The Great British Baking Show: Every Burning Question, Answered
The season 10 finale of the beloved baking competition streams on Netflix on Friday.
For 10 seasons now, The Great British Baking Show has captivated audiences across both sides of the pond, with viewers falling in love with its simplistic style and oh-so-sweet creations.
But even the most loyal fans may be left with questions from week to week, and wondering everything from how people get cast on the show to what happens to all those delicious-looking desserts.
Well, never fear! Here are answers to 19 of the show’s biggest mysteries:
1. Why does the show have different names in the U.K. and the U.S.?
American audiences on PBS and Netflix know the show as The Great British Baking Show, but in the U.K., the show airs under its original name, The Great British Bake-Off.
So why the change? It all comes down to copyright. The term “Bake Off” is registered to the Pillsbury Company, who since 1949 have held the Pillsbury Bake Off — a contest that searches for the best recipes in the U.S. using its signature flour. Not wanting any confusion among viewers, the company didn’t release the rights, PBS reported, prompting the new title. Ironically, the Pillsbury Bake Off didn’t even begin with that title. It was originally the Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest.
2. Who came up with the idea for the show in the first place?
That would be executive producer Anna Beattie, who thought up the concept after talking to a friend who had seen “bake-offs” in America, The Telegraph reported.
3. How do you get cast?
It’s not easy. “It is a huge process for us to get to the final 12 contestants,” Beattie admitted to the Radio Times.
More than 16,000 contestants apply via a lengthy application form, the BBC reported, per series producer Sam Beddoes. A researcher sets up a 45-minute phone call with potential hopefuls. From there, 300-400 people make it to the first round of auditions, bringing with them two bakes. A screen test and an interview with a producer comes next. If they get through all of that, casting invites 50-60 people for a second audition — this time in front of the judges — giving them a timed technical challenge and testing to see if they can talk and bake at the same time. An interview with the show psychologist closes things out.
“The baking is 100 percent the most important thing, not personality,” Beddoes said. “You can have brilliant characters, but if they’re going to go out in the first round there’s no point. Part of the charm of Bake Off is that they’re real people from all over the country. It’s such a lovely atmosphere here and we fiercely protect that.”
In the end, a cast of bakers (usually 12) is cast — though Beattie told the Radio Times, “We usually have two standbys, just in case someone pulls out at the last minute or is ill. But only for the first show or two. Then we are up and running.”
4. What’s the deal with the tent?
Cupcake Wars, Sugar Wars, Nailed It, and just about every other baking competition reality show takes place in a studio, so why does The Great British Baking Show opt for a large tent on an English country estate’s beautifully manicured lawn?
Well for one, it didn’t start that way. Season one of the show, back in 2010, was filmed in various locations across the U.K. depending on the theme (puddings, for example, took place in Bakewell, where the dessert originated).
In season two, the tent was born, in an effort to provide a singular production location while still calling back to the country’s cultural tradition of afternoon tea on sprawling country homes. It also put all bakers on an even baking field and tested their skills to adapt to a number of challenges, such as the weather.
“It’s completely alien to your own kitchen at home,” 2013 champion Frances Quinn told Cosmopolitan. “The temperature fluctuates… you’d be making a meringue and it would start raining, or we’d try and make pastry and it would be 27 degrees [celsius] outside. The technical challenges and lack of time and lack of fridge and work space are the enemy on that show.”
“It’s always hot when we’re dealing with chocolate which needs cool weather. And cold when we’re trying to prove bread,” Georgia May, a member of the production team, told The Guardian.
“The floor is poorly sprung and the ovens can bounce up and down,” added 2012 runner-up Brendan Lynch, to Birmingham Live. “It is hard to contend with that.”
That tent hasn’t always stayed in the same place, however. In season two, the text was set up shop in Ilford, Essex, at the Valentines Mansion and Gardens (a 300-year-old private mansion). Seasons three and four placed the tent on the grounds of a working bed and breakfast called the Harptree Court in Bristol, Somerset.
Since season five, the tent had remained on the grounds of a historic private country home called Welford Park, in Newbury, Berkshire. The grounds are open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday, according to its website.
5. Do they stay at the house where the tent is located?
No. The contestants stay at a nearby hotel during the weekends and travel to the tent via minibus during competition days before returning home during the week, Quinn told Cosmopolitan. The judges and hosts are put up in a hotel, though a different one.
Staying together isn’t always fun for the contestants.
“It’s actually all quite stressful,” Quinn said. “It was like going towards an exam, and then on the way back, some people had done really well in the exam and some people hadn’t done so well and it was the next day when you know someone is going home. It was tricky trying to deal with everyone’s different emotions.”
6. Why do the bakers wear the same clothes all weekend?
This is an easy one: It’s for continuity purposes, so that viewers can easily recognize the contestants (and, in turned, the hosts and judges) back when watching. This isn’t a new concept by any means; a similar technique is applied on other competition reality shows, like Trading Spaces.
