One of my total pleasures over the last few months has been watching Channel 4’s Junior Bake Off. The kids on it are AMAZING bakers, but it’s also lovely to see them having so much fun in amongst some pretty stressful technical challenges. Some of them are so little that they have an extra step to help them reach the worktop.
It reminds me of my own journey into food. Not being on a TV show of course, but of standing on a chair in the kitchen with my mum making fairy cakes, or biscuits, or chocolate slices. One year we all made each other Easter Eggs, which was obviously my first taste of working with chocolate!
For as long as I can remember baking has been a huge part of the way I manage my mental health, even when I didn’t totally realise that’s what I doing. There were a number of stressful exam periods that were definitely alleviated by kneading bread dough or making a tray of slices. I was already experiencing some of the benefits of mindful baking without putting that name on it.
As I progressed into my working life, baking was a habit I left behind for a short while as I didn’t really have access to a decent kitchen or any equipment in rental properties. But it was one I gently revived once I’d built up a little stash of some simple baking tins and had an oven I could actually cook in.
I now couldn’t imagine my life without it. Especially as I know so more about my own mental health and how a better connection with my body and senses is a huge part of supporting my wellbeing.
It’s absolutely no surprise to me that so many people have found comfort in baking across the last year, from the banana bread craze of the first lockdown to nurturing sourdough starters and baking bread.
Bringing some mindfulness into the kitchen
Now, before you roll your eyes about yet another buzzy mindfulness technique, what I do want to say is that wellbeing practices (and yes this includes mindfulness) are always optional. If this kind of thing doesn’t float your boat explore other things that do. And of course actually just doing something for pure pleasure and fun is also great for wellbeing.
BUT one thing I would say is that combining pleasure with a little sensory connection is a really lovely way to soothe your body and mind.
This is where something like bringing mindfulness into baking can genuinely help. I also think that if you struggle to find time for ‘formal’ meditation, creating grounding moments in other ways, like through mindful baking. can certainly help calm your system. (Though unfortunately it’s not really a total substitute for formal meditation and most meditation or mindfulness programmes would suggest a blend of formal and informal practices.)
In my professional life, I do also bake for my work and I’ll be honest, this can sometimes be a bit stressful, especially if I have a big order of biscuits to make and it goes wrong. This is not necessarily a time when I’m exploring the senses and relaxing into the joy of creative output. So I’m definitely not saying that you always need to bring mindfulness to baking.
However, when I bake for pleasure or am doing some recipe development, I can relax into it a bit more and find it a really grounding experience. I try to use my hands over machines as much as possible to really connect with the ingredients and enjoy the pleasure of touch, kneading dough being just one example of this. I also love incorporating aromatic spices whenever I can for their powerful and uplifting smells (cardamom and ginger are particular favourites of mine).
On a practical level, when I’m baking it also means I’m off my phone, focussing on each step of the baking process rather than multitasking, and quite often learning something new as no bake is ever quite like the one before. All of these things are good for mental wellbeing. If nothing else it’s a good opportunity to just slow the f**k down.
Other ways you can experience benefits of mindful baking
There are other ways you incorporate mindful baking in your kitchen. I don’t do all these myself, but you might like to explore some different elements and see what you connect with most…
1. Create space and time to bake
Rather than squeezing in your baking around a million tasks (or home schooling!), set aside some dedicated time where you can easily focus. And if you have children you could also get them to be part of this. Lay out your ingredients and equipment so you have everything to hand and read through your recipe first. Then just enjoy each step, taking your time and knowing you don’t have to rush and can enjoy the experience.
2. Choose one sense to focus on – or be open to what comes up as you bake
One of the amazing things about baking is that it’s a naturally sensory experience, involving your sight, sound, touch, smell and taste (and I would add the sixth mindful eating sense of the heart). You could just focus on one of these senses as you bake, or allow the different sensory experiences to rise up as you go – and you could do this for just one minute or for your whole bake.
3. Let go of judgement and perfectionism (i.e. have fun!)
One thing you learn very quickly with baking is that it can be a little bit like bread, biscuit or cake roulette. Even something you’ve baked a million times can come out a little differently each time. But rather than judging yourself about this, especially if something goes wrong (because it will from time to time), this is a great opportunity to practise a bit of self-compassion and letting go of perfectionism. And I know Instagram can feel like it’s full to the brim with perfect bakes – why not actively choose not to post something on Instagram (or your favourite social media channel of choice) and just enjoy what you bake, whether it’s perfect or not. Perfectionism is the thief of joy so let it rob you of baking pleasure.
4. Think about where your ingredients come from
One of the elements of mindful eating that I really enjoy when I’m doing chocolate tasting is the connection with the people who have grown and created the beautiful ingredients that I’m tasting or using. I sometimes even say a little thanks to the soil for producing something so delicious. You could lay out your ingredients (a bit like in the first suggestion) and think about their origins. Or you could think about this as you add everything together and, in the wonderful alchemy that is baking, create something new.
5. Use it as a chance to connect with your neighbours
Sometimes baking can get expensive, especially if you think you need every latest pan and gadget (spoiler alert: you don’t!). Rather than piling up expenses – especially if you’re only like to bake something once or twice – why not ask a neighbour if they have a particular type of tin or mold? The additionally neighbourly thing to do is to share your bakes. There’s even one amazing baker in London who is leaving a massive basket of sourdough outside for her neighbours to enjoy (I wish I lived close by). But it doesn’t have to be this grand; if you have a few biscuits or a slice of cake spare, why not knock on the door or your next door/upstairs/downstairs neighbour and offer them a socially distances bake or two?
Bread Therapy: The Mindful Art of Baking Bread – Pauline Beaumont
The Art of Mindful Baking: Returning the Heart to the Hearth – Julia Ponsonby
Do Sourdough: Slow bread for busy lives – Andrew Whitley
Also check out the Together We Rise initiative from the Real Bread Campaign