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Planning a Successful Chili Cook-Off: A Comprehensive Guide

Learn how to plan a chili cook-off. Check out these chili recipes and a step by step guide on how to turn chili making into a party.

Chili cook-off posts are popping up all over social media. As the fall season looms, let’s take a look at how you can prepare your family, friends and fridge for a day of fun foodie competition.

If potluck dinners were the fad of the fifties, and cocktail parties were all the rage in the sixties—where does that leave us lowly millennials? Don’t fret. Just check your Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest feed, and you’ll see a whole world of foodie collaboration gaining popularity. One phenomenon, in particular, had a huge ‘moment’ last fall and winter season, and that’s the chili cook-off.

So, what’s all the hype?

Before chili competitions hit the mainstream, there were plenty of major cook-offs taking place across America—and the world. To this day, many are still organized by the International Chili Society, a group of chili enthusiasts who have been crockpotting for over fifty years. Today, they’re fittingly sponsored by Bush’s Baked Beans (clearly, these people take the craft seriously).

But beyond the state fairs and festivals, chili cook-offs have become quite the trend as of late. Now, everyone from home chefs to culinary professionals are showing off their stew-making skills in contests both public and private. While we all aspire for Michelin greatness, today, we’re going to focus on the types of cook-offs taking place at home.

How To Make Chili

Photo: Dlyan Frout, Unsplash

How does a chili cook-off work?

The premise is simple: invite your friends and family, tell each person (or couple) to bring a batch of their signature chili, and prepare for a fantastic day of cutthroat competition. Why is the chili battle so enticing? To start, it taps into our competitive spirits, taking the typical ‘bring a dish’ request into an actual event full of fun anticipation.

What’s more, chili cook-offs cater to another human desire: hunger. Is a game of monopoly going to fill your tummy? Will a game of flag football send you home with leftovers? We think not. Therefore, it seems only natural that people who love food embrace this unique chance to interact with friends while testing their culinary chops. Not to mention, there has to be a winner. And when there’s a winner, there’s a prize.

What kinds of chili can I make?

Traditional recipes are usually comprised of ground beef, beans, chiles, onions, tomatoes and a host of everyday spices. However, the chili community is indeed an inclusive one. Today, chefs are swapping out the main protein for tons of other options including chicken, ground turkey, pork chili, tofu and beyond. They’re also toying with different ethnic ingredients and flavor profiles, which breathes much-needed life into our grandma’s back-of-the-packet recipe.

Best Chili Recipe

If you’re a beginner, we recommend exploring some popular recipes online (such as Ree Drummond’s Simple Chili, Bobby Flay’s Red Beef Chili, Gordon Ramsay’s Chili Con Carne, Taste of Home’s White Chicken Chili, or Robin Miller’s Vegetarian Chili). Then, put a special spin on it. By adding an unexpected spice, local vegetables, a unique cheese, or some other outside-the-box topping, you help your chili stand out. This is the only way to win over the taste buds of friends and family. Browse Pinterest or a similar food-focused site, and you’ll get tons of inspiration. People put coffee, sriracha, chocolate, olive, mango—even lager in chili. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

What are some top tips for planning a chili cook-off?

Now that you know the basics, it’s time to step into your hosting shoes. Let’s cover the key criteria necessary for a successful chili contest.

Top 8 Tips for Planning the Ultimate Chili Cook-Off

Chili Cook OffPhoto Annie Spratt, Unsplash

  1. Narrow your chili varieties. Although a ‘whatever floats your boat’ policy is entertaining, this method isn’t conducive to a true contest. For instance, it’s difficult to compare a traditional chili made with ground beef to some loosely interpreted ‘dessert’ chili. We recommend limiting guests to savory over sweet. That still leaves plenty of room for experimentation.
  2. Consider raising money ahead of time. Everyone wants to know—what’s the grand prize? If you want to give a trophy or monetary award to the winner, ask guests to pitch in. A few bucks a head helps to cover the cost of drinks, napkins, decorations, paper cups and the like. If you’re feeling philanthropic, you can invite a ton of people, charge at the door, and donate the proceeds to your favorite charity.
  3. Ask cooks to bring crockpots. This is the only practical way to keep the entries piping hot over the course of the party. As the host, be prepared with plenty of extension cords, multi-outlet strips and counter space. You should also have some cookware ready—soup pots, stock pots, etc.—in case friends don’t have an electric one.
  4. Make sure it’s anonymous. As guests arrive, pull them into the kitchen and keep careful track of which chili belongs to which competitor. One way to handle this is to assign a number, color or name to each pot. Have fun, and take the time to create some little signs ahead of time. Decorations help build atmosphere and add to the excitement.
  5. Use small cups or bowls for testing. Instead of using your regular dishware and dealing with the massive cleanup, purchase a few bags of miniature cups. Paper or plastic works perfectly. Not only are they the ideal size for tasting, but they also allow you to write numbers or names on each one to specify entries.
  6. Don’t forget your palate cleansers. No chili lover spoons alone. Buy lots of tortilla chips, pretzels, crackers and other snacks to keep guests filled. Luckily, these also serve as the perfect built-in utensil for sampling each pot. Tasters can load up a cracker, sprinkle some cheese and be on their merry way.
  7. Have live music or entertainment. Let’s face it. You have hundreds of friends, but not all of them like chili! You can encourage more people to participate in the festivities by jazzing up the party like you would any other. From decorations to music playlists, have it all ready beforehand so folks move about the space (and avoid crowding awkwardly in the kitchen).
  8. Announce and award the top chef! Once you’ve passed out paper and pens and everyone has cast their vote, tally up the scores, and grab the microphone. Do this at a timely moment in the party as to avoid guests getting too tired. Give the culinary master their grand prize, and congratulate the crowd on an amazing chili cook-off!

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