Soggy bottoms, dry sponge, and flavors all wrong

The criticism on The Great British Baking Show.

A crucial component of The Great British Baking Show/Great British Bake Off (depending on where you live) is criticism. It’s a show that intends to separate the custard from the scrambled eggs by determining the best and worst baker each week, until only 3 remain. In order to do that, the judges engage in continual feedback cycles with each participant, as well as public judging of every single bake. In that regard, it’s not unlike art criticism, which is almost always public. Participants also are constantly critiquing their own work and their own skill level, and they critique each other (although this is generally always positive).

After watching all the episodes on Netflix several times over, some thoughts have bubbled to the surface regarding the criticism on the show.

Everyone expects the feedback culture, but may not be prepared for it

Something you hear from participants in the first episode of each season is “I didn’t expect them to judge the first bake that harshly.” Most people who are coming into the tent are not used to being critiqued by professionals on their bakes (why would they be?) and are therefore not often ready to hear negative feedback. There is an unacknowledged chasm between the feedback they’re used to, and the feedback in the tent.

Participants’ attitude towards criticism affects their chance of success

The people who hear criticism and are then motivated to improve in specific ways are more likely to last longer on the show than people who can’t move past the criticism itself. Both types of people may be initially affected to the same degree (that is, they may be devastated), but there is a subtle difference between people who are mortified to have done less than their best, and people who are at a loss for how they did so poorly. Some bakers say “I didn’t get it right,” and others say “it’s [the bake] not what they wanted;” the first is someone taking personal accountability, and the latter is avoiding accountability.

The feedback given is consistent throughout the season…

The judges approach to criticism doesn’t change throughout the season. The briefs typically get more complex, and the technical challenge relies more and more on the bakers’ skills rather than written instruction, but the feedback at its core is the same. Bakers are expected to complete the brief (the viewer doesn’t always know what’s in the brief), they are expected to bake competently, and they are expected to use their baking instincts to interpret ambiguity.

…even though not every misbake is judged equal

As the season progresses, bakers are expected to become increasingly competent in their baking and time management, so reverting to earlier mistakes or making basic errors is typically judged more harshly than a new type of mistake or error. As the participants are whittled down to those who are consistently better bakers, the overall skill level on the show increases. As that happens, the judges fine-tune their critiques.

Criticism is given with context and an intent to improve

The judges only give criticism with context. They always explain the error, and why it’s a problem. They give possible solutions or ways to avoid the same error. Their intent is to help the baker understand their baking flaws and improve on them. The participants who go the furthest listen to the feedback and apply it to their future bakes. However, that doesn’t mean that good bakers avoid doing things that failed for them before. Often a fairly advanced baker will circle back around to an element that they didn’t execute well the first time. They have taken the criticism into account and it’s given them the confidence to try it again.

The judges separate person, personality, and criticism

The judges (Paul, Mary, and Prue in various seasons) all have different personalities and different approaches. Paul presents himself as a straight-talking, no-nonsense man-from-the-trenches. He’s been baking apparently since he was 3 or 4 in his family bakery, so when it comes to instinct with baking (particularly breads), Paul is seen as an expert. He’s seen as strict and of the highest standard. Mary is the firm, but loving, nan on the show. People tend to adore her and feel mortified if they disappoint her. Mary is something of an institution to these bakers, so her gentle attention is like a soothing balm to their souls. She also wins people over with her love of booze and cheekiness. Prue is inexorable, like a glacier gliding through the tent. Her experience and unerring taste make her a formidable judge, although she doesn’t present as intimidating.

Paul has little patience for repeat mistakes, or for foolish mistakes, but if he likes something, he says so. Mary tends to find something nice to say about most of the bakes, even if she also has many critical things to say; it can sometimes come across a bit comic, but I suspect that for the baker in the moment, it’s a kindness. Prue doesn’t wait to deliver critical feedback. You know how Prue feels about a bake immediately, because she says what she means and what she thinks.

When each judge is going through the tent, they do make an effort to understand each baker and their motivation. They appreciate the different bakers for their different approaches and styles, and don’t hide that. However, when it comes to the judging itself, they judge the bake, not the baker. To add a check to their potential bias, one bake each episode is judged blind — the judges don’t know who baked what.

Criticism is both shallow and deep

In the technical challenge, since the judges don’t know who has done the bake they dive deeply into the technique and execution. They don’t compound the criticism with the bakers’ past wins and fails. However, when they judge each piece in front of the baker, they take the baker’s individual strengths and weaknesses at baking into account. They give feedback and advice based on what the baker is good or weak at. Each face-to-face judging gives the baker the most depth on their overall baking skill, especially when considered alongside all their other criticism. The blind judging gives the baker a sense of how their baking relates to their peers’ baking, but doesn’t necessarily build on their previous feedback. The most successful bakers find the value in each kind of feedback, and use it to move forward.

Not all highly competent bakers win

Every winner is highly competent, but not all the bakers who are highly competent win. To begin with, the show styles the bakers in the tent as the 12 best amateur bakers in Britian (for that year). So the bakers are all of a high standard from the outset. One bad weekend of baking can exit an excellent baker from the show. This is especially true once the semifinals begin. Because the judging is public and consistent, the outcome of each show feels accurate, even if it’s not predictable. Generally, you have a good sense of who is in trouble and who has done quite well even before the private tent discussion between the judges and the hosts. You may not accurately guess who exactly is star baker and who is going home, but you aren’t usually surprised — even if a favorite seems like they are in trouble. The build up of the critiques over the three bakes gives even the viewer at home the ability to feel part of the process.

The criticism is worth the gain

This show is so ridiculously pure. The bakers compete for bragging rights, a bouquet of flowers, and a cake stand. Bless their wonderful hearts and their soggy bottoms. I absolutely love that the official prize has practically no monetary value. Unofficially, bakers are on a (potentially) twelve-week crash course in hyper-accelerated baking improvement. They all go home better than when they arrived. The people who leave in the first two or three episodes obviously get the least benefit, but they still are exposed to high-pressure baking and are critiqued by professionals, at least three times. What they take home from that is up to them, but they are given the feedback fairly. The real gift the bakers win is highly individualized and priceless: the personalized criticism they recieve along the way.


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