The Great British Bake Off has become an institution. It’s responsible for a surge in baking in the UK, and holds strangely wide appeal.
So why has an amateur baking show become so popular?
I moved to the UK the year The Great British Bake Off first aired. I heard of it in passing, but a show about a competing group of amateur bakers didn’t interest me at all.
But as the show became outrageously popular, the hype piqued my curiosity enough to check it out. It’s since become one of my favorite shows.
I’m an unlikely fan, but not alone—The Great British Bake Off has a curiously diverse audience. There’s a smile-raising delight in learning the MMA or rugby fan you’re talking to also watches The Great British Bake Off.
It’s joyful escapism
It’s such a light, pleasant holiday from reality. A fairytale in a festive white tent with cutaway shots of birds and flowers. Where, outside of elimination, the worst that can happen is a soggy bottom (ie, an undercooked piecrust base, a now famous term, and part of a continuing theme of cheeky double entendres).
It invites the viewer to feel like an expert
We learn baking technicalities and terms from the judges’ feedback. As such, we become honorary critics, judging ahead of time whose bake should win the round and who should be eliminated.
It’s fun to feel like you’re in the know, and the show doesn’t care whether you can really even cook a piece of toast.
I make supercilious predictions that so-and-so’s buns will likely be tough because of dough overworking. A minute later, the judges say that exact thing, and I’m king of the minute.
It’s actually educational
Fake expertise aside, The Great British Bake Off is unexpectedly educational. It teaches by introducing us to the wide variety of foods and international variations the bakers undertake. We learn terminology and method from the ground up.
I check wikipedia on my phone at least a few times each episode. Maybe to find how many layers a schichttorte should have, or differentiate crème bavaroise and crème pâtissière.
I can now tell apart mechanical and chemical leavening, flaky, short-crust, and puff pastry, and what “rough puff” is (same thing as flaky). It’s bizarre I even care in the first place, but the show has that effect.
Not just a baking show
A show about baking shouldn’t be so compelling, and there are many others that fail to grab attention. But the secret of The Great British Bake Off is that it’s not just a baking show, it’s a finely crafted product. All its elements combine to produce something a bit magical: the jaunty music, the playful hosts, the sage judges, and a lot of skilful editing.
The format is exported internationally—many countries now have their own version. A few played with the formula by changing the music or having more somber judges, and disappeared after limited seasons. Whether by accident or very clever writers, The Great British Bake Off is honed to engrossing perfection.