With the contesting season in full swing, I thought it might be a good time to share a cheat sheet I made myself a few years ago of my Top 10 do’s and don’ts when writing a recipe SPECIFICALLY for entering online contests. Whether you’re entering your 1st contest or your 50th, there are some useful tips here that just might help you avoid some of the silly mistakes I’ve made in the past (and will probably make again).
Remember this cardinal rule. Most judges for most online contests are people from the sponsor company who actually have other jobs within the company. They think it’ll be fun to judge a recipe contest, but at the end of the day, they still have their usual 9 to 5 job to do as well. And odds are, there are WAY more entries in the contest than they expected to have to go through. Consequently, anything that makes it difficult for them to understand your recipe is going to put you at the bottom of the pile. Also, if you’ve deviated from the rules in ANY WAY, you’ve just given the judges a reason to DQ your entry, making their task of choosing a winner just a little easier.
1. List ingredients in the order they’re to be used.
I understand the temptation to list the contests sponsor ingredient first. But if it’s not the first thing used, DON”T DO IT! It’s incredibly confusing when judging are testing someone else’s recipe and the ingredients are jumbled. Think of yourself as the sous chef to the judge, and you’re laying out the ingredients in a way that she or he can simply grab what’s next, instead of having to search for it. This is a recipe, not a jigsaw puzzle.
2. Use the sponsor’s brand or brands.
If the contest is sponsored by a particular brand, use that brand in your recipe!!! This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people will enter, say, a contest sponsored by a particular tomato sauce and use a homemade sauce in their recipe. Granted, your sauce is probably waaaayyyyy more delicious than the sponsor’s sauce, but do you really thing they’re going to want to share that with the entire world?
3. Make sure your ingredients are readily available.
Unless the contest is specific to your region, don’t use an ingredient that isn’t widely available all over the country. If they can’t find it, they can’t make it. If you’re absolutely determined to use something you know is hard to find, list where to get it in parenthesis right next to the ingredient itself. But be careful not to use any brand names other than the sponsors.
4. Never use the word’s “to taste”.
Cook to taste. / Salt & Pepper to taste. / Season to taste.
Have you noticed that in really high end restaurants there is no salt and pepper on the table? That’s because the chef seasons his or her food exactly the way they want it eaten. When you say “to taste” you’re relinquishing control to the diner, or in this case, to the recipe tester. You’re trying to win a contest here. You want the recipe tester (and believe me when I tell you that a LARGE number of these online contests will do exactly that…test your recipe to see if it even works, let alone tastes good) to taste the food the way YOU envisioned it.
5. Don’t use the phrase “cook to desired doneness”.
Specify exact cooking times/temps. The judges want to know that you understand the proper temperature for your food. Whether it’s a burger or a steak or a duck breast or whatever, if you say “cook to taste” you’re giving up way too much control. You’re also leaving a subliminal impression in the judges minds that your cooking is more guess-work than skill.
6. Check your spelling…and grammar…and punctuation.
Until you’ve judged a recipe contest you won’t know how big a deal this is. So please believe me when I tell you that spelling, grammar and punctuation errors make a recipe soooooo much more difficult to read. I’ve seen recipes calling for “cyan pepper”, or using a pinch of “common” (I assume they meant cumin). Spell check is a wonderful thing. But it can also change a word it think’s you’ve misspelled, so double check. These kinds of errors leave the judges thinking that if you’re this careless when WRITING your recipe, you might be this careless when CREATING your recipe. Remember the Coco Chanel rule about clothes: “Dress shabbily and they notice the dress. Dress impeccably and they notice the woman”. Don’t leave the judges remembering your bad writing. Leave them remembering your delicious food.
7. Don’t submit your recipe as soon as you finish writing it.
It’s a known phenomenon that we are all enthralled by our own writing. That’s why publishing companies employ proof readers. Do yourself a favor and once you’ve written your recipe, put it away and come back to it the next day with fresh eyes. You’d be amazed at the spelling errors or things you left out that you didn’t even notice when you were so laser focused on writing!
8. Put the sponsor ingredient packaging in your photo.
Branded companies aren’t hosting these contests because they’ve got a stockpile of cash (or stand mixers or trips!) in their vaults. They’re usually trying to drive online traffic to their websites so that their investors can see a surge in interest. Putting the packaging in the photo, even when it’s not specifically called for, not only shows that you used their ingredient (and not the clearance rack discounted generic version), but it gives them even more reason to want to highlight your photo.
9. Look at your picture.
Then look at your recipe. Did you forget something in the writing that you see in the picture? We’ve all seen recipes with corresponding photos and thought to ourselves, those two things don’t seem to go together”. Make sure you can see all the crucial ingredients in that photo. ESPECIALLY the sponsor product!
10. Read the rules.
I know what you’re thinking. All these contests basically use the same rules. And you’re right. But trust me on this. More often than not a sponsor will make one little change in their rules. And if you don’t catch it, you’ll get DQ’d. Sometimes it’s as simple as the abbreviations. Some will want you to spell out “tablespoon”. Some will want you to use “tbsp’. Some will want you to use “tbl”. It’s nit-picky, but remember what I said in the 2nd paragraph. These contests get a ton of entries. And the better the prize, the more entries there are. So if you deviate from the rules in any way, you’ve given the judges a reason to thin the herd.
OK, there’s my cheat sheet. I hope it helps. Now excuse me while I put this away until tomorrow so I don’t get too enamored with my own cleverness.