How to Judge Chili Cook-offs

Chili con carne with cornbread muffins

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If you plan to judge a chili cook-off, get ready -- there is a little more to it than who has the hottest peppers. Official cook-offs that are sanctioned by the International Chili Society are usually held at regional and state levels while other cook-offs can be held for community fundraisers, church socials, neighborhood events or even at your own party. A judge in a chili cook-off should evaluate each bowl on its own criteria as opposed to being compared to each other. Don’t forget to drink lots of water between each entry to cleanse your palate.


The chili should look inviting and appetizing. The ICS points out that red pepper chili should be reddish brown in color, never yellow or green. Chili verde, or green chili, should be a green or have a slightly chartreuse tint. The color should be variegated throughout the bowl; no chili should be monochromatic.


Smell the chili before tasting it. The chili should have a pleasant smell that makes you want to eat it. Some chili is so hot you are able to smell the spice in the peppers while others are fragrant from the spices such as turmeric, sumac or paprika. There may even be a hint of cocoa in it. If the chili smells sour or foul, you will have to give it a low score.


Look at the ratio of the sauce and the meat. The International Chili Society deems that chili should not be runny or watery and should have some body to it. Chili cannot be greasy or grainy either. Too much fat from the meat remaining in the chili can ruin the consistency by creating grease. The chili cannot be too dry or lumpy. You want to have a base of sauce around your meat and beans. The chili should include sauce; don't let the contestant cook it down so the sauce is gone. The chili should include a good proportion of meat and beans.


The taste of the chili should be the most important category. Rate the taste based on how the ingredients blend together. The idea is to not have one ingredient dominate the pot of chili. Your contest may have specific awards that you will also judge such as, “Hottest Chili,” “Most Unusual”, or “Best Use of Alternative Meat." This is the stage to select what offerings are in contention for those awards.


Rate the aftertaste based on its intensity and pleasantness. Some chili has no bite -- a bad score is likely -- while others may have too much bite and will also receive mediocre marks. The idea is to have a lingering aftertaste without too much intensity -- just enough to make your mouth tingle but easily washed away with a few sips of your drink.