For viewers, “The Great British Baking Show” is a delightful escape — but what is it like to actually compete on the series?
Insider spoke with several former contestants from the show, known as “The Great British Bake Off” in the UK, about their experience baking in the famous tent.
From long shooting days to stinky clothes, here’s what they said:
The application process is long and strenuous
Before the bakers can even experience the high levels of stress that come with competing on the show, they have to spend a lot of time and effort applying for it.
“The application process is rigorous, starting with the longest application form in the history of forms,” season seven’s Rav Bansal told Insider.
Before settling on the 12 or 13 final contestants, the show’s crew has every applicant go through a psych evaluation, said season four’s Ali Imdad.
“They narrow it down to about 20 or 30 to see a psychologist to see if you could handle the fame that might come from it,” he told Insider.
But you don’t have to be an avid home baker to make it on the show
No one who competes on the show is a professional, but some contestants aren’t even longtime home bakers.
Imdad told Insider he experienced many of his baking firsts on the show.
“I didn’t think they would actually call me back. I just kind of fluked my way through,” he said. “Literally every round I was like, ‘OK, this is the first time I’ve made custard’ or whatever this is. I honestly don’t know how I got on.”
Transitioning from regular life to competing on TV was overwhelming for some bakers
Season-eight baker Tom Hetherington grew up baking with his mom and grandma, and he ended up applying on a whim the last day the show was accepting applications.
“I didn’t put too much thought into the application or the process or even the outcome of it,” he said. “I really just kind of went with it as a task just to do that day.”
He tried to bring that same laid-back attitude with him when he was eventually chosen for the show, but that turned out to be harder than he thought.
“I sort of turned up thinking I’ll do my best, and then I got there and I was working full-time as well so I was dealing with everything and practicing only when I could,” he said. “When we met for the first time, quite a few of the other bakers were like, ‘Oh I’ve quit my job. I’m putting everything into this.’ And I was thinking, ‘I wonder if I haven’t taken this as seriously as some of the others.'”
Imdad also said that the show doesn’t offer much help or guidance to bakers who are less technically skilled.
“I don’t think the show is there to teach you skills, honestly,” he told Insider. “It’s here more to sort of see how you cope under pressure.”
There are a lot of people crammed into the tent off camera
One of the most unique aspects of the show is that all of the baking takes place in an outdoor tent.
Although the tent is rather spacious, season nine’s Antony Amourdoux told Insider that there are a lot more people inside than viewers may realize.
“The start of each episode is shot in the tent, and then after that everything else is shot on the outside,” he said. “That’s because there are close to 100 people right in the middle of that small little tent.”
The filming days take about 10 to 16 hours
Typically, each episode of “Bake Off” is filmed over two days. So the hour or so of footage that viewers see is only a fraction of the time the cast and crew actually spent shooting.
“It takes quite a long time to film, and I don’t think everyone appreciates how long it takes, but it becomes very exhausting and very stressful,” Hetherington told Insider.
He explained that depending on how many contestants are left in the competition, filming days can take anywhere from 10 to 16 hours.
“You start early in the morning and it ends a little after six or seven in the evening,” Amourdoux added. “Normally they shoot on the weekends because some contestants work — like I was working. So Saturday will be the whole day and Sunday will be early in the morning to around midday.”
But there really are time constraints on each challenge
Even though the filming days are long, the bakers really only get the time stated to complete each challenge.
“Do [viewers] know that we really only get the time that they say we get? I mean, some people don’t believe it.” season eight’s Stacey Hart told Insider.
“Sometimes the time is just not enough. But they were quite kind,” she continued. “One time a producer came up to me and said, ‘Stacey if you’re going to finish that you better hurry up.’ She wasn’t supposed to do that, but it was nice”
The bakers, hosts, and judges have to wear the same clothes for multiple days of filming
Fans are often quick to point out that the bakers are wearing the same clothes throughout an episode of “Bake Off” even though they each take place over two days.
The contestants explained that they wear the same outfits for continuity reasons, but that they get pretty gross after a full day of baking.
“It’s easier if you’re a presenter or Paul Hollywood because I’ll tell you what, he’s only there for about an hour. After that he goes and changes and chills out,” Amourdoux said. “But if you are a baker, you are sweating in those clothes and you’re proper stinky.”
