The psychology behind our obsession with baking bread during lockdown

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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Lots of bread rolls

From sourdough starter Instagram stories to Milk Loaf livestreams, our social media feeds during lockdown are awash with people making, baking and raving about bread. But why? Stylist investigates.     

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent the last couple of weeks riding a rollercoaster of emotions. One moment I’ll be full of energy and making to-do lists for my to-do lists, and the next, I’ll be curled up on the floor staring at the ceiling as my mind tries to comprehend all the information it’s consumed over the previous 24 hours.

But among all of the ups and downs I’ve experienced throughout the lockdown period so far, there’s one crucial stage I have not yet reached: bread baking.

By the looks of my social media feed, I am one of the rare few spared by this sudden obsession: a scroll through my Instagram feed is now akin to a trip to my local bakery as friends show off their sourdough starters and perfectly baked loaves. 

It’s a subject which has come up (more than once, may I add) in our daily Stylist meetings, too. Conversations about the scarcity of flour and a sudden love for banana bread have replaced our pre-lockdown chats about the latest Netflix show or celebrity update. We even invited some expert bakers to host a live bread baking session on our Instagram page

As one of the few people left in the UK who has not taken up baking since the country went under lockdown, I’m struggling to understand where this rather random impulse has come from. Baking is an activity most of us enjoy from time to time – but why the sudden obsession with bread in particular?

Sure, there was a moment a couple of weeks back when the nation’s collective panic buying left the bread aisles bare for a few sorrowful days – but why, now the supermarkets are stocked and we’re able to access this essential item once more, are we still fixated with baking the perfect loaf?

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According to consumer psychologist Kate Nightingale, the answer could lie in the lack of control we’re all feeling right now.

“In these times all of us are experiencing a strongly reduced sense of control over our lives,” she explains. “Self-reliance is a manifestation of control and therefore helps us to meet one of those truly basic human needs: safety. Baking bread is the ultimate act of self-reliance.

“The independence the act of baking bread delivers is unparalleled to many other manifestations of control right now.”

A woman kneading dough to make bread
“The independence the act of baking bread delivers is unparalleled to many other manifestations of control right now.”

In this way, the act of baking bread – or at least trying to – gives us a sense of control at a time when we’re feeling particularly helpless. The spread of coronavirus and restrictions of lockdown have left many of us worried about what’s coming next, and baking bread is one way for us to feel like we’re taking our survival into our own hands.

For Nightingale, the act of baking bread is also a way to soothe ourselves in a time when social contact is significantly restricted.

“Safety, especially emotional, is also well achieved by meaningful social contact,” she explains. “The smell of baking bread or cakes is subconsciously associated with a warm family atmosphere and therefore a sense of child-like comfort and safety. This is something we all need to feel right now – even if we’re not admitting it to ourselves.”

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Alongside a way to temporarily tackle our boredom and solve the shortages we saw a couple of weeks back, baking bread is, it seems, a way that many of us are dealing with the uncertainty and insecurity we’re all feeling right now.

Perhaps it’s about time I cracked out the baking equipment after all.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.