Ten things we learnt from a decade of the Great British Bake Off

The Great British Bake Off contestants 2019 
The Great British Bake Off contestants 2019  Credit: C4/Love Productions/Mark Bourdil 

Incredible as it might seem, a decade has passed since it first hit our screens. It is now possible to have a sensible conversation with someone who can’t remember a time before the Great British Bake Off. 

In an era when entire series are binged on Netflix, Bake Off has managed to remain appointment-to-view television. The X Factor is floundering, Big Brother is no more, even Love Island has struggled to maintain its viewer numbers. But this unassuming show about sponge fingers is now in its tenth series, and just as popular as ever. 

You could write an entire thesis about why we love it so - and doubtless there are media studies students who have come up with complex theories - but, in my mind, the main reason for Bake Off’s enduring appeal is simply that it is a beacon of kindness and cosiness in a time of shouting and division. 

The world might be going to hell in a handbasket, but for an hour every Tuesday night you can watch 13 jolly souls having a minor breakdown because they can’t find the marrons glacés. And while the programme has had its ups and downs - the move from the BBC to Channel 4, with Mary Berry replaced by Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood staying on - the format has remained reassuringly the same. 

It might be too far to say that Bake Off has changed the face of Britain, but it does feel as though it has given us an awful lot. So as the 10th series begins tonight, we thank a decade’s worth of Bake Off for… 

1. Transforming our kitchens 

There was a time when we saved up for a new car, or the holiday-of-a-lifetime. Now, our money goes on the kitchen. Can you really call yourself a baker if you don’t own a pastel-coloured Kitchen Aid mixer (or at least a Kenwood)? What do you mean you don’t have a set of copper measuring cups? Then there’s the all important vintage-look Smeg fridge and the Kilner jars, not to mention THAT oven with the magic sliding door. Incidentally, remember the time in series 8 when Stacey’s oven door came flying off and she had to hold it on to save her 18th-century Savoy cake? It was the first time in Bake Off history that someone had sworn on camera. This level of high drama is why we watch. 

Noel, Paul, Prue and Sandi Credit: Mark Bourdillon 

2. Getting children baking

Unless you were one of those faintly irritating families where the children don’t have screens and spend their spare time frolicking outdoors, the idea of spending afternoons baking together used to be a foreign concept. Bake Off changed that. By the time it moved to Channel 4 in 2017, the show was watched by more young people than any other series on TV, sending kids and teens alike into the kitchen demanding ingredients and kit. Their inheritance may have gone on recreating the Bake Off tent in your kitchen, but a whole generation can now confidently knock up a Victoria sandwich - something which hadn’t been true for decades pre-GBBO. And the proof is in the pudding: this year’s cast is the youngest ever, with the majority in their twenties. 

3. Raising a new breed of TV star 

It’s the characters that make the show. Indeed, when the new, youthful line up was revealed last week, one article opined “Bring back Val!” - the 66-year-old retired headteacher from series 7 who claimed that her cakes “sang” to her. There still aren’t many shows that would put an older woman with talent and natural warmth in front of the camera and let her shine, without exploiting her or setting her up to humiliate herself. From Howard “who stole my custard” Middleton, to mega stars like Nadiya Hussein, the programme has spawned wonderful characters - many of whom have gone on to have extraordinary careers. More please.

4. Giving us puns

I’m on board with Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig as the presenters of Channel 4’s Bake Off, but I do sometimes miss the punning of Mel and Sue on the BBC. I remember one particular occasion during a Tudor themed week when Sue announced to frantic bakers half way through a two-hour challenge: “That’s an Aragon”. Gold.

The original line up also brought us such linguistic delights as “soggy bottom”. I think we can all agree we have learnt a lot of baking double entendre. Though pity the poor confused American viewers who, when the British version of the show aired across the pond, were left Googling “baps” and “buns”. 

The new cohort Credit:  Mark Bourdillon

5. Moving with the times

It’s an old fashioned concept, but it does a good job of keeping up with eating fads, without pandering to them. Series One might have been scones and all-butter pastry, but these days vegan and gluten free bakes get an airing, reflecting our changing eating habits. 

Lest we forget, though, vegan week was a bit of a disaster last year, with someone’s showstopper falling over, while another’s caved in on itself and a third attempt was labelled a “pitiful sight” by the judges. 

6. Cooking-up a new era of TV

As always in telly land, once you find a formula that works, the door is open to create as many versions as you can muster. Enter: The Great British Sewing Bee, the Great British Pottery Throwdown, the Great Interior Design Challenge – it seems we can’t get enough of watching normal people attempt ever more niche skills on screen. It shouldn’t work, but it does. I’m still waiting for the Great British Whittle Off to be commissioned. 

7. Making us (over) ambitious

How many people, I wonder, have watched nine series of Bake Off and now think they can make their best friend’s multi-tiered wedding cake for a mere 120 guests? I can recall one year when my sister and I decided to attempt a Croquembouche to disastrous effect after being inspired by choux pastry week. Such is Bake Off’s power, that demand for specific ingredients used by the amateur bakers can soar in a matter of hours. There was one year when demand for Peruvian goldenberries spiked by 180 per cent overnight. Meanwhile anti-gravity cake kits are now one of Lakeland’s top selling baking accessories. 

Nadiya winning in 2015 Credit: Love Productions 

8. Introducing us to niche historical cakes 

There was the rudely-named Schichttorte – a German cake where each layer is cooked under a grill. Then came the Sfogliata, Victorian Tennis Cake, Mokatines, Spanische Windtorte, and Kouign Amann. You didn’t know you needed these archaic cakes in your life, but try and tell me at least one of them hasn’t come up in a pub quiz. 

9. Encouraging men to bake

From Paul “Silver Fox” Jagger’s lion bread to Selasi’s lemon curd, and Rahul’s edible rock garden – the show has broken the stigma and inspired a generation of men to get baking. And it’s provided us with the occasional heartthrob, too. Who could forget Dr Tamal Ray from series 6? Come to think of it, I wonder if anyone has thought of bringing out a Bake Off Boys calendar. At the very least, it’d turn good trade at a Women’s Institute Christmas fete. 

10. Bringing back kitsch 

Everyone feared it would be tarnished with edginess when it moved to Channel 4, but Bake Off still does a reassuringly good line in bunting, gingham and doilies. It isn’t just the decor, though, it’s the old-fashioned humour (“careful your Croatian buns don’t Split”), the cakes, even the theme tune. Thanks to Bake Off the cutesy, ridiculous and downright silly are alive and kicking. Long may they last.