The baker added that some contestants got creative and brought two identical outfits, but Bansal said that some of the competitors resorted to washing their clothes in the hotel bathtubs.
The actual baking can get extremely messy
From the viewers’ perspective, after a challenge ends, the tent is magically cleaned and ready to go for judging by the next shot. But there’s a whole crew of people behind-the-scenes who reset the bakers’ stations.
“We bakers, when we enter that tent, we lose the concept of cleanliness for some reason. Everyone’s chucking things on themselves, on the floor, and that place looks like a warzone after we bake,” Amourdoux said. “The home-economics team cleans all of that up, which takes about 30 to 45 minutes.”
He added that after cleaning, the crew spends about an hour taking beauty shots of each bake before the contestants are judged one by one.
Contestants sometimes get annoyed dealing with judges and hosts during high-pressure moments
Imdad explained that contestants are prescheduled for their little meetings with the judges throughout the challenges, and there’s no getting out of them.
“They never go on your time, it’s always on their time,” he told Insider. “So even if you’re having a panic attack, if they’ve booked you for that 10:15 a.m. with Paul and Mary to come, then they are going to come at 10:15 a.m.”
He continued, “Your attention has to focus on them, which is a little bit annoying.”
The production team can be understanding of uncontrollable circumstances that negatively affect the bakes
The temperature-sensitive challenges — like those involving ice cream, chocolate, or spun sugar — always seem to take place on the hottest day of the season.
But according to Hetherington, the production team isn’t completely cold-hearted when it comes to uncontrollable forces like the weather.
“On caramel week, the weather was really awful and we had to have an aspect of our signature challenge that was a spun-sugar piece,” he said. “Because they have to do beauty shots of the cakes on the turntable before the judging they said to us, ‘Look we know that lots of the sugar work are going to dissolve because of the humidity so if you have time you can make a spare one.'”
He continued, “But, that’s the only time I really remember any leniency.”
The show isn’t staged, which helps set it apart from some other competition series
Although reality TV has a reputation for not being very real, according to Hetherington, “Bake Off” is an exception.
“Nothing is staged on this show. There’s no prize at the end of the day other than a plate,” he said. “I kind of absolutely love it for that reason in that truly what you see is predominantly what you get.”
The baker continued, “It’s just 12 or 13 people who really like baking and really like one another. It’s very cheesy and it’s very British, but it’s true in that regard.”
The dreaded technical rounds really are a surprise for the contestants
Hart agreed that what you see is what you get on “Bake Off” — including the surprise element of the technical round.
“The technical rounds really are a surprise,” she said. “I really enjoyed them, except when they put you at the front.”
Hart explained that the bakers aren’t allowed to turn around much at their stations to see what the other contestants are doing, so the people toward the back had a bit of an advantage since they could easily see everyone in front of them.
Amourdoux also confirmed that the bakers don’t get any information about the technical rounds before the presenters announce them. And even once they know what it is, there isn’t a ton of information to go off of.
“The technical round is a nightmare,” he told Insider. “None of the instructions are thorough. The instructions they give you are sort of all half-baked.”
The bakers have to write their own recipes for the signature and showstopper rounds
Although the bakers don’t have time to prepare for the technical rounds, they get plenty of notice to develop recipes for the other two challenges.
“You’re given a brief for two challenges — the signature challenge and the showstopper. It’s very detailed on what you need to deliver,” Amourdoux said. “You’re given a lot of time to practice and write recipes.”
Despite the ample amount of time, the process can be draining.
“When we write our recipes that in itself is a nightmare of a process,” he said. “We have to write step-by-step what we’re doing, what ingredients we need, and how much exactly you need if things go wrong.”
Hart added that the contestants have to decide on their bakes pretty far in advance, and they only have a limited window to change their minds.
“You have to submit quite a lot before the show even started, and then once the show started you had a week to change stuff in between and to practice. That’s when a lot of changes would take place,” she said. “But you always had to tell production what changes you made.”
She also said that the description of the challenge doesn’t come with any extra information to help the bakers, so if they’ve never heard of a bake, they have to do some research.
