The Best Cooking Show You Never Heard Of / by Jefferson Geiger

BBC’s “The Great British Baking Show” is the greatest cooking show you never knew existed. But before I explain why, I’ll go over the show’s format. 

Over 10 weekends, 12 amateur bakers from across the United Kingdom cook in hopes of pleasing celebrity judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. Each episode is broken down into three parts and at the end one baker goes home while another is awarded the title “Star Baker.” 

The first challenge, the signature bake, tasks the bakers with creating a staple dish they should be familiar with. This can be anything from custard tarts to rye bread rolls. Judges look for the dishes to be both recognizable and unique.

Next, the technical bake plays mind games with the contestants. Each one is given a copy of the same recipe, usually from either Hollywood’s or Berry’s cookbooks, with crucial details missing. It could use vague wording like “combine ingredients” or not tell how long the dish should be in the oven. If you’re allowed five hours to bake, but the recipe only has three steps, how long should the dough rise? The scientific nature of baking means that they have to rely on their intuition.

Finally, the showstopper segment lets the bakers get wild and creative. Tiered pies, cookie dioramas and miniature cakes highlight each baker’s artistic skills. In some other decorating-focused competitions taste doesn’t matter, but here the final work must be as delicious as it looks. 

To ease tension, comedian duo Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc sprinkle in food themed double entendres. Their delightful British phrases and mannerisms keep the show light when it’s time for the judges to eliminate a baker.

Berry may look like your sweet grandmother, but this 81-year-old legendary baker is extremely critical. Hollywood, who you think would be someone like your cool uncle, is also no slouch. In one episode he can tell bread is raw in the center just by lifting the loaf off the plate. Unlike other reality shows, it’s clear they weren’t casted purely because of looks or sharp tongues. 

When the camera isn’t rolling in the kitchen, it pans across the English countryside. The peaceful pastoral scenes are reminiscent of “Downton Abbey.” These quaint landscapes are hard to come by in these days of gritty television.

But it’s not what the show has that makes it great. It’s what the show doesn’t have. For one, there is not an ounce of drama. The bakers aren’t screened for potential conflict and juicy scenes filled with expletives. Producers don’t edit shots to make it look like there’s been sabotage.

Aside from the technical bake, there aren’t any gimmicks. There’s no secret ingredients, limited pantry, or other curveballs. You won’t see people fighting over the only stand mixer available or attempt to fill crème puffs blindfolded.

Part of this ideology is ingrained in the show itself. It’s filmed on weekends, allowing contestants to return to their normal lives each week to recharge and prepare for the next round. There’s no “Hell’s Kitchen” scenario where viewers watch the perils of dorm life.

The reason there’s no need to be snarky or rude is because there isn’t really a grand prize. The winner of the competition doesn’t get a load of cash, a book deal, a television show or their own restaurant. Instead, they go home with a cake stand. 

This unbelievably charming and lax competition can’t exist in our macho society. In fact, CBS tried to make its own version and it only lasted seven episodes. Called “The American Baking Competition,” it was hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, featured a cash prize and a publishing deal. They took everything wonderful about the program and soiled it. ABC tried more recently with a holiday version but that still hasn’t been renewed for a second season.

We have no choice but to watch the real deal. That’s fine by me. I have never been so at ease since painter Bob Ross took over the streaming service Twitch. There’s a lot to be anxious about these days. Don’t be afraid to take a mental break with some British baked goods.

Note, season one on Netflix is actually series five in the U.K. Season three airing Fridays on PBS is series six in the U.K. Series seven should be premiering some day in August. To make matters even more confusing, the show is called “The Great British Bake Off” across the pond. But, since it’s an unscripted reality television program, it doesn’t matter where you start. Just tread lightly when Googling if you care about spoilers. Put the kettle on for some chamomile tea and get watching!

This column was originally published in the July 13, 2016 edition of the Valley Courier.