I was a latecomer to "The Great British Bake Off" (AKA "The Great British Baking Show" States-side). I started watching the show in late 2016, after Series 7 premiered on PBS. I’d just left a decade-long marriage and GBBO was a balm.
I downloaded the PBS app and watched season after season, mostly on sleepless nights. I hadn’t baked much before—aside from the occasional brownies from a box—and the show was a real education, the Technical Challenges especially. In it, baker-contestants must rely on their expertise and intuition to follow a recipe for a baked good they may have never heard of or seen. The instructions are often as vague as, simply, “Bake.”
I started to find myself in the kitchen, often at 3 a.m., trying to replicate what the bakers attempted in the tent. The technical bakes provided me with a solid foundation in kitchen chemistry and baking technique, and only encouraged me to learn more.
Since 2016, I’ve become an exceptional home baker and am still a devoted GBBO fan. The Technical Challenges have gotten wackier—Maids of Honor (Series 10) and rainbow colored bagels (Series 11)? No thank you! But, I’m always studying, and I continue to gather pointers from the show.
Here are the 5 best tips I’ve learned from 10 seasons* of Technical Challenges.
1. Trust the Dough (Series 3, Week 7—Jam Doughnut)
To achieve a doughnut’s spongy texture, the dough must be very moist—which makes it difficult to knead. It’s important to work such enriched doughs well “to create essential air pockets enabling it to rise,” says Mel Giedroyc. As a less-skilled baker, my instinct was to add more flour—sometimes a lot more—to my mixture. This resulted in a heavy dough, and doughnuts that were raw and gluey on the inside. Now I know to trust the dough: if I’ve measured my ingredient quantities accurately, I know it’s only a matter of time until I have a smooth, slightly tacky dough ready for proofing. A bit of elbow grease and a bench scraper are key.
2. Be Patient (Series 5, Week 3—Ciabatta)
“Take this dough too early, and their air holes will be very small; take it too late, and they’ll go as flat as a pancake,” says Paul Hollywood. “It’s all about the timing.” This is an axiom I apply to almost every bread loaf I bake, ciabatta included. I lean not only on timers and temperatures to determine when a dough has proofed, but also on my senses, like smell and sight. And if that means holding off for a minute or an hour for better bread, I’ve learned to wait.
3. Laminated Doughs Take Practice (Series 5, Week 7— Kouign-Amann)
Viennoiseries, such as croissants and kouign-amann, are baked goods made from a laminated, yeast-leavened dough. I’ve made such doughs dozens of times in the past few years—sometimes successfully, often not—and I always kept Paul Hollywood’s advice in mind: “What you’re looking for is the texture of a puff pastry but a bit more open, a bit more structured, and that comes from the yeast.” Viennoiseries also take time (see tip 2); “It’s quite long for a bake with six ingredients,” said quarter finalist, Martha Collison. (I also learned how to pronounce kouign-amann in this episode!)
4. The Right Temperature Is Key (Series 7, Week 2—Viennese Whirls)
I love to bake cookies, and find every excuse to do so. I used to hate it when a recipe insisted that I use butter at room temperature and then chill cookie dough for “at least four hours.” What’s the point? I want cookies now! I would think. In making Mary Berry’s buttery, crumbly Viennese whirls, I learned that the temperature of my ingredients is vital. “They’ve got to get that butter really soft,” she said. “If they don’t, it’ll be far too stiff. They’ll get in the piping bag, but they won’t get it out… they might have to fridge them before they actually bake them.” Mary Berry is my idol; of course I listen to her now.
5. Choux Requires a Strong Arm (Series 4, Week 7—Religieuses)
In the words of Kimberley Wilson, Series 4 finalist: “[Choux] really not very complicated… people are scared of it much more than they need to be ‘cause it’s actually very simple.” Choux pastry doesn’t use a chemical raising agent to rise; instead it relies on air and moisture (water and eggs) in the dough to rise. “There’s a stage after you’ve added the flour in, then you really need to dry the mixture off a bit with plenty of heat and give it a sound beating before you add the eggs,” added contestant Glenn Cosby. I’ve made choux a million times, and I always remember to use a strong arm when I’m whipping up a batch.
*The first two seasons of GBBO aren't available in the U.S., and I haven't been able to watch them.