Fourteen years ago, few would have predicted that a spatula-wielding band of Middle Englanders would capture the hearts and minds of a nation. And yet each season, The Great British Bake Off (first on the BBC and since 2017 on Channel 4) does just that, prompting debates about soggy bottoms and the ever-outrageous showstoppers.
It has inspired Britons (10 million of whom watched last year’s final) to splash out on stand mixers and cake stands, crystallised ginger and glacé cherries. And the Bake Off effect has done more than just keep retailers buoyant; it’s improved many recipe repertoires, too, thanks to the sage advice dispensed by judges Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood and then Prue Leith (blind bake your tart pastry before filling in order to avoid that “soggy bottom”, Berry told us in the first series, cementing its legacy as a catchphrase).
There’s plenty to learn from the contestants’ failures and triumphs too. The only thing frequently demonstrated in the tent that you should never do? Bung oven-hot cake in the fridge or freezer to cool – it’s a surefire route to a sodden sponge.
Always read the recipe
2010, season 1, episode 4
It’s baking 101 but even the most assured bakers mess this up. Diehard GBBO fans will recall that, even though the eventual champion in the inaugural series was Edd Kimber (aka The Boy Who Bakes, who has pursued a career in the subject and now has almost 500k followers on Instagram), early into the show the most confident contestant in the tent was entrepreneur David Chambers.
In episode four, he and his fellow bakers were tasked with constructing one of the discipline’s most testing dishes – lemon soufflés. With unflappable poise, Chambers explains to the camera the importance of buttering your ramekin, not to mention tapping it on the work surface once the mixture is in “to remove any air bubbles”.
All great tips. But there was something missing: while the businessman managed to get his soufflés in the oven on time, he had forgotten a crucial element – four egg yolks, which were left, neatly separated from their whites, in a bowl on the side.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he declared. “Just didn’t see it.” The soufflés were all froth and no substance.Read that recipe – five times if you must – to avoid a similar flop.
With spun sugar, drizzle, don’t flick
2011, series 2, episode 6
“It’s like the hair of Rapunzel,” former presenter Mel Giedroyc exclaimed as she admired one of the more proficient pieces of spun sugar ever created in the Bake Off tent. It was series two, the show was fast becoming a classic, and the bakers had been set the perilous challenge of crafting a towering cone of choux pastry puffs, otherwise known as a croquembouche – to decorate, a fine web of caramelised sugar is delicately added. It was mother-of-three Jo Wheatley who premiered the technique and proved victorious. Mary Berry was especially complimentary.
Spun sugar is a hardworking element of Bake Off, appearing regularly through the years. Berry introduced an entire challenge devoted to the treat two seasons on, when she asked contestants to create her meringue dish of floating islands topped with the stuff.
Done right, it is always impressive, but there’s a failsafe way to avoid plastering the kitchen with sweet glue: after melting the sugar in water to a light amber colour, instead of whipping a fork wildly across your creation, drizzle the caramel forth and back across a rolling pin, above a large sheet of greaseproof paper. That, or steer clear of spun sugar altogether.
Don’t pour cake mixture from a height
2010, series 3, episode 10
Series three brought about the taxing art of the chiffon cake. An exceedingly light and delicate sponge, it was invented by American insurance salesman-turned-caterer Harry Baker in the early 1900s. He later sold the recipe to confectionery giant General Mills, having kept it a secret for 20 years. It was only made available to the public in a Betty Crocker pamphlet in 1948 – and was set to challenge the GBBO amateurs 64 years later in the final.
After James Morton’s version is seen crashing to the floor – “Oh,” he says, looking at a sorry splodge on the floor, “that’s my cake” – we soon find out what series winner John Whaite is really about. His chiffon is tremendous, perfectly balanced and delicious-looking to boot.
His trick? For a sturdy but delicate rise in a cake that’s so fragile, don’t tip the mixture into the tin from a height. Whaite explains that gently pouring the mixture into your baking tin as close to its base as possible ensures fewer air bubbles and a tighter sponge. It’s a method applicable to many cakes containing whisked egg whites, which are notoriously difficult to navigate.
Baking paper is your friend
2013, series 4, episode 4
It sounds obvious, doesn’t it, using baking paper when baking? But when it comes to the show’s technical challenges, whose recipes are delivered with minimal detail, such basics are easily overlooked. Having produced two dozen wobbly-centred custard tarts with attractively burnished, flaky puff pastry, the bakers then faced their next hurdle – how to get the damn things out of the tins without breaking them.
