15 Real Tips We Learned From The Great British Bake Off

January 25, 2016

Quick game of trivia: In the past two years, what was the most-watched television program in the U.K.?

If you said the World Cup final, which aired in July 2014 and drew 20 million viewers, you would be correct.

But in second place came a television event that's a bit less athletic but no less competitive: the October 2015 finale of The Great British Bake Off, with a peak of 14.5 million viewers.

And even for the regular episodes, those not as riveting as the finale, "10 million Britons switch on their TV sets each Wednesday evening," The Guardian reported. And that's "to watch a baking contest filmed in a tent in the countryside."

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Top Comment:
“Mary and Paul themselves bake many of the challenges from the competition, showing how they should or could have been done. Packed full of technical insight for the serious baker, they're as good as the main show. If you're in the UK, they're on the BBC iPlayer. Btw, what happened to Tips 15-16?”
— Martin B.

It was as if everyone living in New York City—and then another 1.5 million people—put their lives on hold for an hour each week to watch their neighbors and friends bake sponge cakes.

G.B.B.O. has plenty of fans at Food52, as well. As Marketing Coordinator Catherine O'Donnell put it:

The Brits take all the competition and cutthroat nature of American baking shows and flush it down the loo! This is the happiest, most feel-good show out there. At the end of every episode, everyone hugs each other... I wish I could be in that group hug.

And while the show warms our hearts and makes us want to be better people (it's true!), it also offers important, kitchen-applicable lessons about baking. "I am NOT a great baker," said Director of Events Francesca Andreani, "and watching this show has actually taught me a ton. They don't forgo the technical talk and advice for more drama, like so many other reality programs do."

And so, the tips the bakers and non-bakers at Food52 have learned (so far).

1) How to pronounce (and make... well, kind of) kouign-amann.

When the contestants in the 2014 season were assigned to bake kouign-amann for their technical challenge, not one person had even tasted one.

With bated breath, we, the doting audience, learned alongside the bake-testants: how to pronounce the name of this Breton pastry (queen-ah-mohn); how to laminate the dough; and how to incorporate the sugar (only on the top-most layer! Otherwise, it melts into and weighs down the pastry, making it more compact than flakey).

Since the airing of the 2014 epiosde, kouign-amann has made an appearance at so many New York bakeries that Serious Eats published a ranking of the best in the city.

So would we try making kouign-amann at home? Only with the help of Yossy Arefi.

2) The easiest way to remove the sides of a cake or tart pan with removable sides.

In removing a finished tart from its pan, do you often find yourself wearing the outer perimeter as an awkward oversized bangle? There's an easier way: Just put a large can underneath the pan and nudge the removable sides downwards, onto your work surface. Your creation will rest on the can and cool beautifully, just like that.

But how will we remove the tart from its pan? Photo by Mark Weinberg

3) These oven mitts are actually used by real people.

Merchandising Manager Hannah Wilken bought a pair after watching the show, and Creative Director Kristen Miglore has already professed her love for them.

4) Proofing your yeasted dough quickly, appealing as it may be, carries great risk.

With near-impossible time constraints (just five hours to make laminated doughs and viennoiseries that typically take multiple days from start to finish), the bakers are often tempted to use proofing drawers (or even microwaves) to speed up the rising time.

But when the rising process is artificially accelerated, heat is forced into the dough, which can damage the proteins and negatively affect the shape and structure of the final product. The butter in croissant dough, for example, will flood out before the pastries bake, resulting in a doughy, buttery roll rather than something with beautiful layers and flakes.

The key: Be patient. And wait 'til everyone else is shaping their dough before starting on your own.

5) Almost everything in baking needs to be cooled down fully before you start decorating.

Otherwise, you're looking at a sloppy mess. This is never more true than when you're dealing with a Baked Alaska.

And if that Baked Alaska does end up more soup-like than cake-like, do not, under any circumstances, throw the whole thing in the trash. The judges—we mean, your friends—want to taste it anyway.

6) Don't touch the caramel while it's cooking. Leave it alone, seriously—don't stir it.

