How establishing a baking ritual helped boost my wellbeing

It was a photograph of perfectly turned out sourdough on my Instagram feed that inspired me to have a go at making my own bread. "It's just flour and water," the caption read, inviting me and thousands of other followers to give the art of breadmaking a crack.

With great anticipation I prepared a starter, a balanced mixture of water and flour. Thanks to wild yeast, the starter became a living thing, bubbling away in the pantry while I got on with other things. Every day I "fed" my starter by discarding some of the mixture and adding fresh water and flour. Then, weeks later, when the starter was ready, it was time to get hands-on with my first mixture of dough.

“When you bake, you shift your thoughts away from negative thinking to something more focused.”

“When you bake, you shift your thoughts away from negative thinking to something more focused.”Credit:Stocksy

The process consisted of a number of steps and wasn't laborious as such; each step only took a few minutes. But the timings – a step in the morning, another in the early afternoon, and several more in the evening – meant that it wasn't simple, either. My first loaf was a dud. But the result – a sad, flat lump – didn't put me off. I had thoroughly enjoyed the entire process.

I kept it up. In the mornings I fed my starter and mixed my dough. In the evening I kneaded, stretching and folding the dough and marvelling at the way the texture changed. I let the dough rise. I let the dough rest. And when it was ready to bake, I shaped it, scored it and popped it into the oven. My second loaf was an improvement on the first. The third was pretty good.

Loaf four was amazing. Mix, knead, bake, repeat. Each step of the baking process had become ingrained in my daily life. Making bread became a ritual. And the more I practised it, the further I realised that I was getting more out of it than simply a loaf of freshly baked bread. I'm less stressed, less anxious and way more present.

Culinary art therapist Julie Ohana tells me I'm experiencing these benefits because there is an element of mindfulness in baking. "When you bake, you are focused on something other than yourself. You have an amount of time during which you shift your thoughts away from negative thinking to something more relaxing and focused," she says. "It's a chance to let your mind and body 'rest' from any stress or worry. We get this 'break' by reading the recipe's directions and following a step-by-step pattern."

She also notes that when our baking is successful, we experience a confidence boost. "It is a sense of accomplishment in a very concrete way," says Ohana, who first noticed the psychological benefits of cooking when she was a child. Then, while training as a social worker, she wrote a thesis about how cooking can have a positive impact on a person's mental health, improving their day-to-day feelings of happiness, contentment and confidence.

She offers sessions that teach people how to harness the power of cooking. But what if you can't cook? Ohana says you don't need to be proficient in the kitchen to experience the benefits, but you do need to be willing to try. "If someone is closed off to the idea, it may not have the desired effect," she says.

Baking sourdough every day has one drawback: I make more bread than my family can eat. But I have solved this by giving loaves away to friends and neighbours. Their delight in receiving them only adds to the pleasure I take in making them.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 28.

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