For many, the physical act of kneading bread dough, working butter into flour, or piping buttercream can feel therapeutic. It’s a time to let the world drift away and get in the zone in your flour-dusted happy place.
Inevitably, however, there comes a time when your hands no longer want to go into autopilot, be it with age and its natural aches and pains, or with a diagnosis related to chronic pain. Either way, it can feel incredibly frustrating. You know exactly how to do something, like make the perfect flaky pie crust, but your hands no longer let you without a hefty dose of discomfort.
Pain: The ingredient no one asks for, no one puts on their grocery list, but always seems to weasel its way into your mixing bowl at some point. I know about this firsthand. Personally, I struggle with thumbs that easily swell due to tendonitis and fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder I was diagnosed with when I was 16. It’s made certain baking practices difficult to manage without upsetting one body part or another, but I’ve learned to adapt my techniques so I can still find joy in the kitchen.
From one baker whose hands don’t work the way they once did to another, let’s keep our flour-dusted happy places alive and find ways to bake that work for both us and our hands.
In addition to drawing on my own experience, I had the pleasure of speaking with two bakers who have tips for baking with another common roadblock: arthritis. The first, my friend Kacey, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis as a child and is a novice, occasional baker. The other is our own PJ Hamel, a frequent baker whose osteoarthritis developed over time.
Given that nothing can stop a chocolate cake craving when it strikes, we’ve found workarounds for many common recipe steps that would normally set chronic pain-ridden hands into a flare. While these tips may not work for everyone, we hope they can help some, and spark ideas and conversations to help even more. Be sure to leave any of your favorite tips and tricks down in the comments!
When working fat into flour, go mechanical
For beautiful pie crust, flaky scones, and tender biscuits, save your hands and use a machine. The pastry purists will come after me, but food processors and stand mixers truly do a great job in a short period of time. We even have a blog about making fantastic pie crust in your mixer, a life-saving technique for me come apple-picking season. Bonus: With all that room in the bowl, you can easily make a double batch in a stand mixer and freeze half the dough for another day.
Knead your bread dough with ease by machine
Bread machines and stand mixers help you make dough without getting tired or sore. If a dough is very wet and needs a bit of coaxing to get started, or if it’s a no-knead bread that simply needs to be stirred together, something like a bowl scraper can be very painful to hold due to the hand position needed to grip it. A dough whisk or briefly using the flat beater or dough hook attachment in a stand mixer on low speed gets the job done without the ouch.
Effortlessly decorate cakes and cookies with the right techniques
I’ve spent many an hour with a pastry bag or parchment paper cone in hand, carefully piping designs onto cakes and cookies. And boy, do I always pay for it after! A blue-ish balloon-like thumb is usually the result (it isn’t pretty), so I’ve found a few tricks to achieve beautiful decorations without getting the “balloon.”
If you’re piping buttercream with a pastry bag, the larger the tip and the lighter the frosting (like Italian Buttercream), the less you’ll need to squeeze. Whipped cream is extremely light and can be piped with very little pressure. I like to add Instant ClearJel to help keep its shape when piped. Simply stir 1/4 teaspoon ClearJel into 1/4 cup (28g) confectioners’ sugar, and add it to 1 cup (227g) heavy cream just as it’s beginning to thicken. Adjust the quantity based on the amount of whipped cream you’re making, but keep the ratio of sugar to ClearJel the same to ensure it’s stable.
Instead of piping elaborate designs onto cookies with something like royal icing, spread your frosting of choice with an offset spatula and get out the sprinkles. (Sprinkles make everything better!) Alternatively, use cookie stamps or fun embossed rolling pins and let the cookies' beautiful patterns speak for themselves.
For fruits and vegetables, skip the peeler
Be it for Potato Bread or simply a side dish at dinner, peeling potatoes can be an arduous task. I’ve found that Yukon Gold potatoes have such a thin skin that you can often get away with not peeling them at all. Your hands will thank you.
When it comes to apples, if you have one of those peeler/corer/slicer devices that attaches to the counter and it works for you, great, stick with it! If, like me, you’ve experienced nothing but frustration when using such contraptions, leaving the skin on is perfectly fine. Just look at this rose apple pie! It’s gorgeous, largely in part to ruby red apple skin.
With vegetables that you may choose to peel, like zucchinis or carrots, using a large-handled Y-shaped peeler versus a skinny swivel-style peeler requires a looser grip on the tool. Plus, the wider blade removes the vegetable peel more efficiently.
(Heads up: At King Arthur, we only recommend the products that we, as bakers, truly love. When you buy through external links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.)
Grip: Make it easy, light, and loose
In addition to the aforementioned Y-peeler and dough whisk, any utensils with thick or wide handles are going to be easier to grip without having to squeeze your hand around them as tightly.
Kacey says, “Oven mitts with silicone on them make it easier to grip pans when your hands don’t have as much strength. To help even more, look for pans that have handles or large lips on the sides so you have something to easily grab onto when moving them in or out of the oven.”
Make your work surface work for you
With your work surface, it helps to go low. PJ shares, “Hip-height is the traditional [counter] height, but I find working even lower allows you to put more ‘oomph’ into your work (more strength, aided by gravity), which saves shoulder strain.” Standing on a small step stool or moving from the counter to the lower kitchen table may be the solution.
On the flip side, you may need to raise your work surface if it’s too short for you. Find whatever height creates the least amount of strain on your body and stick with it.
When in doubt, use outside reinforcements
There is NO shame in using a store-bought product or a mix — ever! Be kind to your hands; they’ve worked hard. If apple pie is on the menu but a homemade pie crust simply isn’t in the cards, follow Kacey’s lead and combine a store-bought crust with her grandmother’s filling recipe. It’s still 100% made with love, and absolutely scrumptious.
If store-bought or a mix isn’t your jam, bring some helpers into the kitchen like a friend or family member. Baking is all about sharing, and sharing the experience is quite possibly even more enjoyable than sharing the finished baked good, especially when it means your hands get a rest.
Show your hands some love
Even with precautions, there are some days when a flare or stiff joints are unavoidable. Some may find relief from heat, others from ice or a light massage. With your freshly baked treats and a cup of tea, sit back, give your hands the pampering they deserve, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Bottom line: Arthritis, tendonitis, carpal tunnel, or other chronic pain conditions can all put a literal cramp into a usually relaxing activity. When your hands no longer move or work the way they used to, it can feel like you’ve lost your touch, that your skills have somehow lessened with time. I can assure you, that most definitely is not the case.
All of those skills are in your mind, not your fingers. Channel them into the tools that will get the job done without causing unnecessary pain. It took me too long to realize that I had nothing to prove to anyone. Winding up with a swollen, blue thumb after whisking for 20 minutes wasn’t impressive, and it didn’t make my baked goods taste any better. It just hurt.
Get creative. Find tools that work for you, which allow your skills to not only stay sharp, but to grow and evolve as your needs change. There are millions of bakers finding solutions every day, and I can’t wait to hear what tricks and gadgets work for you in the comments, below.
Cover photo by Erica Allen.