Nothing smells more comforting than freshly baked bread, just out of the oven. As the pandemic shut down America, we found ourselves returning to the kitchen, taking solace in simpler pleasures like baking. Stocking up on essential supplies we’d need for weeks in lockdown, tens of millions of Americans scrambled to find toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but no one anticipated the unprecedented run on flour that had supply chains spinning by the end of March. Bread, cakes and cookies remained on grocery store shelves, but Americans alike were in search of something more elemental. We needed to knead flour, water, yeast and salt into a wholesome loaf of sustenance, rising in the oven with hope for the future, or at the very least, a slice of delicious reward.
The extreme rise of home baking during lockdown created an unanticipated scarcity in supply, and in response, mild social media shaming by would-be bakers who couldn’t get enough flour of those who indulgently posted photos of their own rising loaves. Flour privilege became a thing. Baking emerged as a home treatment for coronavirus, or at least coronavirus fears. We rushed to innovate. If no yeast, then sourdough! But what is driving this collective need?
Turns out there is real science (which is basic chemistry) behind not just the baking process, but the act of baking itself. Numerous studies have shown that baking has a correlation with positive feelings. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that people who engage in small, creative projects on a daily basis feel happier and more relaxed. Psychologists have begun to integrate baking into therapeutic practices to help people struggling with depression and anxiety. Imagine working on anxiety around perfectionism by baking sweet, forgiving pies, or letting the mind wander from the need to solve the multitude of complexities confronting first responders and essential workers, to a simpler equation whose answer is more immediate.
Perhaps the simple relief that comes with baking explains the desire we have to feel flour, water, yeast, and salt become something of real substance between our own two hands. In a time when much of what we loved to do “in real life” has been relegated to the virtual, holding onto something tangible can be extremely comforting. Currently, there’s not a lot we can predict, but at least we know that bread can rise, like the sun, in the morning.