"I tested this one; it's true," said Francesca. But sadly, it isn't always true. As Erin McDowell explains, the question of to stir or not to stir is answered by the specific recipe:

Recipes for soft caramel or caramel sauce that include large quantities of invert sugar or high levels of milk (including evaporated or sweetened condensed milk), butter, or cream can and should be stirred throughout cooking to prevent burning or sticking. Recipes that say never to stir during cooking will often have instructions to "stir in butter" at the end. In short: Always refer to specific recipes for instructions about stirring.

So, moral of the story: Don't go rogue when you're a beginner caramel maker.

7) Pudding in the British sense is not the same as pudding in the American sense.

While pudding may mean one thing to us Americans—chocolate pudding, butterscotch pudding, other sweet and silky milk-based desserts—it means a whole lot more to Brits.

Puddings can be both savory and sweet, and the term can even be used to refer to the dessert course as a whole. "Pudding" also includes dishes, like treacle sponge and Christmas pudding, that we would normally refer to as steamed cakes.

8) Same goes for fondant.

Fondant in American baking typically refers to fondant icing, a confection used to decorate and sculpt elaborate cakes (think Cake Boss and The Ace of Cakes). But when British bakers make "chocolate fondant," they're talking about individual molten lava cakes (think Valentine's Day).

More: British-style pudding a.k.a. fondant vs. American-pudding.

9) Mary Berry is a BOSS.

"I had never heard of her before," said Catherine, "but quickly learned of her masterful tiramisu-making ways."

Eighty-year-old Mary Berry has published over 70 cookbooks and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012 by the Queen. Her favorite cake to make is a ginger treacle tray bake.

10) No one likes pastry that's too thick.

Especially if that person's name is Mary Berry. And especially if you're making a lemon tart. A thin crust is not just a matter of optimizing the eating experience, but the dessert's appearance, too.

This is because looks are just as important as taste: For cakes, your glaze better be even, your layers better be uniform (use a scale for this), and you must have a consistent amount of filling between each one. For yeasted breads, the crumb structure must be consistent all the way through. And for devilish entremets, every single one must be exactly the same.

11) We should describe baked goods as having a "good bake" more often.

How do you describe a dessert or savory baked good that's masterfully done in every way? That is neither under- or over-baked, with the correct texture and crumb, a perfect level of moisture, and a great flavor profile? You only need 4 words: "That's a good bake."

12) There are several types of sponges.

Victoria sponge, chiffon, biscuit, hot milk sponge... but Genoise is most definitely the hardest to execute.

13) There are three types of meringues—French, Swiss, and Italian—and Italian is the way to go, but it's also tricky.

  • French meringue is fairly simple to make (beat eggs, add sugar, whip more), but produces the least stable substance of the three.
  • Swiss meringue—the smooth, somewhat dense basis of Swiss buttercream—is prepared by gently beating egg whites and sugar in a double boiler until the mixture reaches between 120 and 130° F, then taking the bowl off the heat and beating vigorously.
  • And then there's Italian meringue, the preferred meringue of G.B.B.O. bakers. It's made by drizzling 240° F sugar syrup (yikes!) into egg whites that have been whipped to hold firm peaks and produces a satiny and stiff mixture that can be used to frost cakes, top pies, or lighten ice creams and mousses.

14) We've been pronouncing "scone" incorrectly for all these years.

We say "scone" with a hard "oh" sound in the middle, but the Brits have a softer, gentler way: skahn.

15) "Tiered pies" exist.

And they look like this. "I still don't really get them..." said Catherine.

Which judge do you prefer, Paul or Mary, and how excited are you for the next season? Tell us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Amanda Nguyen
    Amanda Nguyen
  • Ash
  • Terri
  • Martin Belderson
    Martin Belderson
  • hardlikearmour
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Amanda N. November 29, 2018
I stumbled on this article recently and agree 100 percent, GBBO taught me so many things. In fact, I decided to apply for Thre Great American Baking Show and to my surprise I was chosen and got to bake in the tent this past summer. Such an amazing show and experience.
Ash August 29, 2016
It's pronounced "skon" not "skahn".
kay December 24, 2018
Hate to disagree with someone who wrote something over 2 years ago, but all the Brits I know (my SO works with many) do NOT say scone with a long "o".
Terri July 9, 2016
I'm stunned that you left off the dreaded soggy bottom!

