Ira's self-care salad is colorful and therapeutic after a long day at work.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Cooking and Baking

Studies (and a colorful salad) show that cooking and baking are forms of self care that can relieve stress.

Ira's self-care salad by Irina Gabuaeva

It's 11 p.m. when my roommate finally gets home. That's common — she’s in the service industry, and tonight she's worked a double. I'm chasing a deadline, so I don't get a chance to immediately ask about her day, but I don't have to because to blow off steam, Irina cooks. She could order in (working a double would more than justify this); she could make a meal at a fraction of the effort (this is a double-digit ingredient salad); but instead, she chops in to the night. Sometimes I’ll see half of the dish in the fridge the morning after — she wasn't even that hungry when she finished.

The work of chopping — and the primary reason I think my roommate often chooses an elaborate, produce-heavy dish — provides a sense of focus and clarity, a kind of meditative state found in committing to repetition. Leaning in to the simplicity of a physical action allows you to escape the day's incessant thoughts about unsuccessful work calls, bubbling deadlines and what is left on the to-do list. Focusing on chopping this vegetable, then the next, all the while knowing that these actions will result in, well, a result, activates the brain's reward system (I'm making something), which releases dopamine (I made something! I'm proud of myself!).

Students chop in a Knife Skills class at ICE.
Students chop in a Knife Skills class at ICE.

Sure, there’s the financial incentive for cooking, especially for those of us living in major cities, and there’s the sense of relief in knowing exactly what went into what’s on your plate, but for those with jobs, projects and relationships that do not always offer immediate payoff, cooking can be a dose of healthy, instant gratification.

This incremental, manageable kind of goal setting is prevalent in a type of therapy called Behavioral Activation, which focuses on an "outside-in" approach for treating depression by targeting activities patients can do to battle inertia, like running or cooking.

Or baking. When I took a tour through writer Porter Fox’s coworking space in 2016, he walked me past a full eat-in kitchen and cheerfully noted that if I liked sourdough bread, I was in luck, since baking was a way of working through blocks in his work, his day and his mood.

I could understand why. After all, there is a strange magic to baking: like humanity won a mystical lottery when it applied wheat to heat. Bland ingredients are mixed in a bowl, forming a gooey mess that we get to mold in to a shape. An hour later, this beautiful canvas comes out of the oven that we get to paint if we choose to or leave be. Kneading can release stress by offering a feeling of connectedness and creativity. The sensation of shaping, molding and moving the dough allows us to feel immersed in the experience and can be playful, reminiscent of the experience many of us had as kids. For those of us who grew up around baking, the smell of something in the oven often triggers a sense of warmth and comfort.

A student shapes dough in an Artisan Bread Baking class at ICE.
A student shapes dough in an Artisan Bread Baking class at ICE.

The power of cooking and baking in treating stress has been steadily growing beyond tiny kitchens in people's homes. Depressed Cake Shop, started by Emma Thomas in 2013, aims to use baking as a way of facilitating discussion about mental illness. It spread from Britain to the USA and more locations without much surprise: the mission and the setup are inclusive and encourage novice, hobby and professional bakers to get involved by organizing their own pop-ups. Melanie Denyer, a London host, told BBC, "For a lot of us involved in this project, mental illness and baking are linked. A lot of us turn to baking when we're feeling low. Some … even started baking because they were ill and needed something simple as a focus."

Simplicity may hold the key. The Journal of Positive Psychology published a 2016 study on the benefits of creative activities revealing that small, daily endeavors, such as cooking and baking, shifted the participants' moods and gave them something to look forward to in the coming day. This study was conducted alongside the growing enthusiasm (as of roughly 2014) shared among psychologists for culinary therapy, which offers treatment for anxiety and depression, and even eating disorders, autism and ADHD. Today it is common to hire a licensed medical practitioner, nutritionist or psychologist to guide patients through a customized treatment plan in culinary therapy. Julie Ohana, a licensed master social worker (LMSW) based in Michigan, is just one example.

Tapping into the nurture and pleasure of cooking isn’t as easy as pie (an expression I found infuriating until I discovered it referred to eating, not making) and most of us want to enjoy the food after we’ve blown off steam preparing it. For those who aren’t kitchen-savvy and want to dip their toes in, cooking classes are a fantastic start, especially for those who like the hands-on, traditional approach to learning. Be patient and you may find your culinary voice.

When I get out of bed for a glass of water at 1 a.m., I peek into Irina's bowl on my way to the fridge. It's rich with colors. Irina is beside it, grating turmeric onto a cutting board. Her fingers are that golden yellow that'll stay for days — a small price to pay for the fresh root’s bright bite. I ask her what's in it and when she looks up at me, it feels like I opened a door without knocking — I immediately regret interrupting her. To my question she shrugs; she's not sure, she's just trying stuff out to see how it works together. You know, experimenting. Cooking in this way allows her to be process, rather than result, oriented.

Find the cooking or baking class to cure your stress among more than 800 available at ICE this winter.

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