An invitation to judge a  food contest is not always as fantastic as one might imagine.  For some events (like the Austin Hot Sauce Festival), you  might be subject to judging hundreds of hot sauces.  The quality of the hot sauces is as highly variable as Austin weather.  I’ve judge a decent number of contests in over the last three years, and I decided that it was high time to write up a blog post with tips.  Happy Eating!

Photo by John M. P. Knox

1. If it looks unappetizing, skip it. If you can’t force yourself to eat it, you probably shouldn’t.

2. If it smells bad, it will probably taste bad.  Skip it.  Don’t ruin your taste buds for everything else.

3. Having something cleansing to drink. A beer or club soda usually works well.  Typically, crackers and grapes are provided.  You can also smell the back of your hand to reset your olfactory sense.

4. Be open minded. But be focused.  What were they supposed to be making anyways?  If it was supposed to be fried chicken, it shouldn’t be a chicken fried steak.

5. Only take a small taste at first.  If it a sauce, consider dipping your finger in it.  I get the tiniest spoonful.  Even if something is really tasty, only take a tiny bite.  If you really like it, you can always get more.  They always cater to the judges’ needs.  You don’t want to fill up on it and not have room for something even better later.

6. If the dish is spicy, consider saving it for last.  You don’t want the fact that your mouth is on fire to affect your ability to taste the less spicy samples.  I like spicy, but spicy is sometimes meant to cover up other flaws in the dish.  Also, watch out for hot peppers floating around in the dish.

7. Bring a big magic marker to mark the samples.  Most of the time, they will be labeled, but sometimes you might wind up with 15 cups of soup that all look the same.

8. Take detailed notes on each sample.  Some people give ratings to samples early on only to have to revise their rating system later AND have to try all the samples again.

9. Don’t be afraid to be honest.  I used to have the problem of not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, however, not giving honest feedback doesn’t help the person improve.  Even though I have recalibrated my scoring system, I still find that though I rate similarly to other judges, I still rate on average higher.  Also, raw feedback is typically not given directly to the entrant.  If it is, I take notes in my personal binder instead of on the scoring sheets.

Photo by John M. P. Knox

Here’s my method of judging.

1. Try to rule out as many samples as possible based on looked or smell.  If it smells bad, it will taste bad.  If it is so repulsive looking that I cannot put it in my mouth, I don’t even try.  This isn’t fear factor.  Don’t even waste stomach space on these.

2. Take small samples (I mean teeny tiny) samples of each food.  I take highly detailed notes of each one so that I can remember them easily later.  If I put something like “tastes good,” I probably won’t remember or be able to differentiate it from another that was described as “tastes good.” I write things like “floral scent of lemon clashed with the oregano” or “unami flavors of the mushrooms paired well with the sauce.”

3. After all samples have been tried (or discarded), I start ranking each sample from the bottom up.  Meaning, I use the sample I disliked the most as an anchor for rating.  For example, two samples were inedible.  These two samples would receive a zero.

4. Then I have a cluster of samples that I felt were about the same, and I would rate those.  Then I would rate the next group of samples that I liked even better.  I typically do this until I reach the top 3-5 samples that I liked the most.

5. I’ll then retaste all the samples I liked the best (3-5 samples typically) and then make final ratings.

Using this method, I’ve left many cooking contests hungry.  I don’t get too full, and so I have plenty of room to each the foods I do enjoy!

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