Our Tricks for Making Cooking Calming

October 29, 2015

I have a recurring fantasy that goes a little like this: Channeling Ina Garten, I effortlessly truss a garlic- and lemon-stuffed chicken. As it bakes I roll out my yoga mat, grab a glass of wine as I come up from my last down-dog, and pull the chicken out of the oven as I sit down to a balanced (of both plate and mind) meal. But that's not what happens. Not even close.

We hear it all the time: Cooking is therapeutic. Our editor Ali wrote about it just this morning, Ruth Reichl told us that the smell of tomato and butter is "one of the most comforting smells in the world," and even Food52's Cooking Manifesto states, "We love spending time in the kitchen." But short of a glass of wine, my weeknight cooking experience ressembles more of a stumbling two-step than a graceful waltz to mindfulness. So I asked the pros for their advice. Here is what our editors cook and do when they're cooking to relax:

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Kenzi: I make risotto. So much stirring—it's like flow yoga but with one arm. Sometimes I put on Terry Gross just so I can hear her voice in the background. I hardly listen to the content when I do this, to be honest—I just space out in a Terry/NPR/radio dreamland.

Amanda: I make something I know how to cook by heart! If I want to be soothed/calmed while I cook, I don't want to worry about anything (such as missing a step or an ingredient). I am also a fan of playing music in the kitchen and cooking barefoot.

Kristen: I've had angry little knots in my upper back for most of my adult life and cooking is literally the only thing that makes them stop hurting when they're en fuego, before I even realize it's happening. Better than massages or Pilates or drugs. It can be pretty much any act: Daring myself to make an egg sandwich in under 10 minutes, the exhilaration of making stuff up as I go, light butchering, testing something new, or making an old favorite, like Merrill's steak salad with Amanda's squashed potatoes, the holiest, most celebratory, fastest, least-dishes dinner I know. Also doing a big-ass sinkful of dishes. Podcasts and music help, too.


Tune In

Here's what you all listen to while you cook.

: For the past few months I've had Seinfeld playing in the background while cooking. I think that the extreme stress felt and/or caused by everyone on the show creates 
an equal and opposite reaction in myselfNamaste.

Bridget: My name is Bridget. I am a middle-aged mom and I and cook with Riot Grrrl music. 

Samantha: Music is very important to cooking-as-soothing for me. When I want to vibrate on a lower frequency than is normal (for me)—when I don't want to get hyped up to tackle X recipe—I listen to either Brian Eno's Music for Airports or Handel's Water Music. Also, while it feels contrary, I often find I want to try new things to be soothed. When I successfully cook a new dish for the first time—that's meditative to me. But this too: The simple act of roasting vegetables.


Touch Everything, Be the Bread

CarolineI like to cook something that makes me use my hands. Touching all of the ingredients is so deeply soothing to me, which is one of the reasons I like making pie dough, and dumplings, and anything that requires lots of chopping.

Riddley: I make bread! Kneading the dough is like squeezing one of those stress balls. I also tend to bake really elaborate desserts. There's something about weighing out every ingredient down to that .01 of a gram that's soothing. 


Other Good Things

Taylor: I do as Julia Child suggests and always have a glass of whatever wine I'm cooking with. Or, for the ultimate comfort food when I'm really feeling down, I make a chicken noodle soup that's a little heavy on the cooking sherry. I also play music whenever I'm cooking—it tends to lead to lots of dancing around using a wooden spoon as a mic. 

Lindsay-JeanI kick everyone else out of the kitchen.

What do you do to relax while cooking? Tell us in the comments below!

Top photo by Bobbi Lin; all others by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Douglas E. Welch
    Douglas E. Welch
  • Smaug
  • Bascula
  • Casey
  • Meghan
I eat everything.


Douglas E. October 31, 2015
I typically listen to podcasts with an education bent, such as In Our Time and Thinking Allowed or 99% Invisible. I love getting a little Master's Class while I cook and it keeps my mind busy during some of the more tedious tasks.

Listening to things slows me down and allows me to focus on what I am doing instead of just rushing to get things done.
Smaug October 30, 2015
People seem to go out of their way to introduce stress. I get the impression from what I read that a lot of people only get serious if they have company or a special occasion; if you do something you're unsure of under time pressure, it's going to create tension. If you're trying to impress people with skills you don't really have, LOTS of tension. If you demand perfection of yourself- and modern sensibilities tend toward the view that it's no good if it doesn't look like it was made by a machine- you'll be fighting yourself and the universe all the way. Not that that's always a bad thing, but it's certainly not relaxing. I'm constantly doing things I don't know how to- currently making my first classical style guitar- I find this relaxing, it really comes naturally to me- but if you're not prepared to fail, or scramble to avoid it- you'll drive yourself nuts. If you end up having to call for a pizza to feed your guests, so it goes- worse things happen in wartime. If the edge falls off your pie crust, it's still PIE, how bad could it be?
Bascula October 30, 2015
Lately I like to make something that connects me with the past - an apple pie for instance, which both my mother and mother in law used to make.
Being barefoot is good, as is being alone or at least alone in the kitchen.
Having wide open time is wonderful.
Having clear counter space would make me feel better, but that isn't always what happens...
Casey October 30, 2015
Risotto is my go-to calming dish, too. It's nice to just space out and stir. Some wine for the risotto, a bit more for me.
Meghan October 29, 2015
I turn the TV on and watch/listen to that and drink some wine if I have it :)
702551 October 29, 2015
While grilling, I drink beer and listen to the ballgame on the radio.

But hey, that works in the kitchen as well!
amysarah October 29, 2015
Alone in the kitchen, something I can cook by heart or that's not too precise/fussy, glass of wine, audio book.

Even better it's something that helps me decompress now, and also prevents stress later - e.g., a pot of soup or stew for later in a hectic week. (Also that uses up odds & ends, relaxing my inner cheapskate.) Win-win (win).
felisalpina October 29, 2015
Me, too, I kick out everybody else. If I make bread, I'll get up very early to be by myself and work in bliss and quiet. If I whip up a nice dinner, I'll take time, try to stick to a perfect timing and read the newspaper in between, listen to music, etc. I try never to rush (you shouldn't when cooking, as patience is key) and more often than not, find myself with plenty of time at hand to lay the table, decorate and have a glass of wine while waiting for guests to arrive.
Nicole O. October 29, 2015
I'll own my weirdness in this one. I love to cook barefoot with squishy mats by my prep area and dish area. Music is either William Fitzsimmons, John Mayer or Disney music on Pandora. I also prefer to be alone or for my husband to be in the dining room. The world just slowly melts away...
E October 29, 2015
Don't worry about how it turns out, and focus on the process of cooking being kind to yourself or to your family. I don't consider myself a really good cook, so cooking can be stressful if I'm worried about whether it will turn out well or whether my family will like it. But if I keep reminding myself that it's the act of just trying to cook that is kind, then I can relax much more.