How to Host a Chili Cook-off

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 below.

Chili Cook-off FAQ

What do judges look for in a chili cook-off?
During a chili cook-off, judges look for color, aroma, consistency, taste and aftertaste.
How do I plan a chili cook-off?
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. If you're looking to save money and host something more casual, it's simple enough to host one yourself.
What do I need for a chili cook-off?
To host a chili cook-off, you will need to provide cooking tools, serving bowls and lots of fresh spoons for sampling. If it's a public event, you may need to organize posters or a banner.
What is the secret to award-winning chili?
The secret to award-winning chili is to perfect your chili's color, aroma, consistency, taste and aftertaste, which are the criteria judges base their opinion on.
What are some of the major rules for International Chili Society ICS chili cook-offs?
A few of the major rules for the International Chili Society ICS chili cook-off include defining which type of chili you're making (red or green), ensuring all ingredients are mixed on-site, adhering to a 3-4 hour time limit, adhering to the requested chili volume, and ensuring all entries are anonymous to avoid bias.

Related Articles

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)