Knives were inserted, spatulas employed, with disastrous results. One participant was so upset by the whole affair that he repeatedly hit himself over the head with a baking tray before requiring a supportive cuddle. Another resorted to “desperate” measures, simply grabbing each tart with his bare hands and plonking them down onto his serving plate.
One contestant stood out: Ruby Tandoh, who with custard spilling and pastry collapsing all around her, calmly plucked each of her pastries out of the baking tray with ease, thanks to neatly presented greaseproof paper. She had lined the bases of her tins with two long strips of parchment to make a cross, before adding the pastry, overhanging the edges to form little handles. Lifting out the tarts was a breeze, and it’s a tip that can be applied to loaf cakes, too.
Don’t get into a strop over a flop
2014, series 5, episode 4
In the opening show, Nancy Birtwhistle provided very handy inspiration for baking a cake with heavy fruit in it, flouring her cherries first to prevent them from dropping to the bottom of the batter (the scene was set; she went on to win the series with her Moulin Rouge-inspired edible windmill).
But it was episode four that delivered a bigger lesson: don’t let emotions get the better of you. After Diana Beard removed rival Iain Watters’ showstopper Baked Alaska from the freezer by mistake (or was it?) viewers watched in horror as the ice cream which forms its centre started melting away. “You’ve got your own freezer, haven’t you?” was Beard’s response after accusations were fired by Watters.
Distraught, Watters threw it in the bin, and it was this he presented to baffled judges moments later. With nothing for them to taste, he subsequently lost his place on the show. A #justiceforIain campaign kicked off and some viewers turned on Beard, whose daughter claimed had been “stitched up like a Christmas turkey”. The BBC said, “Diana removing Iain’s ice cream from the freezer for less than a minute was in no way responsible for Iain’s departure.”
Whatever the reason, #bingate is a reminder to us all that bakes can deliver on taste even if they look a fright.
Be brave in the kitchen, and in life
2015, series 6 episode 1
A record 13 million viewers tuned in to the final of series six of The Great British Bake Off, making it the biggest TV show of the year. It was arguably the best series of them all. After all, how do you top a lion metamorphosing into a loaf of bread? Paul Jagger’s roaring showstopper was special, rosemary whiskers and all.
But it was the champion who captured our hearts. Nadiya Hussain, now one of the most recognisable cooks on our screens, gave an emotional speech after being crowned the winner. “My husband [Abdul] tried to get me to apply two years ago and I said, ‘Look, I don’t have the confidence to do something like this’,” she said.
“[But he said] ‘you’re really good, you’re really clever, you should just do it, what’s the worst that will happen?’ Those were famous last words. And I did it […] I applied and every stage of the process felt unlikely and like it wasn’t meant to happen. [But] my confidence grew and then this happened.”
By far the biggest lesson from season six, then, is to be brave in the kitchen. Bad at baking? Give it a go anyway. You might not manage a bread lion, but what’s the worst that can happen?
Make space for a kitchen blowtorch
2016, series 7, episode 6
At least where Baked Alaskas are concerned. Yes, it crops up again in series seven, which became a platform for another star: Candice Brown. She now has more than a quarter of a million followers on Instagram, made a fleeting appearance on Dancing on Ice, and owns a food-led pub near Milton Keynes.
We can’t help but wonder whether Brown allows the use of blowtorches in her country bolthole. Mary Berry takes particular issue with the device, berating their use in episode six, otherwise known as “Botanical Week”.
The bakers had been tasked with making Baked Alaskas, and all but one were seen finishing their meringue tops off with a blowtorch. Berry denounced their use as a needless and “fancy” extravagance and said: “I just wish they weren’t all using blowtorches.”
The grill or an oven is her preferred method for the burnished finish. But should we take this as gospel? Well, no – because only a year later Berry pulled a shocking U-turn. The doyenne of British baking was seen using one to glaze her cupcakes on her BBC show, Mary Berry Everyday.
“I have finally succumbed to a blowtorch,” she grudgingly explains. “I’ve always had a grill. But I have to admit it’s rather efficient.”
Scald your milk for cinnamon buns
2017, series 8
Here marked a sea change for GBBO: the year the baking show moved from the BBC to Channel 4. Many aired their concerns, supposing Channel 4 would fail to deliver the gentle subtlety that made the programme so popular in the first place. On the Beeb, Bake Off was plodding, even a little chaotic; on Channel 4, some worried it would become more brash and less British.
Perhaps the lesson here is “never give up,” for Channel 4 didn’t, and seven years on, the Bake Off cash cow is still producing milk.