“Luckily they change the aprons so we don’t look like a Jackson Pollock painting by the end of it,” joked Quinn to Cosmopolitan. “I think layers [is the answer], but even then you still have to wear what you had on, on top. Difficult. And everyone was always like ‘Did you buy two of everything?’ and I was like ‘No, you’re spending so much money on butter and eggs…’ ”
7. How long does filming take?
Typically 10-12 weeks, depending on how many contestants are brought on (season 10 saw 13 contestants, but included a double elimination).
Filming is usually relegated to only weekends, to allow the contestants to continue their work or day-to-day obligations, The Telegraph reported. The first challenge and technical challenge are both captured on a Saturday, while the “showstopper” challenge comes on a Sunday.
That’s not always the case, however. “Some weeks we’d do a Wednesday and a Thursday, so that would be a real short week,” Quinn told Cosmopolitan. “You’d get back late on the Sunday, and then we’d literally be back down there on the Tuesday night. So not a lot of time. It’s a real commitment. You’re up early and back late.”
8. Are they filming that entire time?
According to 2013 contestant Ali Imdad, filming takes upwards of 16 hours a day — with most of that time focused on getting ” ‘beauty shots’ of the cakes, the contestants or the judges,” Birmingham Live reported.
“You haven’t really got a life other than Bake Off. No social life,” Quinn told Cosmopolitan. “That was the most stressful time. We had to get a train down on the Friday and we’d have a wake up call at 5 a.m., we’d be in the tent at 7 a.m.. We’d wrap filming at about 8 p. m. and then it would be the same again the next day. I’d get back at about midnight on the Sunday. It’s not just a 2 hour bake with a few buttercups.”
Nearly 50 people are working behind the scenes, capturing every second of the bake, Mental Floss UK reported. Every time a contestant puts something in or takes something out of the oven, once of the six camera crews working on the floor has to capture it.
“That’s the golden rule,” Imdad said. “Every time you wanted to put something in or take something out, you had to hail a producer who would make sure you were being filmed.”
Contestants are also interviewed throughout their entire bake, Quinn also said. “They just have to get so much footage for an hour show,” she explained. “You’re being interviewed about eight times a day, just so they’ve got every type of answer and every type of question has been asked. They don’t want to miss a thing.”
Also adding to the overall production time? Mistakes. “If someone fluffs a line during the judging, they will do retakes,” Imdad said to Birmingham Live. “Or if you said something and they didn’t quite catch it, they will ask you to say it again.”
9. What do they do during the week?
Practice… a lot. “They did warn us that you won’t do anything but bake, but it totally dominates your life,” Danny Bryden told The Telegraph. “This is the most stretching addition to my life, ever.”
“It’s a lot more intense than I imagined,” added James Morton.
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10. How far in advance do the bakers know the challenges?
Very far. The bakers are told every single challenge — save for the technicals — right when they’re cast on the show, The Guardian reported. They have to supply the show’s food producer with every signature and showstopper bake recipes, even if they don’t make it to the end.
“We get four weeks to come up with the recipes for the challenges, which didn’t seem like a lot of time at all,” 2014 finalist Chetna Makan told Digital Spy. “Four weeks to come up with nine weeks’ recipes, so 18 recipes.”
11. Who pays for everything?
When it comes to practicing their bakes at home, that’s mostly on them – and it can get expensive.
“You can’t do this if you haven’t got spare dosh,” Bryden told The Telegraph. “It must have cost a couple of thousand pounds to get to this stage — the expense of getting to all the auditions, the ingredients.”
“It’s funny the amount of ingredients I used to have in my kitchen,” Quinn recalled to Cosmopolitan. “People would come in and I’d just got used to seeing that amount of butter and using so many eggs. Me and my fridge needed a detox after the show.”
Added Makan to Digital Spy: “We were warned in the beginning that this was going to be an expensive experience, that we were going to have to spend some money. Because you don’t really get any money to practice at home. If you want to make the cake five times at home to practice, that’s your own problem, because they aren’t going to pay for it.”
Come showtime, production handles buying everything, including any last minute ingredients bakers might need for their bakes.
“People normally have 12-20 ingredients, but it varies,” said Faenia Moore, the program’s home economist, told the BBC. “Frances Quinn had 124 for her cake in the final.”
“Sometimes they’ll be awake in the middle of the night and they’ll have decided that, oh, figs will be the thing that will make their bake,” May revealed to The Guardian, explaining that a runner is positioned each morning outside the nearest big supermarket to buy anything needed.
No ingredient is off-limits. “We’ve got to make sure the contestants are happy,” May said. That means bakers can bring anything they’d like from home and “specify what brand of a product they want.”
