Right after I shared a blog post about Cooking Contests, I was contacted by Brian Wansink. He shared his post on The Cooking Psychology of How to Win Cooking Contests. Of course, I had to share it with you.

Here is an excerpt of Brian’s top tips:

Use Taste Contrast.  After tasting eleven versions of the same pasta, sensory-specific satiety sets in, and pasta starts tasting monotonous.  You win by making your recipe stand out in contrast from the others, and you win by having contrast – taste contrast and texture contrast – within your own recipe.  A chili that stands out by adding some steak chunks along with the hamburger, has a taste contrast compared to other chilis.  One that uses onion that’s cut into large long pieces (instead of diced), makes every bite stand out in contrast to the next.

Use Visual Contrast. At Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, they say “You taste first with your eyes.”  If it looks great, the judges are thinking it’s going to taste great.  By including colorful or high contrasting colors or shapes, it makes it look less boring compared the previous 11 things they just tried.  The pasta recipe that uses two kinds of pasta, black olive slices, two types of meat, and a broiler-browned top is going to look a lot more award-winning than the 11 family recipe spaghettis they just tasted.

Give it the Right Name.  Tables full of eating psychology research shows that you taste what you expect you’ll taste. If someone says something is sweet, you start focusing on what’s sweet about the food.  If they say something is creamy, it seems to taste creamier to you.  You can make your Olympic entry look good by having it in a nice dish and making it look great (using contrast like browning, parsley, or whatever).  You can also give it a name that evokes what you want people to taste.  Calling your favorite dessert entry “Sugar Cookies” won’t be doing you a favor, but calling them “Vanilla Sugar Cookies” (because you put a drop of vanilla in the recipe) just raised the Las Vegas betting average that you’ll place higher in the sugar cookie race.

Brian also took his own advice:

Step 1. Grab Ingredients. I took a basic boring crab casserole recipe off the internet and defrosted about $3 worth of fake crab meat from the freezer.  I grabbed other stuff from the cupboards that would give it taste contrast or visual contrast.

Step 2. Add Taste Contrast.  I figured the judges would be eating lots of casseroles with pasta, rice, or potatoes as the starch.  I wanted this to stand out a different.  I substituted soft bread cubes and sliced hard-boiled eggs instead of the pasta.  Then I put a cup of celery in it giving each bite a taste contrast.  I would have sautéed garlic, but I didn’t think of it until I was backing out of the garage.

Step 3. Add Visual Contrast.  Sliced black olives – in the shape of rings – would have some nice contrast.  Not everyone likes black olives, but they would be worth the risk.  I also finished the casserole off under the broiler to brown it for contrast.

Step 4. Give it the Right Name.  Instead of calling it Crab Casserole, I called it “Crab-a-gonza Casserole” which was silly given that there’s no actual crab in the recipe.  To take the silliness over the top, I put a little crab icon next to the name, and printed out a color nameplate, in case they put the descriptions in front of the entry (which they ended up doing).

Step 5.  Collect Your Prize.  This prize was larger than the first kitchen I had.

My One Delicious Win

I did win one once. I came in third in a Super Bowl of Chili Cook-off.

Excerpt from How To Win Cash, Cars, Trips & More!:

I occasionally enter cooking and baking contests because cooking and baking are another love of mine. For example, my chili recipe won 3rd prize in a Super Bowl of Chili Cook-Off in 2002.

Carolyn’s Award-Winning Awesome Chicken Chili

3lbs. ground chicken (I prefer to grind my own using skinless boneless thighs.)
1 large Spanish onion, diced
1 tbsp. canola oil
4 large or 6 medium tomatoes, diced (a can of diced tomatoes can be used if desired)
1 green pepper, seeded and diced
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
1 yellow pepper, seeded and diced
1 orange pepper, seeded and diced
1 cubanelle pepper, seeded and diced
1 hot banana pepper, seeded and diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
1 chili pepper, seeded and finely diced (use gloves for this step, trust me!)
1 tbsp. chili powder*
1 tbsp. hot chili flakes*
10 dashes of Tabasco
1 tsp. salt*
1 tsp. ground black pepper*
1 19oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 19oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

This is one of the easiest recipes ever. I place all the ingredients (except for the oil, the onion, and the chicken) in an 8qt. pot and turn the heat on low. In a cold frying pan pour in the oil and turn the heat on medium-low (the cooking temperatures were determined by my halogen stovetop and may be adjusted for your stove). Once the oil is hot, turn the heat to low, put the onion in the pan, sauté until soft, and then add the onion to the pot. In the same frying pan, place the raw chicken (add a bit more oil if it is required) and cook until there is no pink color left. (I find the chicken browns faster if I put the lid on the frying pan.) Drain the chicken and then add the chicken to the pot. Stir about every ½ hour. Put the lid on until the chili boils then I find the chili turns out best if cooked on low without a lid for 3-4 hours. Otherwise, there is too much liquid and it is too runny to scoop with chips.
*to taste

My prize for such a delicious recipe was a nice basket of Tabasco branded goodies including an apron, a golf shirt, a silk scarf, and enough Tabasco sauce to make a ton of chili!

Have you ever entered a cooking contest?