Talking of milk, a more practical baking hack comes from this series’ winner, Sophie Faldo. Full of wisdom during her appearance, her advice for those of us attempting cinnamon buns (now a cult favourite) is exceptionally useful: “When making the dough for cinnamon buns, boil and then cool the milk before using. The process is called scalding – it deactivates the whey in the milk, which helps the dough to rise.”
Never decorate cakes while they’re still warm - or in a heatwave
2019, series 9, episode 7
Kitchen temperature plays a huge role in the success of pastry creations and cakes, as series nine contestant Ruby Bhogal quickly found out.
In Vegan Week, viewers watched in horror as Bhogal’s two-tiered chocolate, lemon and coconut showstopper collapsed, leaving her with tears in her eyes and her head in her hands. Why? It was a heatwave. Tensions and temperatures were running high, and though her sponge had cooled the air had not, and her icing started to melt, leading the whole bake to topple onto the floor. “It actually hurt to watch Ruby’s cake fall,” wrote one fan on social media.
It’s a stark lesson to us all: never decorate a cake while it’s still warm, but allow it to fully cool to room temperature. And if a heatwave has set the room temperature sky-high, wait for it to drop, or invest in aircon. Frosting a warm sponge will only ever go in one direction: south.
Take care to not over boil your beignets
2019, series 10, episode 5
A tough year, but Michael Chakraverty provided the most helpful advice of the series: finishing is good enough.
Chakraverty visibly fought back tears in week five of the show, a 1920s-themed edition in which contestants had to craft beautiful beignets from choux pastry. Not easy at all. “I don’t think I can do this anymore,” he said, watching his last piece of sculpted dough fail in hot oil. He was flustered. “It’s too much.” But Chakraverty persevered, whisking up more choux pastry mix, and turned out 18 solid beignets after the gruelling technical challenge.
A tip we can all keep in mind? When boiling your mixture of melted butter and water, don’t allow the water to boil for too long, or else it will upset the ratio of dry to wet ingredients.
When in doubt, fall back on a classic
2020, series 11, episode 9
In a show that has lasted so long, some recipes and components endure. One is the Black Forest gâteau, a flavour combination that has outlasted even Mary Berry herself by appearing in all but two series. “In Germany, you can’t become a master pâtissier until you can make a Black Forest gâteau correctly,” Hollywood once said. “For me, it’s all about the chocolate, cherries and the kirsch.”
Joyously kitsch, the cake combines flavours we all love: chocolate, cherries, cream and booze. It is also a lesson in classic baking that the judges can roll out to test the waters, not dissimilar to chefs asking new recruits to cook an omelette on their first day.
In the semi-final, no less than 25 mini Black Forest cube cakes were conjured up by Laura Adlington for the showstopper challenge. Its popularity is proof, if it were needed, that you’ll never fail to please when serving it up at your next dinner party.
Maintain air for perfect madeleines
2021, series 12, episode 10
Echoing the theme of the very first Bake Off final, this season saw the return of the tea party to conclude episode 10. The best showstopper was made by series champion Giuseppe Dell’Anno, an enigmatic Italian engineer and the first Italian to win the show (he’s lived in Britain since 2002).
Bakers were tasked to make a Mad Hatter’s spread with sweet and savoury afternoon tea treats – showcasing no fewer than four disciplines in the limited time-frame (four and a half hours). “Madness” barely covers it.
Thankfully, a notable piece of advice came from Leith, who proffered assistance when it comes to madeleines, a mainstay of many an afternoon tea. “Their success is based on whisking plenty of air into the genoise sponge batter to create volume,” she said, “and then taking care not to deflate the mixture when folding in the flour and butter.”
Know when to cheat
2022, series 13, episode 8
Last year’s Bake Off was not without controversy. Some complained that the themed weeks were too juvenile, even offensive; others said the show contained “too much cooking” and “not enough baking”. Vol-au-vents might arguably be an example of this, appearing in episode eight’s Pastry Week.
The classic canapé, which loosely translates as “windblown” in French, hadn’t featured on the show since 2015. Then, Tamal Ray shone brightest thanks to his two approaches, one filled with coriander chicken and fennel, and another of rosemary-infused pulled pork.
Fast-forward to 2022 and Hollywood and Leith asked bakers to make sweet vol-au-vents. Nelsandro “Sandro” Farmhouse forgot to turn on the oven. Marie-Therese “Maxy” Maligisa tried to make puff pastry with warm butter rather than a pat straight from the fridge, which the multi-layered “lamination” method requires.
What can we take from this? Unless you’re appearing on series 14 of Bake Off – in which case, godspeed – you’re best off avoiding making puff pastry entirely. Shop-bought is fine. Would Hollywood even tell the difference?