The psychology of ‘stress baking’: Why so many are making bread in 2020
I didn’t used to spend my Saturday nights mercilessly beating up on a lump of bread dough. Yet two weeks ago, after a stressful stretch at work, I found myself at 8 p.m., wrist-deep in what would become two round, golden-brown loaves of Cuban bread. For eight minutes I kneaded, quickly and forcefully shoving the heels of my hands into the dough, sprinkling flour on the butcher block, savoring the smell of the yeast and feeling a little bit better about everything in this chaotic world, at least for a moment.
I was clearly stress baking. It’s something I’ve witnessed friends doing, and that I’ve done myself from time to time. In college, classmates made cookies instead of studying for exams. When I started at CNET, I used to roll into the office with cupcakes or pumpkin bread before the frenzy of big Apple product reveals, more for my own benefit than my co-workers’.
In 2020, however, stress baking has become even more of a thing than it already was, revealing itself in the loaves and loaves of bread rising all over social media. Quickly after lockdown, talk of sourdough starter and the scarcity of yeast became another quirk of the, like the run on hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
At a time when walking through a mall, attending a sporting event or watching a movie in a theater is either ill-advised or just not an option, it makes sense that people are looking for something to do.
But why are so many people turning to baking?
As you might’ve guessed, it’s a coping mechanism. When someone posts a photo of a two-tiered cake with the hashtag #stressbaking, there’s an element of self-awareness there.
But why baking, and not knitting? Why has no one gotten into #stresswhittling?
There are several reasons baking is a solid way to cope, says Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association. For one, it’s a distraction. You can’t doom-scroll when your hands are covered in cookie batter. It also engages just about your whole body: Your senses of touch, taste and smell; your brain, which is required to follow a recipe; your muscles for kneading, shaping, rolling.
Then there’s the finished product: the tarts and scones and biscotti, and all that bread fresh out of the oven, begging to be buttered up.
“It’s either going to have carbs like bread, or it’s going to have sweetness like candies and cookies,” Wright says. “We know those have a neurobiological aspect where they trigger parts of our brain that then trigger happy feelings.”
See also: stress eating.
The answer to why people stress bake seems fairly straightforward coming from a psychologist. For me, though I’ve always cooked, the pandemic sent me further into the depths of my kitchen because it felt like a healthier activity than sitting on the couch. At least I’m on my feet moving, not looking at a screen. It’s also been a way to find enjoyment when I couldn’t seek it outside. Still, I was curious what other stress bakers thought about the habit.
“It took me a few years to realize that I almost was solely [baking] when I was stressed out,” said Skye McIntyre-Bolen, a 34-year-old resident of Nashua, New Hampshire. “I figured out … it was a way for me to control something when my life felt otherwise really chaotic and out of my control.”
McIntyre-Bolen has a tendency to bake later at night, including a round of chocolate chip pumpkin bread at 9 the other week, after planning for the holidays left her feeling like, as she put it, “I had a million browser tabs open in my brain.” Following a set of steps to a specific outcome is a welcome reprieve for her.
In San Francisco, 47-year-old Ellen Saulnier bakes around three times a week. She, too, likes the precision of baking. “I bake the way other people will clean their house when they have a deadline,” she says. “I see the parallel, which is essentially that you’re trying to organize another aspect of your life or have control. And in a way that feels good to you.”
Saulnier also ends up re-homing some of her baked goods. She has friends who’ll drive by for “curbside pickup,” or she’ll deliver to buddies within walking distance.
Sharing the baked bounty hits on another element that, according to Wright, is folded into the appeal of baking. “Food is a way that we connect with individuals and as a community and is typically one of those things that’s going to hit your endorphins as well,” she says.
Sharing pictures of your handcrafted focaccia, ciabatta and rye, at least on social media, can have a downside, though. Wright talked about how it’s easy to compare yourself to others. Perhaps during the pandemic, while some folks are on overdrive, diving into a pile of yeast with a Tony Montana-like abandon, others have just enough steam to get out of bed in the morning — and that’s OK. Pandemic or no, comparisons like this typically don’t benefit anyone.
Outside of the realm of civilian stress bakers, I was curious what a full-time baker thought about the whole phenomenon. Kara Hancock had never heard of stress baking until I mentioned it to her. She’s the head of pastry at the Blue Dog Bakery and Café in Louisville, Kentucky, located in dangerous proximity to my apartment.
“If I get stressed out about my job, it’s usually about baking,” she says with a laugh. Despite that, Hancock, who’s been baking professionally for about 18 years, says there’s something meditative about it — she makes Blue Dog’s scones, muffins and croissants every morning. “When we’re doing 300 pieces a day, and they’re all being shaped by hand, you’re doing the same thing over and over again. You get in this zone, and it’s very peaceful and calming.”
Since the pandemic started, pastry sales have exploded, she says. Bread has stayed about the same, but Blue Dog started selling sourdough starter, yeast and flour as a way to help shore up supplies against the shortages.
I make a mental note about the yeast. Now that I’ve made the Cuban bread recipe twice since quarantine, I don’t know why I wouldn’t keep doing it. This recipe will join the ranks of my go-tos: Smitten Kitchen’s harvest roast chicken, The New York Times’ orecchiette with cherry tomatoes and arugula, King Arthur Flour’s flourless chocolate cake. It’s entirely too satisfying punching down the dough, pulling and tucking the edges around the bottom to make that nice smooth, round surface, slicing an X into the top. And lastly, sitting down with a hunk of warm bread, and watching the stress, like the butter, melt away.