I am a die-hard GBBO watcher - on pirate TV, so I get the Brit version (all SIX seasons!); plus An Extra Slice, which is a hilarious wrap-up of the show each week. And don't overlook the Australian and South African versions if you can get them. Good stuff! Were it not for these shows, I wouldn't have started baking last year!
Martin B. February 22, 2016
If you're outside the UK and a GBBOff fan, try to track down the extra masterclasses that the BBC screen several months after each new season (usually around Christmas). Mary and Paul themselves bake many of the challenges from the competition, showing how they should or could have been done. Packed full of technical insight for the serious baker, they're as good as the main show. If you're in the UK, they're on the BBC iPlayer.

Btw, what happened to Tips 15-16?
hardlikearmour February 3, 2016
I'm a little behind with this thread, but I really covet the ovens they have -- a door that slides into the bottom when opened is genius. I wish, wish, wish US appliance makers would get with the program :-)
Joseph K. January 26, 2016
The pronunciation of scone is far from settled. The shape of one, however, is. And it's not a triangle.
Liberty B. January 28, 2016
Agreed, never seen a triangle scone in my life till I visited the US (I'm from Australia)
Carol S. January 26, 2016
Just started watching the first season, and I am hooked, of course. Love the contestants, and as for the judges, Paul is tough, often leaving the baker with a touch of doubt about their technique. Mary is the bearer of strict discipline, in a wonderful way. She is classic! I could spend the whole day just listening to them talk and banter back and forth!
Andrea January 26, 2016
unfortunately, while that may be how the British pronounce it on the show, that is not how you pronounce kouign-amann!
Sarah J. January 26, 2016
Tell us how, please!
Andrea January 26, 2016
It's not far off, but there is a slight "g" sound before the end of the first syllable, like in the French word vigne (vine). The second half is pronounced Ah-Mahn. Here's a video on YouTube with native speakers so you can hear the difference if you'd like!
HalfPint January 26, 2016
BTW, does anyone know why the name of the show was changed for the American broadcasts?
Lindsey S. January 28, 2016
Apparently Pillsbury has the "Bake-Off" trademark in the US.
HalfPint January 31, 2016
Ahhhhh that would explain it. Thank you @Lindsey!
HalfPint January 26, 2016
Mary Berry is a total doll. Even with her harshest criticism, she is still a sweetie. With the exception of The Male Judge, every person on the GBBO is so nice and generous. And Mel and Sue are the funniest ever. Can't wait for more seasons to be added to Netflix (please if anyone in programming is listening!)
HalfPint January 31, 2016
I absolutely love all the sexual innuendos and puns. I almost snorted coffee when Mel told the contestants to "pop Mary's cherry " (episode 1 technical challenge).
Sophie H. January 25, 2016
Great tip from GBBO is how to make your own fondant icing from marshmallow.
TheBostonian January 25, 2016
I saw one seasoned this and immediately watched all the other seasons in YouTube. I'm glad to see its gaining wider notoriety in the US now!
Atlanticgull January 25, 2016
I love GBBO. I've dug up all the past seasons and not one has disappointed. Every episode has offered insight. Did you know there was a one season U.S. Spin off? Not even close and in many ways, embarrassing.
Thomas L. January 25, 2016
Scone is pronounced in several different ways in the UK, it depends where you were born. I always say scone, where 'one' is pronounced on, so it's like 'scon'.
Liberty B. January 28, 2016
Yes - That's also how we pronounce it in Australia.
Jessie P. January 25, 2016
For anyone who loves watching the Great British Bake Off, I would recommend The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughn, a book about a British baking contest. The contestants are challenged to make a wide variety of dishes, from which I learned more about baking.
Sarah J. January 25, 2016
Thanks for the recommendation! Can't wait to dig in.
Erin J. January 25, 2016
I love this list, and Mary Berry, and her hatred of "soggy bottoms" - the pie/tart crust issue that plagues us all!