Feeling stressed? It might be time to fire up the oven.

Jill Waldbieser
November 05, 2020
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Sure, meditation can be soothing, but have you ever smelled fresh-baked cinnamon rolls? More importantly, have you ever made fresh-baked cinnamon rolls? Aside from the physical release that comes from kneading the dough, punching it down and giving it a few solid whacks with a rolling pin that sends flour dancing into the air, there is also an imminent satisfaction in creating something from nothing, and a calming ability to lose yourself in the methodological steps of a recipe and focus on nothing else, at least for a little while.

Stress baking isn't new; in college, it's almost a right of passage to "procrasti-bake" trays of cookies the day before exams. But it's been in the spotlight more since lockdown began, when, you might recall, people went so crazy for sourdough there was a nationwide yeast shortage.

Can Baking Relieve Stress?

While it's logical to assume that stress baking is merely a means to an end—stress eating—there's growing evidence that the actual act of cooking or baking can be a form of therapy.

"When you cook or bake, you engage all your senses," says Michael M. Kocet, Ph.D., a licensed grief counselor and professor/department chair at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, where he teaches a course on culinary therapy. That process, he says, produces a kind of in-the-moment mindfulness much like other expressive therapies, such as art, music and dance. "That's why it can aid in reducing anxiety, depression and stress."

While culinary therapy has not been studied extensively as a therapeutic tool, Kocet is hoping to do a pilot study on its use as a coping tool during the global pandemic. "I think we will experience a resurgence of interest in cooking and baking over the coming months," he says. Wondering what to stress bake? Here are a few expert-informed suggestions:

What to Bake to Relieve Stress

1. Bake bread.

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Recipe pictured above: Whole-Wheat Sourdough Bread

There's a good reason sourdough rose to the top during the coronavirus pandemic. Researchers at the University College of Dublin in Ireland say baking bread is a near-universally loved smell because it prompts "odor-cued memories" and reminds us of happy times.

One study in The Journal of Social Psychology indicates that smelling bread baking may inspire kindness. Dough tends to require patience and nurturing, and there's even symbolism in the name of the starter, called "the mother," says Kocet. Plus, if you're health-conscious, bread, especially whole-grain varieties, can be a better choice than lots of sugary treats.

2. Make chocolate chip cookies.

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Recipe pictured above: Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

These are a comfort food classic, and practically everyone has a family recipe for their favorite version. If the recipe has been handed down from a beloved relative who is no longer with you, it can feel like a way to remember and honor that person, says Kocet. He had a client whose family printed its matriarch's famous and well-guarded cookie recipe on her tombstone when she passed.

Whip up a pan of orange or lemon bars.

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Recipe pictured above: Cranberry-Orange Fruit Bars

Citrus is one of the rare fruits in season during the winter months, and its scent has been shown to boost mood. They're also a good source of vitamin C, a nutrient whose deficiency can lead to fatigue and depression.

Make apple pie.

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Recipe pictured above: Brown Butter Apple Pie

Another comfort food classic, this dessert has associations with holidays and home for many people. And it's easy to adapt to make the recipe as simple (store-bought crust, canned filling) or involved (coring apples, rolling dough) as you'd like. "For some people, doing a more complex recipe might be like solving a complicated word puzzle," Kocet says. "There's a sense of accomplishment that you created something, and that can boost self-confidence, which is itself a deterrent against depression, anxiety and other mental health issues."

Bake some brownies.

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Recipe pictured above: Mug Brownie

Or flourless chocolate cake. Or fudge. Really, you can't really go wrong with chocolate, and the richer, the better. Studies have found that dark chocolate is a stress reliever, full of beneficial nutrients like magnesium, which may help thwart depression, and compounds that help the production of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain.

Fire up a pan of cinnamon rolls.

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Recipe pictured above: Gluten-Free Cinnamon Rolls 

The main warming spice has a host of health benefits, including one of the highest antioxidant counts. Its aroma has also been linked to increased mental alertness. And biting into a soft, squishy, spicy-sweet cinnamon roll remains of one life's greatest pleasures.