The psychology of baking
Handmade food, especially baked goods, has long been a gesture of love, support and community in trying times. But why is it that so many of us turned to baking during the chaos, stress and anxiety of the pandemic? We take a look at the psychology behind baking and meet the foodies who have turned their passion into a profession.
Sourdough. Banana bread. Baked oats. The pandemic saw many of us begin to master a new hobby: baking. In fact, a 2020 Canstar survey of 1024 people revealed that one third of Australians (the equivalent of 6.3 million adults) turned to baking or had someone in their household take up baking during the COVID-19 lockdowns, fuelled by trend-catching social media platforms Instagram and TikTok of course. It seems this was a global trend too, with the Home Baking: U.S. Market Trends & Opportunities report finding an increase of 24 per cent in the sales of baking-related products.
According to the Canstar survey, around 32 per cent of those who jumped on the baking bandwagon wanted a new hobby, while 15 per cent simply got caught up in the trend. You may remember the great Australian toilet paper shortage, but the flour and baking aisles were also often left empty as many of us raced to try our hands at the latest baking craze.
As it turns out, the craze continued beyond simply #quarantinecooking. Le Cordon Bleu, a culinary institute that specialises in patisserie courses and has campuses all over the world, released a series of five-week short courses, Les Fondements, following the baking boom in 2021. All classes in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne were quickly filled and the demand was so high that classes will be launched in Adelaide this year.
But what’s the driving force behind this rush to the kitchen?
Pandemic hobby to pro
What began as a way to pass the lockdown hours for some amateur bakers even blossomed into a new career. Brinley Kettle was among those who have successfully transformed their passion for baking sourdough into a new profession. When the pandemic hit, Kettle had been working at a local restaurant on the South Coast of NSW for just short of a year but wasn’t eligible for JobKeeper. The state went into lockdown, but sitting around waiting for the green light to get back to work wasn’t an option for Kettle. So he teamed up with head chef Matt Upton to try his hand at baking bread, kneading dough and baking loaves in the kitchen of Upton’s restaurant from midnight into the early hours of the morning. The duo established a few wholesale customers to begin with, and it grew from there. “We trialled pre-ordered bagels and it was really successful,” says Kettle. “I worked on the fruit bread recipe which was really popular, and is now one of our classics. The idea of a dedicated bakery was born.”
Kettle opened Lagom Bakery on the salty shores of Burrill Lake with Upton and fellow sourdough enthusiast Jonathan Reeves in December 2020. The trio have lived up to the “lagom” namesake and kept their offerings relatively simple with rustic loaves, flaky pastries and a considered selection of muffins and cookies — all of which sell out well before closing time almost daily.
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Kettle fell in love with the science of bread making after a trip to Tuerong Farm on the Mornington Peninsula; “I saw the beauty of grains that were being grown for the community and I wanted people to experience the diversity of grains, bread and flavours that were available.”
He took this mindset into his process and his business, providing small-batch, artisanal baked goods: “The flour in our bakery is stoneground. At each stage of the process, the farmer, miller and baker are preserving the life and flavour of the grain.”
For Kettle, baking has become a creative process where he can experiment with the science behind the bread. He has come to learn that baking, especially when it comes to bread, is more of a culinary experience than meets the eye. “I’m not into visual perfection; I enjoy rustic bread that develops its own personality,” he says. “I like to see what is possible. With other foods I’m inspired by the flavour combinations, but bread is different.”
It’s less about the result (although a warm, airy sourdough loaf with a crisp crust never goes astray) and more about the process, which Kettle says has become second nature to him now. “I have at least 20 tasks going when I’m baking. I’m in a full flow state, there is a natural momentum. I don’t consciously think about baking; it just happens now.”
Baking as therapy
Mindfulness comes in many forms, and the “flow state” in which Kettle finds himself while making bread is not uncommon when it comes to bakers and chefs. “Mindfulness comes in more forms than yoga or meditating. There is a medium for everyone, and for many baking can be that medium,” says Michigan-based counsellor and culinary art therapist Julie Ohana. “Baking teaches us that practising mindfulness is possible for everyone.”
Ohana runs her own business, Culinary Art Therapy, using cooking and baking to work with individuals, small groups, families and corporate colleagues. Aside from the health and nutritional benefits, participants can gain insight into their own and each other’s behaviour, learn stress and time management and improve communication skills. Cooking also creates an immersive atmosphere around the creative task at hand, allowing us to feel more open and ready to connect with others, whether that be a stranger or a family member.
“Baking socially allows for mindfulness because it generally requires the baker to pay attention to a recipe, follow directions and participate in repetitive actions like kneading and mixing,” says Ohana. “Mindfulness aids in relaxation, de-stressing and the reduction of anxious feelings.”
Each session starts out with a questionnaire to gather insight into the client’s desired outcomes: their goals, what they are hoping to get out of the session, their food preferences and any relevant food memories. “From this information, I suggest a menu and provide recipes to use in the session,” says Ohana. “Once we begin, I always introduce the purpose of the session, engage in an opening discussion, followed by the cooking, eating and a summary discussion.”
Whether it’s creating a cohesive environment for work colleagues, healing damaged bonds between family members or creating a safe, calm space for oneself, baking really does offer food for the soul. As Ohana puts it: “A big part of the CAT [Culinary Art Therapy] process is patience and communication … At the end of a session, the participants finish with a complete dish to enjoy and feel proud of. This can help people work through their struggles at the end of the hour, come together and connect over a shared accomplishment.” Team-building skills at their finest.