“For example, something like a Bedfordshire clanger. It’s a sort of pie thing. Nobody had ever known what a Bedfordshire clanger was before going on the show,” she told Insider. “The only thing we knew was when we looked up, ‘What is a Bedfordshire clanger?’ on the internet.”
The show provides contestants with baking supplies, but they can also bring their own
When asked whether or not contestants have to bring their own kitchen equipment, Hart told Insider that they’re allowed to, but they don’t have to.
“I used to walk up with bags and bags of my own stuff all named with labels because I just trust my own pans and I just trust my own knives and spatulas,” she said. “My car was filled with all of my pots and pans and everything — even down to my cooling racks.”
The baker said she even brought her own baking parchment paper because she didn’t want to make the challenges “any more difficult” than they already were.
She continued, “Some people walked up with nothing but I’d walk up with everything.”
Bakers can also request specific ingredients for their recipes
After the contestants submit their recipes and they’re approved by production, the team gathers the ingredients they’ll need for the challenges.
“Everything that we need for our bakes is provided by the team, within reason of course,” Bansal said. “If you need a rare vanilla bean that can only be sourced from a remote region of the Amazon Jungle in South America, then they may offer an alternative or encourage you to provide it yourself.”
Hart added that the show even allows bakers to specify which brand of an ingredient they need. But it’s on them to remember to do so.
“I forgot one day to write down the exact brand of brown sugar that I use, and that was the week that I actually got kicked out,” she said. “As soon as I got in there I was like I cannot believe I forgot to put Tate & Lyle.”
Amourdoux told Insider that the show’s home-economics team makes all the ingredient requests possible.
“They are some awesome unbelievable people,” he said. “I still remember one of the challenges, I think it was cake week, Ruby Bhogal didn’t have cherries because it wasn’t cherry season. But they imported them from somewhere in Europe and made sure she had cherries for the challenge.”
Although the bakers said the show was pretty authentic, it can portray people in certain ways
When people choose to appear on reality television, they take the risk of being portrayed however the production team sees fit.
Hart told Insider that she took on the role of the funny baker throughout her run.
“I was kind of told how they were going to portray me. It was like I did the funny stuff, ” she said. “Like that I broke the oven door. I didn’t break the oven door at all. They put the oven door straight back on, and it was not a big deal.”
She continued, “There were certain things they showed me doing that they didn’t show other people doing because they can’t show everybody, but they show the funniest things.”
Hart also said that parts of her experience on the show were edited out.
“I got the first double handshake, which was great. But the editors took one of the handshakes out of the airing,” she said.
A Paul Hollywood handshake is the highest honor for “Bake Off” contestants, but they are usually few and far between.
“Paul had a bite of one side of my Bedfordshire clangers and he loved it and shook my hand immediately. Then he tried the other side and loved it and shook my hand again,” she added. “He’d never done that to anyone, and I couldn’t wait for it to air, and guess what?”
The leftover food from the challenges has been served to the cast, crew, and, formerly, pigs
With numerous contestants baking multiple challenges an episode, there are plenty of leftover sweets and bakes on filming days. But they don’t go to waste.
“You’d think that’d be a lot of food, but there are more than 100 people in the tent. So as soon as they are allowed to eat it everything just disappears in minutes,” Amourdoux told Insider. “The crew and production team dig in and each of the bakers is sent bites of each other’s bakes so we all get to taste each other’s as well.”
“Whatever scraps are leftover Prue Leith apparently takes home to feed her pigs,” Hart added. “That’s what I was told. That she feeds them the scraps.”
Although Leith has previously spoken about feeding scraps to her neighbor’s pigs, she said she stopped after learning it could make them ill.
Being surrounded by baked goods can take a toll on some contestants
Trying countless bites of sweet dishes in addition to eating the meals provided by the production team was a lot for some bakers.
“There was so much food. We’d have a big, beautiful bacon-and-egg bowl breakfast, they’d give us survival snacks during shooting, after the challenge you’d go back and have your lunch, and then after you do the technical food would be put on the table in the green room and we’d just sit there scarfing,” Hart told Insider. “I put on so much weight. I’ve lost it now, but it’s a lot.”
