Social media has been awash in people sharing how their lives are changing due to the coronavirus. Efforts to "flatten the curve" have meant people are spending much more time cooped up at home, and many have turned to baking.
As of Friday, the hashtag #stressbaking had over 26,000 posts on Instagram, while #quarantinebaking had nearly 12,000.
I made this cake the other night
Maya Kosoff, 27, a freelance reporter and editor living in New York City, says she is baking as a balm for the current chaos.
"It's gratifying to produce something tangible (a loaf of bread, a tray of cookies)," Kosoff tells CNBC Make It.
"It's also soothing and meditative," she says. "I've been making recipes I'm very familiar and comfortable with, and I find it comforting to make and eat foods I've made and eaten a hundred times before. It provides a sense of normalcy, which I think many people are craving right now."
Indeed, that's a big reason people have been stress baking, according to Julie Ohana, a culinary art therapist. (Culinary art therapy helps people communicate and manage stress through cooking.)
"I do love that in these crazy times so many people are turning to their kitchens," Ohana tells CNBC Make It.
"When times are turned on its head we look for ways to cope," she says. "So the heart of the explanation is that cooking and baking bring comfort. Baking a loaf of bread, some cookies, etc is so basic but fills such a void.
"The process helps aid the baker and the finished product helps comfort the person or people receiving the delicious outcome."
I've been stress baking cookies.
Like Kosoff, Ohana gets a sense of satisfaction from having control over something.
"When I'm in the kitchen, I know what I can expect. I'm in control of what dishes I cook and what our meal time will look like," she tells CNBC Make It. "Since right now so much in the world is unknown and out of our hands — When will I be able to go back to work? Send my kids to school? Travel for vacation? — it is important we find other ways to have a say in our lives."
For many, the act of baking is also calming, because making cookies or baking bread is a form of mindfulness, says Ohana.
"When we are inundated by news and scary information, it's helpful to tune out the world and spend a few minutes or hours being present in something else," she tells CNBC Make It. "It's so important right now that we all take a few minutes away from the scary stuff and reset our minds and thoughts."
And baking, more than cooking, demands focus, says Valerie Van Galder, the CEO of the Depressed Cake Shop Foundation, an organization that raises money for mental health issues with baking events. While cooking is an art, baking is largely science — the exact mixes of ingredients being combined and reacting as they're supposed to is chemistry.
baking and sharing baked goods can be a valuable tool in one's mental health self care kit
Baking "requires and rewards being very specific and following the directions very carefully," Van Galder tells CNBC Make It. So your brain is "very absorbed in the activity at hand and doesn't have time to think about other things that might be worrying you," she says. (Van Galder herself became passionate about baking in 2011 as a way to mitigate stress when she started to care for a mentally ill relative. The Depressed Bake Shop has had over 180 bake shop events around the world and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for mental health charities, she says.)
Another perhaps surprising benefit to baking through the coronavirus pandemic the sense of community it has created.
"It was going to bake my pumpkin chocolate chip cookies like I might usually do otherwise on Sunday, but ... I decided to go live on Instagram," Kosoff says. "It was a lot of fun, and the format really lent itself to conversation — friends and family dropped in to ask questions or tell me what they were planning to bake." One hundred and fifteen of them to be exact, according to her Instagram numbers.
Ohana went live on Facebook on Friday, March 20 to make challah bread for Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath, which extends from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays). She did it to "share and connect with friends and loved ones," she says. "It was fantastic!"
Van Galder is part of an online community of sourdough bread bakers as well as Depressed Bake Shop bakers.
"I feel like I'm friends with the man who created the tool I used to slash my sourdough. His name is Tyler — I've never met him. I feel like I'm friends with Jim Hall who developed the Challenger bread pan that I make my bread in," Van Galder tells CNBC Make It. "I tag them like they're my friends in all of my Instagram posts."
On Thursday, Van Galder had a Zoom conference call with Depressed Bake Shop bakers from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, England and Scotland. Van Galder baked bread during the digital hang out.
Photo credit: Valerie Van Galder
There is even science to back up the benefits of baking: Several studies show creative activities such as baking can be helpful in managing stress. And at least one study found that "maker" activities, like baking, are good for young adults in particular.
But the psychological benefits of baking aside, baked goods are also generally a pleasure, says Van Galder. And during the grim coronavirus pandemic, that's a welcome respite.
"Baking, especially cookies and cakes, is a little bit of a treat" and "feels celebratory," Van Galder says. "People usually bake for happy occasions, so you can kind of trick your brain if you have cookies or cake or cupcakes around."
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