After working in kitchens and navigating such a physically demanding industry as a disabled person, Emma Hayes started the online group Crip Cooks Club, a supportive community to discuss the magic, creativity, and angst that comes with being a disabled/chronically ill person in the kitchen or at the bar. Below, she's sharing advice for baking with one particularly common symptom: brain fog.
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Baking when my brain fog is bad can be infuriating and demoralizing. Not to be too on the nose, but it makes it feel like the synapses in my brain are trying to fire through marshmallow fluff. My multiple disabilities often find their way into the kitchen, but out of all my symptoms, it’s the brain fog that most consistently messes with me when I bake.
As Emily Rich, an occupational therapist and someone who experiences brain fog, puts it, “We underestimate the demands of identifying a recipe, planning to purchase and locate items, gathering all items needed, following a sequence of steps, maintaining safety awareness, and timing everything appropriately.” With brain fog, these steps can add up and quickly become overwhelming.
Most of us have misread a baking time and accidentally had to stay up to the wee hours to finish a recipe or woken up extra early to bake a batch of cinnamon rolls, only to forget the cinnamon due to sleepiness. Brain fog is similar, but much more extreme and disruptive. Emily describes it as “feeling cloudy or fuzzy in your thinking; lacking clarity and efficiency; feeling like the words or answers are right there but so far away that you're not able to access them.”
Dr. Matthew Sevensma, a cardiologist well-versed in conditions like my own dysautonomia (of which brain fog is a hallmark symptom), says it’s a symptom that can stem from any number of conditions and remains “persistent, despite … sleep habits, healthy eating, and decreases in stress.” In other words, brain fog isn’t caused by unhealthy lifestyles, though it can be further exacerbated by these factors. According to infectious disease physician Dr. Sam Schuiteman, it can be a lingering symptom of illness similar to more physical ailments like a residual cough or shortness of breath. Brain fog is also wildly variable — from hour to hour, person to person, and situation to situation.
Brain fog can be a side effect of a large range of chronic illnesses such as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (my particular flavor of dysautonomia), autoimmune disorders such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, and thyroid disorders or other hormonal imbalances. It can also strike cancer survivors in the form of "chemo brain," a reaction to chemotherapy. Recently it’s been getting more attention as one of the lingering symptoms of long COVID, affecting as many as 20% to 30% of long-COVID patients, according to multiple studies.
Surprisingly, as I searched for professionals such as physical therapists and occupational therapists who help chronically ill folks manage their day-to-day lives, I struggled to find many who specialize in brain fog. The real experts are those with lived experiences, and many of the tips below have been borrowed from friends in the disabled and chronically ill community.
Because of the variability of this symptom, some days brain fog means I simply read a recipe a few extra times. Other days it may mean struggling to concentrate enough to safely use a knife or forgetting which ingredients I’ve just measured. As a former commercial baker, I’ve been compiling tips and tricks that I and other disabled and chronically ill bakers use in our baking to ensure we can still access joy and accomplishment in the kitchen, even when we’re feeling foggy.
Set your space up for success
Get prepped: Mise en place helps prevent forgetting or confusing a recipe step. Taking a few extra minutes to measure and set out all your ingredients, prep your pans, and make sure your equipment is clean and ready ensures you won’t accidentally add the sugar twice or spend 10 minutes hunting down that Bundt pan you know you put somewhere.
Keep track of time … literally: Time everything and mark your timers, whether that means with a pen and a piece of painter’s tape, a sticky note on the microwave timer, or labeling the timer you set in your phone. Whiteboards with attached timers are a perfect solution for this. (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.)
Even if something isn’t in the oven, I’ll still set a timer so I don’t forget something like checking a bread dough an hour into proofing. This is important because working on multiple steps at a time with brain fog means it’s easy to lose track and forget about rising dough or simmering syrup. And with so many timers going at once, labels are essential for not getting them mixed up or just forgetting what they’re for altogether.
