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9 Tips for competitive cooks

Updated: May 7, 2011 12:16AM

Diane McElroy, consumer affairs manager for ACH Foods, with locations in Chicago and Des Moines, and a test kitchen manager for baking/cooking contests, offers this advice for competition first-timers:

1. Expect stiff competition.

2. Do your homework. “Really understand the rules. If the rules call for ‘X’ number of cookies on a plate, be sure to have ‘X’ number of cookies. If you have to include a proof of purchase, include it. If you have to use a specific brand of flour, use it. If you have questions, contact contest sponsors beforehand. Don’t be disqualified for something preventable.”

3. Put it in writing. “Spend time developing a well-written recipe. You can have an absolutely spectacular entry, but still lose because of a poorly written recipe . . . Ask others to try to make your recipe following your instructions.”

4. Practice makes perfect. “Find a good recipe, and practice it until you get the technique perfect, until it’s second nature.”

5. Strive for balance. “It’s great to offer a recipe with a twist, but make certain the recipe is balanced, that it works together. For example, if you’re baking cinnamon rolls, it’s not just about cinnamon — the recipe needs to offer a sticky part, a yeasty part, sweetness, perfect texture and the shaping has to be perfect.”

6. Visualize, visualize, visualize. “We eat with our eyes, so take the extra time to garnish your recipe and make its presentation beautiful.”

7. No time to skimp. “Spend money on the best, freshest and prettiest ingredients. Pretend you’re a food stylist . . . Practice your drizzling until it’s picture-perfect.”

8. Ask for candid feedback. “Seek honest evaluations from unbiased people, not just emotional feedback from your family. And be able to accept their constructive criticism (‘the lemon overpowers,’ ‘the nuts need to be toasted and crunchier’) and adapt your recipe accordingly.”

9. Just have fun.

Sandy Thorn Clark

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