How to Host a Chili Cook-off

By: Julia Layton  | 
Sure, a hot bowl of chili is delicious at home, but when part of a regulation cook-off, chili-eating becomes a social event.
Sure, a hot bowl of chili is delicious at home, but when part of a regulation cook-off, chili-eating becomes a social event.

For die-hard chili lovers, the meaty, saucy, sometimes spicy meal-in-a-bowl is practically a lifestyle. Few foods boast the contests, cultural links, secret ingredients and prized ancestral recipes that surround chili, and there has recently sprung a twist in the traditional fan-base: It's not just for cowboys anymore.

You can find chili cook-offs in cities all over the country with all types of folks in attendance, from ranchers to hipsters to food critics. They've made their way into restaurants and backyards. Some are serious cooking contests, others mainly an excuse to drink some beer; but no matter the kind of event, there are going to be some common requirements.


Some are obvious: cooking tools, serving bowls and lots of fresh spoons for sampling. If it's a public event, you'll need some posters, maybe a banner.

Somewhat less obvious are the specific rules, regulations and judging guidelines for a traditional chili cook-off. Perhaps the easiest way to host a cook-off is to register with a sanctioning body that provides, for a fee, everything from bowls to official judging sheets. But for hosts who want to keep costs down or just keep it extra casual, it's simple enough to do it yourself.

Here are the basic rules, regulations and judging criteria that will help you host a chili extravaganza. Get ready to turn your party into a cook-off.

First, the rules ...

Chili Cook-off Rules and Guidelines

As any Texas cook will tell you, a chili contest is serious business. You don't just grab a bunch of people, tell them to cook up a batch of their best and call it a cook-off. There are rules for these things.

How many rules depends on the seriousness of the event, of course, but in almost all cases you'll find at least a handful of basic rules, regulations and guidelines, like those spelled out by the International Chili Society (ICS), including:


Defining "chili"

While your three-bean chili might deeply impress the neighbors, don't bring it to an official ICS chili cook-off. There are, according to the ICS, only two kinds of chili, and neither contains beans. Red chili is made with meat, red chili peppers, spices and sauce ingredients; green chili is the same except it has green chili peppers instead of red.

Cooking on-site

While cook-offs typically allow for pre-mixing of spices and the use of pre-cooked, canned tomatoes, competition chili is not pre-made. Ingredients must be combined on-site, and meat may not be pre-cooked in any way.

Time limit

All cooks should have the same amount of time to prepare their entries. Contestants should start cooking at the same time, with a set number of hours to finish before judging starts. The ICS allows three to four hours, for reference.

Chili volume

Contestants should be informed beforehand how much chili they will need to prepare specifically for the judges -- you don't want to run out come official-tasting time!


Entries should be anonymous to prevent any bias (or perceived bias) in judging. In most cook-offs, each entry is assigned a number that appears on the official judging sheet.

Judging, of course, is the crux of the event, and as such, has its own set of regulations, not the least of which is a standardized set of criteria that determines what makes a great chili.

Chili Cook-off Judging Sheet

Sadly for some, happily for one, every cook-off has a winner -- and choosing that winner is almost as much a process as the cooking part.

While judging by taste is always going to be subjective, the goal of any judging process is to limit that subjectivity as much as possible. In a chili cook-off, that begins with a set of five specific criteria by which each chili is judged:


  • Color -- Does the chili look appetizing? Does it look bright and colorful or dull and bland?
  • Aroma -- Does it smell good? Does the aroma make you want to dig in?
  • Consistency -- How is the meat-to-sauce ratio? It shouldn't be runny, mushy or overly thick.
  • Taste -- How is the flavor? Do the ingredients blend well, or is one too overpowering? Does the first bite make you want another one?
  • Aftertaste -- Once you swallow, is there a spicy taste ("bite") that stays on your tongue? Is it pleasant?

On top of the chili-quality criteria, judges have some guidelines of their own. They should use a clean spoon for each chili taste, cleanse their palates between tastes, write down their responses immediately after each taste (not after tasting all of the entries), never try to match entry numbers to contestants, and keep their choices to themselves. Judges should not chat with one another during the judging period.

Adhering to all of the rules and judging criteria can be easier with the right official judging sheet. To prepare one, list each entry number separately, with spaces next to each entry for the five criteria. Judges input a number (typically 1 to 10) for each element, and the score for each chili is simply the sum of those five numbers. The winner is the chili with the highest overall score after adding up the scores from each judge.

The prize for the winning cook can be anything -- money, cookware, a trophy, movie tickets or the simple joy of being the best. And while it's true there can be only one cook-off winner, that doesn't mean everyone else has to be a loser. Prizes for side categories like "Spiciest," "Most Colorful," and "Most Elusive Secret Ingredient" can really add to the chili-themed excitement. You're the host, so have fun with it!

For more information on chili, cooking contests and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Originally Published: Feb 3, 2012

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More Great Links

  • "Chili Cook-off Judging Sheet." City of Lawrence, Indiana. (Jan. 23, 2012)
  • "How to Judge a Chili Cook-off." The Nest. (Jan. 23, 2012) recipes/entertaining/articles/how-to-host-a-chili-cookoff-checklist.aspx
  • "How to Start a Cookoff." International Chili Society. (Jan. 23, 2012)
  • "The Rules and Regulations for cooks at the World's Championship, State, Regional and District Cookoffs." International Chili Society. (Jan. 23, 2012)
  • "Traditional Red Chili Characteristics." International Chili Society. (Jan. 23, 2012)