in someone’s life. Whether it’s a housewarming party or a funeral, homemade food is always happily accepted. Giving a plate of freshly warmed cookies is so personal, so of course it feels good to see someone not only appreciate it but happily devour your delicious masterpiece in front of you. Providing someone with something they enjoy can bring you a unique type of happiness.
Baking is also a very focus-driven task. It requires your undivided attention, as most recipes need to be followed exactly right to create the dish you want. By completely focusing on measurement, mixing time, temperature, and decoration, you can give yourself a moment to step away from your problems and be in the present.
“Baking is thinking step-by-step and following the specifics of the here and now, but it’s also thinking about recipes as a whole, the dish as a whole, what [you] are going to do with it, who it’s going to, what time are you sharing it, so baking is a really good way of developing that balance of the moment and the bigger picture,” Julie Ohana, a licensed clinical social worker and culinary art therapist told HuffPost.
There have been many studies in recent years on the therapeutic effects of baking. This Smithsonian article breaks down a study conducted by the Journal of Positive Psychology, which reported that doing creative, everyday things like baking or cooking can increase happiness and drive in a person’s day, making an individual feel that they are flourishing, “a psychological term that describes the feeling of personal growth.”
Baking can also create a sense of control, which can be helpful for those who often feel they are drowning due to certain external circumstances in their lives. John Whaite, who won the Great British Bake Off in 2012, is an avid supporter of using baking as a tool to improve mental health, which he discusses here with Farhana Dawood of BBC. For Whaite, baking helps manage his manic depression, so much so that he dedicated a chapter of his cookbook, Recipes for Every Day and Mood, to recipes that help to lift the spirits.
Baking is also an instant reward, which can be helpful to those who are anxious or unable to remain in the present moment. This is expanded upon here in this Guardian article. When I found myself unable to quiet the stress associated with my growing to-do list, I realized how effective baking can be to not only remain present, but create a feeling of instant happiness. The product you worked so hard on is right in front of you, and you feel accomplished and ready to take on any task.
If baking only induces stress for you, then there’s no need to force yourself. However, the next time you find yourself unable to quiet any negative thoughts, or you are looking to cope with grief or anxiety through productive work, try baking something simple for yourself or a loved one.
If you’d like to check out the blueberry pie recipe that made me fall in love with baking, click here!