So how does this relate to the pandemic? Well, put simply, baking was a grounding, calming force amid a whirlwind of chaos. The kitchen was a safe haven for so many, where we could escape the dread of the news cycle and completely immerse ourselves in the task at hand. At the heart of this, too, was the sense of regaining control — even if it was just over a dozen muffins or loaf of bread.
Bahareh Niati, founder of the blog Baking is Therapy, is no stranger to the upheaval of everyday life and first discovered the benefits of baking after moving from Iran to the United States in 2015. “Being in a new country, away from my family and loved ones, was challenging,” Niati says. “I needed something to take my mind off things, and one day I thought, ‘Why don’t I bake something?’ I had almost never baked in my life before; I didn’t even have a cake pan!”
So Niati headed to the local dollar store to pick up a cake tin and googled an easy apple cake recipe to use up the seasonal produce she had. “In the end, my kitchen smelt like apples and cinnamon; I found the whole baking process mesmerising,” she reflects.
Niati began baking more and more, taking photographs, adding her own twist to recipes she found and experimenting with flavours and methods to create her very own recipes. Baking became a form of self-care and therapy that got her through some of the hardest, most isolated days of her life — hence the name of her blog. It was a creative outlet for her, and despite having recently graduated with a chemical engineering degree, Niati followed her heart and eventually turned her passion for food blogging into a career — a move that proved beneficial to her mental health and wellbeing when it came to COVID-19.
“During the pandemic, it felt like you didn’t have much control over your life and what will happen next,” explains Niati. “We were all bombarded with news every second. So I, like many others, did more baking than usual to find some normalcy. Baking gets your creative juices flowing, you lose track of time — and the best part? You’ll get a reward at the end. It also brings me so much joy to share the food I have baked with others.”
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It’s in the method
For many, the fact that the steps of the recipe are precisely organised takes the stress out of the task — and after all the mixing, kneading, stirring and patiently waiting for the oven to do its job, a delicious, homemade treat you created with your very own hands awaits. This sense of accomplishment cannot be denied.
Many of us experience anxiety and stress because we don’t know what lies ahead and we worry about the “what if”. But baking removes the unknowns (for the most part) with structured directions that allow us to regain control and feel peace in knowing what the end result will be. “For a recipe to be successful, you need to follow the directions closely,” Niati explains. “When I bake, it feels like being in the zone. As if all the noises become silent and I’m just focusing on what’s right in front of me.”
Baking and cooking in general utilise your senses of touch, taste and smell, igniting a sense of nostalgia, security and comfort — there’s a reason why certain smells and tastes evoke such strong memories. In fact, many aged care homes host regular baking and cooking sessions with senior residents to boost their mental health and overall wellbeing. It is an especially popular activity for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The sensation of dough between fingers, the scent of sugar cookies wafting through the air or the ability to simply interact with other people offers a sense of family and can bring back happy memories from times past. Some small studies link the benefits to the actual process of baking, but larger studies conclude that it is the overall process of social interaction and cognitive stimulation that are responsible.
The gift of baking
There’s a reason that foodies like Kettle and Niati are drawn to baking for others. Gifting baked goods or home-cooked meals is often seen as a symbol of love and care, and is a common tradition in many cultures. It is a way to feed the body, mind, spirit and relationships of and with your loved ones. Even for potluck-style gatherings in Australia, we often spend time carefully cooking and creating a delicious dish “made with love” to enjoy with our nearest and dearest.
“There is nothing more primal than feeding someone,” explains Ohana. “It is a way to take care of your own as well as someone else’s basic human needs. Sharing home-cooked food is just that — an expression of caring for someone else and expressing your feelings.”
This may be a primal instinct, but the gifting of food extends into an act of selflessness that can help mend fractured bonds, heal broken hearts or simply bring a smile and rush of joy to the receiver. Creating something for others with your own hands also comes with a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment on the baker’s behalf.
For Niati, it is the sense of breaking bread (both literally and metaphorically) with family and strangers alike that drives her blog. “My Iranian heritage also inspires and influences my recipe developments and blog posts. Food is a huge part of our culture and I love introducing our recipes to people all around the world.”
Julie Ohana’s Blueberry Muffins Recipe
“Muffins are a great treat to bake and share. I created this recipe for fun and have been enjoying sharing with my family and friends. It’s simple to throw together and has some great ingredients hidden in there like flax and high-protein Greek yoghurt.”
- 3 ripe bananas, mashed
- ⅓ cup Greek yoghurt
- ⅓ cup sugar (use coconut sugar for a healthier alternative)
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup rolled oats
- 1 tbsp flaxseed
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ¼ cup butter, melted
- 1½ cups flour
- ¾ cup dried blueberries
- Raspberry jam
- Preheat the oven to 190ºC.
- Mash the bananas in a large mixing bowl, then add the yoghurt, sugar and egg. Once combined, add the rest of the ingredients except for the jam.
- Mix until combined and scoop into muffin tins that are lined with cups or sprayed with non-stick spray.
- Dollop 1 tsp of the jam over each muffin and lightly swirl the jam with a knife.
- Bake for about 20 mins until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. These are perfect to share with a loved one!