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History of the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest

Philip Pillsbury led contestants to their stoves at the start of the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest.
From tradition to trend, the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest has held a special place in hearts (and ovens!) for almost 70 years. Find out where it started—and where it’s going in 2018.

Before there was “Top Chef”, before there was “Cupcake Wars” or “Hell’s Kitchen”, there was the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest. The legendary baking competition was introduced in 1949 in honor of Pillsbury’s 80th birthday and as an effort to promote Pillsbury™ Best® flour. At the heart of the Bake-Off was the desire to create an opportunity for American homemakers to not only share their beloved recipes, but to also share the stories that go along with them.

How the Bake-Off Began

Originally called the “Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest,” the Bake-Off received thousands of entries from across the country. As we mentioned, Pillsbury Best flour was a required ingredient in all recipe submissions and there were six categories that participants could enter: breads, cakes, pies, cookies, entrees and desserts. If participants submitted a seal from the Pillsbury Best flour they used in the recipe, their prize money could be doubled.

A panel of Pillsbury home economists sifted through thousands of entries and eventually narrowed them down to 100 finalists. Each finalist was invited to the live competition in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria hotel to make their recipe in hopes of winning the $25,000 grand prize.

Bake-Off® Contest oven stations.

(Seen above) One hundred finalists attend the live Bake-Off to make their recipe at their own oven station. Philip Pillsbury, Pillsbury’s president and grandson of Charles Pillsbury, led contestants to their stoves at the start of each contest until 1984.

The first contest’s winning recipe was from Theodora Smafield of Michigan. Smafield was awarded $50,000 for her No-Knead Water-Rising Twists, a recipe that used dough wrapped in a tea towel submerged in warm water for a unique rising technique. The original $25,000 grand prize doubled for Smafield since she submitted her package seal from Pillsbury Best flour. The remaining $20,000 was divided among the other eight finalists.

Bake Off® Contest Winner

Since it’s inception in 1949, the Bake-Off has inspired thousands of people to submit their original recipes and Pillsbury has awarded millions of dollars in prizes. Read on to see how America’s original baking competition has remained a favorite for 65 years.

The Bake-Off Through the Years

After the overwhelming success of the first contest, the Bake-Off became an annual event until 1976 when Pillsbury decided to run it every other year—a decision that left home cooks and bakers eagerly anticipating the announcement and details of Bake-Offs to come.

Eleanor Roosevelt presents an award at the first-ever Bake-Off® Contest.

(Seen above) Eleanor Roosevelt presents an award at the first-ever Bake-Off Contest in New York City, 1949.

Over time, the contest’s rules and regulations adapted to reflect evolving food trends and American culture.

In the first year, there was only one division, but in 1950, the contest was divided into a junior and senior division.

In 1968, categories were added for convenience mixes and Pillsbury dough products. By 1994, the Pillsbury Grands! refrigerated biscuits were added to the list of ingredients and the Bake-Off officially embraced its “quick and easy” niche that allows working families to sit down together at the table for dinner.

In 2013, the contest stipulations required that recipes included fewer than eight ingredients and the preparation time did not exceed thirty minutes.

Here’s a look at some of the most notable pieces of Bake-Off history throughout the decades:

The 50s

  • In 1950, the Bake-Off split the contest into a junior division (12-18 years old) and senior division (19 years or older). 
  • In 1954, Mrs. Bernard Koteen won the grand prize with her recipe for Open Sesame Pie; there was a shortage of sesame seeds in stores around the country as so many people wanted to make the pie.
  • In 1957, the competition left New York City for the first time and was held in Los Angeles. 
  • Also in 1957, Frida Smith won the Bake-Off with her Peanut Blossoms, a cookie that can be found on almost every cookie tray during the holidays!

The 60s

  • In 1966, America was introduced to the Tunnel of Fudge Cake, a runner-up recipe from Ella Helfrich. The cake recipe became a cultural icon and incited a mass demand for the Bundt pan, a cake pan designed by Minnesota-based company Nordic Ware. 
  • In 1969, Edna Walker from Minnesota won the grand prize for her Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs. The recipe was especially momentous because it was the first winning recipe to use a refrigerated dough product. So many people flocked to the grocery store to buy the recipe’s ingredients that stores ran out of Pillsbury Refrigerated Crescent Dinner Rolls!

The 70s

  • After the 1976 contest, the Bake-Off was held every other year.

The 80s

The 90s

  • By 1995, the total dollar amount of prizes, cash and trips awarded to contestants since the Bake-Off’s inception reached $6 million. 
  • In 1996, the grand prize was awarded to Kurt Wait, the first male participant to win. 
  • Also in 1996, the grand prize increased from $50,000 to $1,000,000 dollars. 
  • In 1998, there was a record-setting number of male participants in the Bake-Off.

The 2000s

  • The 47th Bake-Off was held in 2014 in Nashville; for the first time, the public was able to vote online without tasting the entries. They selected the Peanutty Pie Crust Clusters as the grand prize winner.  
  • In 2014, the categories were Simply Sweet Treats, Savory Snacks and Sides, Weekend Breakfast Wows and Amazing Doable Dinners. 
  • In 2017, Pillsbury announced that the Bake-Off was back. Yes, you read that right! The Bake-Off is back!

Woman baking muffins at the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest.

(Seen above) Edna (Holmgren) Walker puts the finishing touch on her Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs in the 20th annual Bake-Off. The recipe won the grand prize in 1969.

What’s Next for the Bake-Off

2018 will mark the 48th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest and we’re thrilled to see what you’ve got cooking up, America! Entries officially open in October 2017 and the winner will be announced February 2018. Stay tuned for updates!

Bake-Off is a registered trademark of The Pillsbury Company