Similarly, label everything!: The impact brain fog has on memory means I struggle to remember the age of things in my fridge, or whether the extra cupcakes I froze are gluten-free or not, or just what something is. Even if I'm merely sticking something in the fridge for a few hours, I put a label on it. Labeling is also invaluable when asking a friend or partner to step in halfway through an overambitious bake, or when you circle back to something after a few days. When I pace out bakes (see the next section!) I also write all the ingredients I’ve already added so I know exactly where in the recipe I left off, which keeps me from double-adding or leaving something out.
Bake with ease
Add ingredients thoughtfully: When adding ingredients to a dough or batter, place them around the edge of the bowl (instead of dumping them on top of each other) to keep them separate. This way, you’ll be able to easily see what you have and haven’t already added (something that can be easy to forget when you’re dealing with brain fog!).
Conserve your energy: Brain fog can be exacerbated by using any of your already-limited energy — regardless of what it's used on. As Emily Rich puts it, “physical energy and cognitive energy are related,” so take steps to reduce the physical energy you expend: Pull up a stool or bring your cutting board over to the table; let your mixer do all the kneading and whipping; and wear supportive shoes and comfy clothes.
Reduce the risk of injury and cuts: When you’re tired it’s easier to slip and cut yourself. Eliminate the risk by using cut-resistant gloves, a food processor, a grater, or just buy pre-cut ingredients and save yourself some energy.
Play to your strengths: Instead of going for that complex new recipe, try adapting one you’re comfortable with. Familiarity will save cognitive energy and reduce the risk of errors or overexertion. Save a list of your favorite adaptable recipes (especially if you also have dietary restrictions, such as those accompanying many related chronic illnesses) so you don’t have to wrack your brain in the moment for what to bake.
Find or adapt recipes to your needs
Stick with one bowl: One-bowl recipes or ones without many steps are my favorite because they cut down on the opportunities to mess up the order of things (one of my most common brain fog errors). King Arthur’s Old-Fashioned Apple Cake is a personal favorite. (Pro tip: Skip peeling the apples and grate them in a food processor to cut down on the work.)
Break recipes down into manageable steps: When I’m brain foggy, I may only have 20 or 30 minutes of concentration in me. Knowing how to pause recipes at different points allows me to work at my own pace. I love pies for this, as fillings and dough can be made a few days ahead of time, and each component can be frozen separately. (See this post on making and freezing pie crust.) Another great choice is bread doughs that utilize an overnight rise, like this No-Knead Crusty White Bread. I’ve also become best friends with my freezer, and I regularly make large batches of cookie dough, choux pastry, cake layers, and other components that can be frozen for easy baking another day.
Make recipes easier to follow: Reformat recipes to be more readable by printing them and using a highlighter and pen to mark off ingredients and steps as you go to avoid missing or double-adding ingredients. You can also copy and paste the instructions into a separate document and pull it up next to the ingredients to avoid continually scrolling back and forth between the two. Sometimes I like to jot down the steps in simple language to refer to when brain fog makes concentrating on flowery prose or keeping my place in a lengthy paragraph challenging.
Finally, have grace for yourself
Maybe the most important tip is to just go easy on yourself. (Of course, this is often easier said than done.) This can mean reframing my perspective about what “real” baking is. Some days I need to bake something for the benefit of my mental health, but a batch of box brownies or wrapping some apple slices in store-bought puff pastry is what I can realistically handle. Using these “shortcuts” to listen to my body doesn’t make my baking any less valid, therapeutic, or tasty, and definitely doesn’t make me (or you!) less of a baker.
Going easy on myself can also be hard when I feel like I’ve wasted my limited spoons (an aptly themed disability theory metaphor for measuring limited energy) on baking something that didn’t turn out great (or even edible). But I’m working on laughing when I do something like bake accidentally sugar-less cookies.
Do you have your own tips and strategies for baking with brain fog? Please share them in the comments, below!
Additional thanks to Alison Hafner, Catalina Berenblum Tobi, Crip Cooks Club members, and Jo Shoup for their tips and insights.
Cover photo by Jenn Bakos.