I’ve been binging The Great British Bake Off, and have come up with a sure-fire strategy for winning (provided you’re lucky / talented enough to get into the tent in the first place). Mostly, this list reflects the reasons (in my view) that others have been eliminated from the show.
- Step one: Binge-watch every episode of the show, and take copious notes for things to do and not to do!
- Don’t take crazy chances — at least, not in the early rounds. Such chances might include things like using oddball flavors, doing anything in the signature or show stopper round that is untested, or veering from the week’s focus. Use the early rounds to simply bake perfect, simple, delicious bakes, and you will be safe and make it into further weeks.
- Style is awesome, if you can pull it off safely. But substance seems more important. Focus first on the bake, and then (and only then) on the style — again, especially in the early rounds.
- Keep in mind what week it is and make sure your bakes feature that category. If it’s biscuit week, don’t make a cake that features biscuits! People have been eliminated for this mistake.
- Buy and study (or at least review) the books written by the hosts. A few times, the judges seem to have pulled from their own cookbooks for the technical challenge. (I’m pretty sure Mary Berry did this at least once.)
- Understand that the traditional, expected, normal, and/or proper way of doing something trumps your own preference. For example, I like my gingerbread cookies a bit soft. But, on the show, they always look for crispy biscuits.
- Learn all you can about the different kinds of doughs and how to prepare and prove them. Especially, seek to master the Genoese sponge, shoe pastry, puff pastry, and a basic biscuit recipe. Anything you can learn about proper proving in general (e.g. how long to prove and how to know when something is proved) will help you throughout the contest.
- While you’re at it, you mas as well learn (or practice) a few other show staples like meringue (esp. French and Italian), marzipan, a basic ganache, and a custard recipe.
- Take off work and study your ass off the whole week beforehand for whatever style of baking is scheduled for that week. Sure, not everyone has this luxury. But, ask yourself who’ll win — someone who wings it, or someone who, before bread week, made like 50 loaves of bread?
- Get a thermometer for your home oven and make sure the temperatures match with the oven temps in the tent. Imagine the very realistic possibility that your home oven and the ones in the tent aren’t 100% accurate. What if they’re both wrong by 5 or 10°C in different directions. That could really explain a lot of the quite common “this always worked at home” reactions on the show. (Same for the freezer/fridge!)
- If you’re in the tent in summer, avoid frozen aspects at all costs. How many times on the show did someone’s signature or show-stopper completely melt? (I’d even go so far as to recommend that, if you make it to the tent, look for the controls in those fridges/freezers and make sure yours is turned down to the coolest settings. After all, that’s what they’re there for.)
- Try to replicate the tent’s work space at home. Your space is limited on the show. Thus, when you practice, try to mimic the environment of the show. There’s no limit to the extent you might go to, if you’re dead-set on winning.
- Don’t use pre-made, bought stuff — like molds or cookie cutters or pre-made ingredients, for example. The judges usually don’t like this at all — especially for ingredients and cookie-cutters. (Though, they do seem more forgiving about decorative cake pans or pie tins.) Always make everything yourself!
- Use extracts sparingly. If you want a rum flavor, it seems to me that the judges prefer you use actual rum — not an extract. If you want an orange flavor, they prefer you use orange juice or zest — not an extract. Extracts are seen as crutches and rarely help contestants.
- Always practice your flavors. Make sure to strike the balance between (a) plain food where the taste is too subtle or absent and (b) overdoing it. Practice this all the time, as it seems critical.
- Get good bakes. No matter what you’re baking, it seems to be a little better to be a bit overdone than to show up for judging with a dreaded soggy bottom.
- Pay attention to judge flavor preferences and don’t make things they do not naturally like. (And, vice-verse, make a thing or two that they’re known to especially like.)
- Practice at home (for the signature and show stopper) until you can do everything perfectly in 90% of the time allotted. Plan for the unexpected — the emergency remaking of something that breaks, etc. If you wind up with extra time, use it to perfect your bake.
- Plan your bakes. I’m sure that being in the tent can easily throw you off your bake. So, be like some of the contestants shown and write your recipes down step-by-step. Some had elaborate spreadsheets, which seemed to me a great idea. (I’d also include steps like “Turn on the oven!” because, at least a few times on the show, people have forgotten to do that, costing them valuable time.)
- Don’t do anything half-assed. If you’re not good at piping, do something else. There have been some super sloppy presentations on the show.
- Smaller and tastier / more ornate is better than bigger and bland / plain. Just a general reaction, as this point came up a number of times in the show.
- That said, strive for originality in design, where you can. Especially in the mid- to later weeks once the crew is down to, say, 9 or fewer. Get opinions and feedback from others on your designs, too, as you want to really stun the judges, esp. on the show stoppers in these weeks. Research neat-o ideas on Youtube and in cookbooks for novel things / techniques you feel comfortable including — but, again, only if those things can be done well, in time, and in a way that adds value to your show stopper.
- Remember why “show stoppers” are so named. You really need to blow people’s minds here — though at whatever scale you’re able to successfully do it, given the advice above. For example, remember the smaller-is-better rule. If the show stopper calls for a three-tier cake, don’t make a four-tier one. Match the tech spec brief at a minimal level (done to perfection, of course), so you can have time to pull off a stunning decoration.
- Stay calm! Numerous times on the show, people have dropped things, bumped things off the counter, and/or broken delicate items like chocolate decorations all because they weren’t staying calm. I’m sure it’s tougher than it looks to stay calm, but I feel like you have to find a way, somehow, to achieve this, or you likely won’t be able to win.
- Finally, take criticism graciously, and be a good sport always — root for the others’ success as well as your own.
Anyway, off the top of my head, that’s the path to winning the glass cake stand. Well, that and being a great baker to begin with. Personally, I’m just awful in the kitchen. But I really do love that show.
✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains three blogs — Hawthorne Crow, Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine, and Wonderful Words, Defined — and contributes to various Medium pubs. Connect at JPDbooks.com, Amazon, FB, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest screwball literary novel, CHROO, is a guaranteed good time, and he’d be delighted if you purchased a copy!