How to enter (and win) cooking and recipe contests.

Perhaps you once dreamt of culinary school or the glory of cooking in a restaurant, but your dreams were halted by realities of expense or of too much food TV consumption featuring the antics of Gordon Ramsay.

I’d like to let you in on a secret. There is a way to both flex your culinary creativity and make money doing so, without spending more than what you might normally spend on lunch or ever having to shout “yes, chef!” (But if you’re into that, how you talk to yourself in the privacy of your own kitchen is your business.)

I was turned on to the idea of recipe contests after a lackluster game show performance left me still wanting to be a millionaire. (Or at least a several-tens-of-thousands-aire.) Ostensibly in an effort to cheer me, my mother sent me a link to a sandwich-building contest sponsored by Panera Bread with a $10,000 prize. After a week spent dutifully logging on to arrange digital sandwich fixings in arresting combinations I thought, “wait a minute. Don’t I actually have real culinary credibility? The Pillsbury Bake-Off? Isn’t that a thing?”

Oh, it’s a thing. One that I am not actually eligible for, but nonetheless, recipe contests are real and abundant and want to give you money for cooking in your own kitchen. I’m not talking about long-shot odds of being able to name the next zany potato chip flavor, I’m talking about a methodical approach to actually designing and preparing dishes for contest triumph. In the last several years I’ve won everything from enrollment in a brownie-of-the-month club, to a crate of avocados, to a trip to San Francisco, to $5000. You can, too.

Step One: Find Some Contests

I recommend a very sophisticated procedure utilizing a popular internet search engine and the magic words “recipe contests.” There are a few annually recurring contests that you should totally set calendar dates for (looking at you, Pillsbury,) but also many other small one-off contests that may be worth your time whether you’re in it for cash, trips, or avocados.

Step Two: Read the Rules

Once you’ve found a contest you think you might want to enter, read the contest rules. Not just the steps for entry. Every contest has an “official rules” link, with detailed rules written in legal speak. Know whether you are eligible for a particular contest, what the specific deadlines are, how the entries are judged, how many entries you are able to submit, if you must show some product packaging in the photograph, and whether there are any restrictions on number or type of ingredients or how recipes should be written. Know whether an online voting process is part of the judging process, and decide how well you like and/or trust your social media friends, because if there is a social component, you’re going to have to be very annoying to get the kind of response needed to get yourself into the top entries.

Step Three: Read The Rules. Again.

Don’t waste your time and/or money if you’re going to lose on a technicality. The large print may say “Enter by September 28” but the fine print might say “enter by 11:59 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on September 28.” Don’t be putting the finishing touches on your masterpiece as midnight approaches on the West Coast when the contest ended 15 hours ago. If the contest is a five-ingredient challenge but salt, pepper, and oil are freebies, know that. And use them.

Step Four: Consider The Odds; Place Your Best Bets

Do the math. Many of the contests I’ve entered allow you to see other entries as they are posted. I am often surprised at how few entries exist for some large payoff prizes. A one-in-one-hundred chance at a $1000 prize isn’t bad, especially considering that roughly 60 of those 100 entries probably didn’t follow some element of the rules. (Step Four-and-a-Half: Read the Rules One More Time.) You can also be strategic about how you submit your entries. One of my bigger payoffs came from a contest where you could submit a total of 10 entries among three categories: entrees, soups, or sides. There would be a finalist from each category. Entrees and Soups each had about four times the total entries as sides did. I submitted a majority of my entries to sides. Not-so-humble brag: I won for both the sides and the soup category.

Step Five: Create

Here’s where you get to be creative, but within reason. Most contests I’ve found are sponsored by a product or organization with some sort of culinary point of view. The very purpose of many of these contests is brand recognition and PR. They’re probably going to put your winning recipe on social media, or maybe even on the product packaging for a limited period of time. Read other recipes on their website and get a sense of their demographic. Fearless foodies? Families? Females? Think about dishes that are a huge hit when you bring them to a potluck, or a fun restaurant dish you love to recreate at home. Lists of ingredients are not eligible for copyright, so if you have an idea you want to pursue, look for other recipes with a similar vibe for help in measurements and ratios. I once won on a recipe for gluten-free shrimp corn dogs. I did not invent the idea of shrimp corn dogs. Neither did the restaurant where I got the idea. Neither did Gina Neely or Rachael Ray or any number of the chefs who have recipes for shrimp corn dogs available online. Nobody owns the rights to shrimp plus batter plus stick, but if you come up with a unique dip or a variation on the batter then you could very well win with a pretty basic idea.

Step Six: Capture

Take a good picture. Like, a really good picture. Take several good pictures from different angles, choose the best one, and crop it. Many contests, at least in the initial rounds, evaluate the entries by perception of taste and visual appeal without the recipe actually being tested. I have nothing more than a smartphone camera and decent natural light, but I’m doing my best to take a well-staged, close up, focused picture of the dish. Turn off the flash. Create ambiance and context with cutlery, linens, or funky dishes. You don’t need to hire a professional food stylist, but treat this as something you’d want to post on social media for maximum likeability. Don’t submit a picture of yourself. (Really, people do this all of the time. They do not usually look tasty or visually appealing.) Don’t submit a blurry picture of a sloppy mess with your dirty dishes in the background.

Step Seven: Document

Write a recipe that makes sense, with both a list of ingredients in the order you are using them and a set of procedures. In the interest of full disclosure, I did go to culinary school, and admittedly, this, not so much on creativity, is where my education gives me a leg up. (I have never, however, worked professionally as a cook and I am careful to READ THE RULES and only apply to contests where the language doesn’t disclude me. Still looking at you, Pillsbury.) I’ve studied thousands of recipes, and I know how to logically delineate cooking methods, times, and temperatures, and how to build flavors. When making soup, for example, you get a very different outcome from just putting all the raw ingredients in a pot and then turning up the heat, than if you heat the pot first, then layer ingredients based on certain principles. I don’t necessarily recommend attending culinary school as a means of winning some contests, but again you would do well to read recipes for dishes similar to yours.

Step Eight: Double Check

Before you hit send, review everything. Make sure you haven’t left out a major component or step. Write a clever blurb or description if there’s an opportunity to do so. If the contest is sponsored by a brand, use the brand name when listing that component. Make sure the file for your photo is named something appropriate.

Step Nine: Glory

Well, that’s the goal anyway. Good luck, and keep us updated about your winnings!

Header image by Blend Images/Shutterstock.

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