12. Why don’t any of the ingredients have brand labels on them?
One would think — having watched shows like Top Chef, Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, MasterChef, and any other American competition reality show — that a show like this would be littered with product integration. But because The Great British Baking Show is produced to air in England on British public broadcast television (U.K. Public Services), it is restricted by law from including any product placement whatsoever.
This became especially important back in 2012 when viewers pointed out a logo on a fridge during season three was particularly noticeable. The BBC launched a general review and found the show to be in violation of those rules. As a result, the show’s production company was forced “to put in place additional measures to ensure that sourcing and supply of equipment is clear in relation to our guidelines and a consistent approach is adopted in future.”
All this means is that when ingredients are shown, brand labels must be removed, with many of the materials put in glass jars. According to The Guardian, the de-labeling process can take a team of three up to two days to complete.
13. How do the hosts know when things are going wrong?
You can blame that on the show’s food production team, who, per The Guardian, observe the bakers and report back to producers about potential problems the show’s hosts might want to address.
14. Do bakers get any help along the way?
Surprisingly, yes. Food producers will step in from time to time, offering advice or even fresh ingredients if necessary. Explained Moore to The Telegraph: “We help the bakers to a certain degree. We do show the disasters, but you don’t want to set anyone up for a fall.”
15. Why is everything so clean during judging?
Because one woman named Iva hand washes every pot, pan, and utensil after the bake and before judging. “We have a good system with two sinks,” Moore told the BBC, adding that runners help her clean up. “A dishwasher would be too noisy, and probably take longer. Also, if you’ve got caramel, you’ve got to use plenty of elbow grease. I just give Iva regular hugs!”
16. What happens with all the bakes after judging?
First, they’re taken to the back for beauty shots. Then they’re fair game for the other contestants and the crew.
“It is really important that the bakers actually have a chance to taste what they have been slaving over for three or four hours. So I put together a basket of all their different bakes so they can taste their own and everyone else’s,” Moore revealed to The Radio Times. “Then, in a very orderly fashion, of course, the crew dig in—they really love it when the bakers cook something savory as there is usually so much sugar around.”
That sounds more civil than how Imdad described it to Birmingham Live. “The cameramen literally stand there with forks in their back pockets, waiting to swoop as soon as filming stops,” he said. “The cakes are meant to be taken to a lunch area where everyone can share them, but they don’t usually get that far because the crew eat them first.”
17. How does production make sure everything is fair?
They start by making sure every contestant is briefed by the oven’s manufacturer to understand how the equipment works. They’re also given an hour to do a test bake, to make sure they know their way around the kitchen.
Before that, the crew does a test bake every day to “make sure that all the ovens are working properly and no-one can blame a bad bake on a technical malfunction,” Imdad said to Birmingham Live.
“A dozen Victoria sponge mixes are prepared and placed into each oven at exactly the same time by members of the production crew,” said Beattie, to the Radio Times.
Moore added to the Radio Times that new knives are provided in the kitchen every year, “and the knives are… good.”
Judges keep their distance from the bakers, to assure they’re not seen as playing favorites. During the show they sit in separate areas from the cast.
Bakers can bring their own equipment, like scales or homemade molds, but they need to be checked by production first.
As for those time limits, “when they say time’s up, time’s up,” Makan said to Digital Spy. “If you haven’t put it on the tray, that’s your problem. You’re not getting an extra minute because of whatever reason.”
18. But what about the technical challenges? How do they know those recipes are even possible?
Oh, there’s a food researcher who bakes up every elaborate concoction the judges design to make sure those bakes can be made with the provided instructions and ingredients within the given time frame, according to The Guardian.
19. Finally, who draws those adorable food illustrations?
Perhaps the biggest burning question of all! Those adorable illustrations that appear as the baker’s describe their sweets come from illustrator Tom Hovey, who has been working on the show since season 1.
All of Hovey’s drawings are made after the episodes are filmed, he told New York Magazine in 2018, estimating he’s created roughly 3,000 drawings for the show. (Prints are for sale on his website.)
He’s given photos of the finished bakes from all angles and then works to capture their essence. All are traced in pencil before color is added.
“The concept was to create drawings based on what the bakers may have sketched out when deciding what to bake in the show in their own recipe sketchbook,” said Hovey. “The style has grown with the show and I think as the contestants’ skills have improved year on year, so have mine, and in turn my ability to display their creations in the best light.”
“My job is to illustrate what the bakers planned to create, not what they actually baked in the tent,” Hovey added. “Sometimes if the bakes don’t go as planned, I have to work out with the producers and the bakers how to fix the issues. Add missing elements, extra layers, that sort of thing. … If you can’t see the contents from the outside, we add an internal slice and some ingredient arrows to follow the voice-over.”
Hovey continued: “Just make the bakes look the best they can, that’s the key.”
The season 10 finale of The Great British Baking Show streams on Netflix on Friday.