10 Things I Learned from Judging a Recipe Contest

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What do you do when you’re asked to judge a recipe contest? Say yes. That’s what I did when a staffer at the Parkersburg News & Sentinel inquired if I was available to help out with their 61st Annual Cookbook Contest. I’m always up to do something new, so I figured, why not?

The News & Sentinel’s cookbook contest is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s not a contest for cookbooks. Every year the paper puts out a call for recipes and publishes the finalists in a special insert of the paper (the “cookbook” in question). Having only moved here to the Mid-Ohio Valley a few years ago, I was curious to experience a behind-the-scenes peek at this local tradition, as well as sample what average newspaper readers in this region—which, despite its loveliness, is not known for adventurous culinary habits—cook at home. As the kind of person who considers radish greens a delicacy and nutritional yeast a pantry staple, I am often woefully out of touch with what non-crazy people eat, and I always need a reminder.

Another reason I said yes is because newspapers have a massively dwindled influence as the go-to source for new recipes. Only a few decades ago, many home cooks looked to their local paper’s weekly food section for inspiration via recipe request and readers’ exchange columns; it’s what kept your grandmother’s recipe file stocked with fresh clippings. We all share recipes in many other ways now, such as blogs and user-generated sites like Cooks.com or Allrecipes.com. It’s worth noting that reader entries for the News & Sentinel cookbook contest have dropped every year, despite the $500 grocery store gift card grand prize (hmm, maybe I should take a shot in 2016). Even so, there were 346 recipes entered this year, whittled down to the top 5 finalists per category.

Those finalists prepared the recipe they entered and dropped it off for the tasting party, where we judges scored entries on taste, preparation, originality, and overall appeal. It was fun and I meet some cool new people and got an ego boost as a local Food Media Professional of note. I also learned a few useful things about recipe contests and what happens when you literally pick food apart.

Look before you eat.

Not all delicious food looks wonderful, but presentation does count. Also, before taking a bite of anything, I’d first cut my portion in half and examine a cross-section. If it was a cake, I wanted to consider how refined the crumb was. If it was a casserole, I wanted to make sure it was cooked all the way through. Because if the answer was no, then I took an extra-small bite.

Pace yourself.

Not only for the sake of your stomach, but because rushing is not in the best interest of fair judging. The four other judges and I spoke frequently about our observations and opinions—not so much to influence each other, but to work out what was going on in our minds. Was this cake too sweet? Was the roux in the velouté sauce undercooked? We thought pretty hard about the smell, taste, and appearance of every entry, because we wanted to be fair and thorough.

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Finalists each created a recipe display, which was judged separately and not included in the scoring of the grand prize winner. I’m not sure what the point of this was, but some people went all out.

Wow, are processed foods ever salty.

Going into the judging, I feared I’d have to weather sampling a bunch of bland, under-seasoned food—but just the opposite was true. I found many of the dishes to be way too salty, and after looking over the recipes, I realized this was because lots of them called for more processed foods (canned, refrigerated, or frozen) than I’m accustomed to using in my home cooking. This was a good argument for using low-sodium products, because if you’re going through the trouble to cook food, you want it to taste like food, not a deer lick.

There was also a recipe that was so generous with dried herbs—oregano, basil, and thyme—that I thought I’d inhaled a can of Italian breadcrumbs when I tasted it. This leads us to the next discovery I made.

Drink lots of water.

Not only because of all that salt, but it was important to cleanse my palate in between tasting the many different recipes.

Losers are unanimous, but winners are often not.

The reason there are multiple judges at this sort of thing is that everyone’s tastes and opinions are different. Otherwise, you’d only need one judge. This goes for everything from American Idol to Top Chef to the Parkersburg News and Sentinel’s 61st Annual Cookbook Contest.

So the things I liked a lot—rhubarb bars, heck yes!—were not unequivocally adored by the other judges. A riff on Chicken Cordon Bleu was popular with everyone else but me. But you know what we all agreed on? What was gross and bad. Happily, there were only a few instances of that.

Make the thing first before you enter.

Just like you shouldn’t try out a new recipe on the night of a big dinner party, you shouldn’t drive blind with an untested recipe that you plan to enter in a recipe contest. Someone actually did this, which was oddly touching and sweet, but it was hands-down the worst thing we judges tasted that day.

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The finalists in the dessert category. All were good, but I only took a few small bites of each ample serving here. The rhubarb bars were my favorite, though I was the only judge who felt this way.

Assemble bites carefully.

If a dish has multiple components, it’s important to get a little of each on your forkful so you can have a good idea of the entire flavor picture all at once. I also made a point of sampling a small taste of any sauce or crust on its own, too.

Some stuff does not hold up well.

If you ever enter a cook-off where you’ll need to drop the food off for judging later, consider how long that food will be sitting around before it gets eaten. We tasted a soup whose cream had curdled and a few over-the-hill salads. Fortunately, some of those entries didn’t taste very good to begin with, so we didn’t have to take their shrived condition into account.

Coordinating something like this is a lot of work.

All I had to do was show up and blow my sodium intake for the entire week in the short span of two hours. But in the kitchen of the hall where the judging was held, staffers from the paper were busy tallying score sheets, portioning food for us to taste, washing dishes, and replenishing my glass of water for the tenth time. And that’s just the work they did on the day of the judging—beforehand, they had to cull through the entries.

Don’t eat a braunschweiger sandwich for breakfast on the day of the judging.

Even if it’s a small braunschweiger sandwich. You will need that room in your stomach for other stuff.

We finished judging around two in the afternoon. It was a bit like a very long luncheon with 35 different tiny courses, and I felt both massively bloated and oddly undernourished as I waddled out to my car. For dinner that night, still reeling from the salt bomb of the afternoon, I ate an apple. The skin was a little thick, but the flesh was crisp and juicy, with a great balance of sweet and tart. I’d give it an 8.

Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor, and the author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook.

Main image by Lee Cannon CC BY-SA