The rise of quarantine baking

June 2nd, 2020

Pandemic baking 

In recent weeks, social media has exploded with pictures and posts that are all about one thing: bread. From YouTube videos about how to create your own sourdough starter to Facebook photos of epic failed experiments, Americans are baking their way through a pandemic. “I find it comforting to make and eat foods I’ve made and eaten a hundred times before,” said Maya Kosoff, a freelance writer who has been documenting her baking adventures on Instagram. “It provides a sense of normalcy.” 

Just as for Kosoff, baking is a creative outlet for many of those cooped up at home with more time on their hands than normal. But baking bread in particular also offers many a sense of comfort. A loaf of bread is familiar — the scent of baking bread is, for many around the world, a reminder of happier times with family and friends. Baking bread, as well as other delicious goodies, means participating in the creation of something that gives comfort not only to ourselves, but to others. Who doesn’t find joy in fresh bread straight out of the oven or gooey, still-warm cookies? Baking and the symbolic comfort it offers, both in production and consumption, can be a win-win for all who are isolated at home.

Baking your well-being 

Baking, and cooking more generally, offers more benefits than simple scrumptious food. Preparing food provides many with a sense of control and order in a chaotic world. “It’s both practical in the sense that it lets me provide something necessary and tangible for people — I gave my sister a stockpile of frozen soups I made a couple of weeks ago — as well as letting me imagine that I have some semblance of control in a situation that is very much outside of my control,” said Kosoff. 

This sense of control is important, particularly in this season of uncertainty, as the lack of control can lead many to experience increased anxiety and poor mental health. With this in mind, baking serves as a form of stress relief. The phrase stress baking has been folded into the American vocabulary over the last several years. Baking, and cooking more broadly, as a form of stress management isn’t particularly new, but it’s risen in profile during the pandemic. 

Science supports baking for stress management. In fact, the Journal of Happiness Studies found that “maker activities” like baking, cooking and gardening are linked to more positive outlooks on life. Their study found that the cause of this positive outlook is that these activities occupy the participant’s whole attention. To bake well, you must be fully present, and that keeps your mind from stressing about other things. 

“Baking is mindful. Mindfulness means paying attention to yourself in the moment and not being in the past or the future, but really being there,” said Philip Muskin, a Columbia University psychiatry professor and the secretary of the American Psychiatry Association. “[Baking] can have an emotional impact akin to practices that are intended to more directly affect mood, such as meditation or breathing exercises.” 

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news during the pandemic, and baking offers a clearly defined space where your attention can be directed and limited. In a culture that praises multitasking and efficiency above all else — even in the midst of a global crisis — baking provides a welcome relief for anxious hearts and minds. 

Back to basics 

With home bakers eagerly attempting new creations daily, flour mills have struggled to keep up with the demand. King Arthur Flour saw sales jump by over 2,000% in March alone. 

“We are making the flour as fast as we possibly can and shipping it to our customers, and it’s flying off the shelves as soon as it gets there,” said Brent Minner, marketing director for Hometown Food Company, which owns brands like White Lily and Arrowhead Mills. According to Minner, the market saw a 160% increase in demand since the onset of the pandemic. With increasing demands, production has been slow to catch up. 

With most restaurants closed or limited to takeout — and many Americans operating with less income — making food at home has been on the rise as well. Baking and cooking are both skills that have gradually become less and less prevalent in modern life, especially as many women, who have traditionally done the bulk of this work, have joined the workforce. For many Americans, this meant cutting baking and cooking altogether. 

But quarantine means endless hours at home without reliable take-out options, thus a home baking revival. Baking reaches into our primal past — the part of ourselves that will always be concerned with procuring and preparing food. As food becomes scarce, or is perceived to be, that primal urge rises. 

“The hardest thing to do is get people to make biscuits once,” Minner says. “It’s a skill that they maybe always have wanted to pick up but just didn’t have the time to do it, because they weren’t at home long enough.” 

While many stay-at-home orders are beginning to relax, they are still in place in many places around the country, and time at home is no longer a barrier. Many Americans are discovering or rediscovering a love of baking, which might be a phyllo-dough-thin silver lining to long days of isolation.


Return to traditional skills 

Along with cooking, gardening, and many other traditional skills, baking has increased markedly during this pandemic. This move toward traditional skills may be a survival response to uncertain times. 

“It makes you think, when you have to step outside the economic frame that we’re in, how long is that economic frame going to go on?” asked Karen Bates, who is pursuing a master in environmental education degree from Royal Roads University in British Columbia. “How resilient are you when that economic frame isn’t in place — what do you need to know?” 

Picking up skills to help weather the uncertain future is a sign of resilience — the ability to bounce back. It’s an act of control amid chaos, and it’s picking up steam. Victory gardens are cropping up across the country, with seed retailers seeing exponential increases in sales. Canning and other home food preservation methods have made a comeback. Hatcheries are seeing spikes in baby chick sales — all indicators that many Americans are embracing old skills for a modern world. 

“There seems to be a shared cultural value around cooking, baking that is coming out now — it’s normally sort of buried in our busy economic industrial society,” Bates said. “And then there’s that survival aspect — we realize we’re not masters of this earth, there’s this little virus that can take us all down, and how do we reconnect with being part of natural living systems?”

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