Hart also added that Sandi Toksvig, a presenter on the show from 2017 to 2020, didn’t seem to be a big fan of sweets.
“None of the judges ever spat the food out to avoid weight gain, but I think Sandi sometimes didn’t try bakes,” she said. “I don’t think Sandy’s got a particularly sweet tooth, but she loves cheese so she always ate anything with cheese.”
Contestants aren’t allowed to have their phones during filming
Although contestants are allowed to call family and friends when they leave the set, they can’t communicate with the outside world during filming.
“We weren’t allowed to have our phones during the day which was upsetting,” Hart said. “In fact, my son broke his arm one day and I didn’t know.”
She added that the rule was particularly strict her season since it was the first one that aired on Channel 4 after it switched from BBC.
The bakers can’t tell most of their loved ones that they’re competing on the show before it airs
As if the stress of being on the show isn’t difficult enough, the contestants aren’t allowed to tell most of their family and friends that they’re even competing on the series due to nondisclosure agreements.
“Every time you think you’re going home and you make it through — that is an amazing feeling. Then I call my husband and he’s like, ‘Oh God. Not another weekend just me and the kids,'” Hart told Insider. “My kids didn’t know where I was because of the NDA. They would tell the world, my kids, they couldn’t keep that secret.”
She said she told her kids and friends that she was doing a course, but some of them saw through the lie.
“All my friends had to have known,” Hart said. “I didn’t tell them but they were like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re doing a cooking course.’ They would say, ‘Well how long is it?’ and I would say, ‘Well, I’m not really sure. It might be one week or it might be 10 weeks.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, sure. You’re doing a course.'”
There’s a certain team spirit in the tent
Contestants on “Bake Off” are often seen giving each other warm words of encouragement or even helping each other complete challenges in the final seconds.
“Nobody actually wants to win because they want others to fail,” Imdad told Insider. “They want to win because it’s a nice warmly comforting show and they want to show that they are good at baking. If anything, if one member is failing, once people are finished they’ll go and help them out.”
Hart echoed the sentiment, telling Insider, “In week one, Yan Tsou didn’t even put her oven on, and if I hadn’t told her she wouldn’t have been in week two.”
She continued, “We helped each other all of the time. We were a massive family. We loved each other.”
Many of the contestants remained friends with their competitors after the show
For fans who love the show’s sense of camaraderie, it’s nice to know that many of the contestants are still in touch.
“Once you’re on ‘GBBO’ you’re all sort of a family,” Imdad told Insider. “So I know the new ‘Bake Off’ people and the old ‘Bake Off’ people.”
Hart also told Insider that she’s still in touch with her fellow bakers.
“We have a WhatsApp group and we meet every so often,” she said. “We went to Amsterdam last year, that was great. And, you know, we’ll send Merry Christmas messages and jokes to each other, that kind of thing.”
Bansal told Insider that his season’s bakers also have a WhatsApp group that they still use to chat a few times a week.
“It is amazing how you can put 12 strangers together and we are able to get on so well. We are always supporting each other’s projects,” he said.
Amourdoux agreed that meeting new people was one of the greatest things about doing the show.
“I found the love of my life there! Literally, Ruby and I have been so close,” he said. “That’s the best thing to come out of the show — really great, strong relationships.”
Some contestants changed their careers after the show, but others just carried on with their lives
After appearing on the popular reality TV series, some contestants were offered new opportunities to build their platforms and launch their baking careers.
Imdad, who came in ninth place on his season, has made some big changes thanks to the show.
“I used to work in marketing and right now I own a pâtisserie called Cocoa. We’re about to open up a second branch,” he said. “There are winners who end up doing nothing and there are people who come in 9th or 12th who now own a business or their life revolves around baking.”
He continued, “So you’ve got to see ‘Bake Off’ as a springboard. It’s up to you how high you want to jump.”
But for others, the show didn’t really change their everyday lives.
“I didn’t quit my job and I still have my job. In that regard, my life is very much the same,” Hetherington said. ” I think the thing that has changed is I get to do things that are great fun, like food festivals.”
Follow along with our series of interviews to see what else the former bakers revealed to Insider.