Why cooking and baking fill a void

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During lockdown, so many people have run to their kitchens to bake and create. Why does cooking so perfectly fill a hole in our lives?

At the beginning of lockdown in 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was worsening around the globe, many of us had that one moment – however fleeting – when we all tried to find the silver lining of having so much time on our hands.

Like many others, David Stubley turned to baking. No longer commuting to his job as a cybersecurity consultant, and seeing the early pandemic shortages at his local supermarket, the Stirling, Scotland, resident started experimenting with sourdough. Though he had a bit of a leg up on those left wondering about the shelf-life of yeast – his wife had gifted him a baking course just before Christmas – Stubley found that kneading a big hunk of dough gave him a sense of calm and control, even as the world around him seemed to fall apart.

“It clicked, and I found I was able to actually do it, and do it beyond enjoying it: I was actually quite good at it,” he says. “Making bread look nice and pretty and beautiful actually appealed.”

Stubley is one of many who turned en masse to cooking. Suddenly, our kitchens were filled with so many puddings that we couldn’t eat them all on our own, and we convinced ourselves that a 50-pound bag of flour was our best lockdown purchase yet.

And, perhaps, that’s right; like Stubley discovered, research shows there may be beneficial effects beyond perfectly golden loaves, like stress reduction, emotion management and even social connections that we can reap by simply heading to the kitchen. The obsession with cooking has become a kind of self-care – one we’ve desperately needed during the long, often boring months of isolation.

The pandemic pushed David Stubley to start getting creative with bread in his kitchen – a pursuit he now relishes (Credit: David Stubley)

The pandemic pushed David Stubley to start getting creative with bread in his kitchen – a pursuit he now relishes (Credit: David Stubley)

Satiating the creative craving

Anecdotally and instinctively, many of us know how a couple of hours in the kitchen gathering and chopping ingredients, getting creative with a challenging recipe or simply kneading dough can make us feel better.

And although researchers haven’t yet looked specifically at cooking as a psychological salve, what we do understand about creative pursuits can help us understand why suddenly turning on our scarcely used stand mixer is so gratifying. Research has shown that accomplishing small, creative tasks can make us feel happier. In one study, researchers found adults reported more positive emotions when they took on more creative pursuits, like creating art, making music or writing.

“Doing things that evoke almost immediate positive emotions can help to calm stress pathways,” says Nicole Farmer, who studies how food impacts our biology, behaviour and mental health at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center.

During the height of lockdown, Farmer – whose research focuses on the psychological and social benefits of cooking – even found herself gravitating toward making comforting soups and cookie recipes for her two children. “Cooking represents the shared human experience of food, and nurturing people through food, so I think that's where it incorporates opportunity for immediate positive emotions.”

Getting your hands dirty

There’s also evidence to suggest that the benefits of cooking are not just about the creativity associated with the task; the simple mechanics of cooking can make the process appealing, and activate crucial brain centres.

Researchers in Tel Aviv have shown that repetitive behaviours and rituals can ease stress and anxiety, like when a basketball player dribbles a ball a specific number of times before shooting it. While, as Farmer notes, there haven’t been any studies to specifically examine the physical motions of cooking, like chopping or kneading, it follows that those movements could provide the same benefits.

Doing things that evoke almost immediate positive emotions can help to calm stress pathways – Nicole Farmer

“Those activities when we move our hands … definitely have a link to positive emotions and stress,” she says. “We believe when people engage in cooking, there’s an activation of the sensory system, and that activation brings in our working memory," explains Farmer.

Working memory is what enables us do a task without losing track of it: say, if you're putting ingredients out on your counter, you'll remember you already grabbed the flour from the pantry and won't go looking for it again. But, as Farmer explains, it can also activate emotional regulation. (Still, the research isn't strong enough for Farmer to say for sure that really laying into your bread dough when you're kneading it will actually help calm you down – although it certainly may feel that way, regardless.)

Along with spurring creativity and good vibes, cooking on your own can – perhaps surprisingly – provide a feeling of social connection, something we’ve needed more of as we’ve been holed up. Farmer’s research, which is based on 10 years of pre-pandemic data, shows cooking breeds “an increased feeling of social interaction and a positive social role” – all of which has the potential to make you feel good.

Part of that connection also may stem from the people we’re feeding. Researchers have shown that altruism and even positive thoughts and behaviours (like being kind) can contribute to our wellbeing — just as long as what we’re doing for others doesn’t become overwhelming. In other words, sharing your sourdough starter with the entire neighbourhood might do more for you than simply feeding the yeast.

Research shows that repetitive behaviours can help ease stress and anxiety (Credit: Alamy)

Research shows that repetitive behaviours can help ease stress and anxiety (Credit: Alamy)

A dash of control

Although the science is still developing, some mental-health professionals have tied cooking and baking into their practises, with positive results.

Julie Ohana, a culinary-art therapist in Michigan, has been examining the relationship between cooking and therapy since for 20 years. Ohana – who has personally found cooking soothing for years – has found that when she works with clients in a kitchen, people are reminded “that they really can be present in a moment that can be positive and uplifting and empowering”.

"There's repetition and a quietness about reading and focusing on a recipe and putting together a dish while you use your senses, smelling the aromas of spices coming together,” says Ohana. “When there's a lack of control and knowing what’s going to happen in the world, that goes a long way to be able to say: ‘I'm reading something, and in 30 minutes, I'm going to create and end up with X’. And you do – and that feels wonderfully satisfying.”

That was exactly Stubley’s experienced when he began baking. “The desire to sort of do something that I had a bit more control over when everything felt a bit out of control – I found it good from a headspace point of view," says Stubley. And the fact that he became pretty good at it may have helped, too; in one study, self-reported cooking ability “was positively associated with better family connections, greater mental well-being and lower levels of self-reported depression”.

Along with spurring creativity and good vibes, cooking on your own can – perhaps surprisingly – provide a feeling of social connection

Stubley has started sharing his beautifully scored sourdough and golden sandwich loaves on Instagram, offering tips to fellow bakers online as he learns them as well as sharing his bread with neighbours. These steps have offered connections to another thing the pandemic had taken from him: social community. “It's just nice to be able to do little things like that,” says Stubley. “I get energy from interacting with people.”

Survey data shows people are likely to continue cooking more at home even after the pandemic, and Farmer believes we’ll likely see more data emerge in the future on how cooking affects us. For now, as the pandemic endures in many countries, continuing to stick to your kitchen could be a pick-me-up that so many are looking for. And it probably doesn’t hurt one’s mood to see those Likes accumulating on your perfect Instagram shot, either.