4 Proven Secrets to Creating Contest-Winning Recipes

Think you've got what it takes to create a winning recipe? We're spilling the secrets!

Are you an avid cook? Are friends raving over your food and constantly asking for the recipe? Do you look at a cookbook and say, “Hey, I can do that!” Well, my friend, if you answered yes to any (or all) of those questions you might just want to enter your dish into a recipe contest. (Psst! Taste of Home is always running one.) Hundreds of our readers enter each day. And why not? Many recipe contests offer a chance to win big money—and ours have an extra perk of getting your dish professionally photographed and shared with thousands of home cooks from around the world. No biggie.

Psst! Do you have a dish that your gang asks for again and again? Enter it into a Taste of Home recipe contest for a chance to win $500. Seriously!

However, entering is the easy bit. Some of our own contest-winning vets were recently featured in Mary Beth Protomastro’s book, Smart Cookies: How Home Cooks Became Finalists in the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. Inside, they shared their secrets to recipe-contest success that really apply to any foodie competition, whether it’s the Bake-Off, a Taste of Home contest or their local fair. Here’s what you need to know to get noticed in our Test Kitchen.

Try these contest-winning recipes and taste what all the fuss is about.
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Secret #1: Put Your Own Spin on It

Practice creativity in moderation. Arlene Erlbach, creator of these yummy Blackberry White Chocolate Cheesecake Cups, told Mary Beth, “Think outside the box…but not too far outside.” Many judges have seen countless spaghetti and meatball recipes and beef casseroles—so getting a little creative is sure to catch some eyes. Try using everyday ingredients in a fun, unique way. You’ll find crushed mini pretzels at the bottom of Arlene’s contest-winning dessert. How fun is that!

Worried about accidentally copying someone else’s recipe? Read this guide.

Secret #2: Follow the Rules

Every recipe that has been dubbed Taste of Home Test Kitchen-approved has been judged using five pieces of criteria that we’ve found are the most important for home cooks. (Learn more about the process!) They work together to create an amazing recipe package. Be sure your recipe meets these guidelines—and the brief for the individual contest!

  • Flavor: This one is pretty straightforward. Does it taste good? Will the flavor appeal to a wide audience? You might love liver and onions, but there’s a good chance many of your friends would turn up their noses.
  • Appearance: Will it make a pretty picture? Does it look like something you’d want to eat? Is it colorful and appealing? Because we all eat with our eyes, too, appearances matter in the grand scheme of things.
  • Texture: Texture counts! Hockey-puck cookies and biscuits simply won’t make the cut. Muffins and quick breads should be moist and fluffy, without big air pockets. If it’s called Creamy Mac & Cheese, it had better be creamy. Soft cookies should have a nice, moist crumb. You’re all great cooks, so I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
  • Method: We know our readers pretty well. If the method is complicated or calls for a brand-new gadget, it’s unlikely we’ll move forward with it. Recipes should utilize equipment and methods that are compatible with the average American household.
  • Brand compatibility: Here at Taste of Home, we pride ourselves on knowing our audience-understanding what our brand means to them, what they expect from us. When we review your recipes, we want to be sure they’re within the scope of the brand. Readers love Taste of Home recipes because they’re practical. They’ve come from home cooks, not gourmet chefs, and they incorporate affordable, everyday ingredients. The methods are clear and easy to follow.

Secret #3: Try and Try Again

In the book, long-time contributor Marie Bruno said, “Keep trying. Don’t give up!” Practice makes perfect when it comes to recipe creation. Plus, you get to eat your creations, that’s a win-win!

Secret #4: Cook for Fun

At the end of the day, cooking isn’t about competition. Focus on creating a delicious meal for the ones you love. That’s when the real magic comes into play. For me, the pot becomes a blank canvas to add ingredients and flavors (making notes along the way, of course). And the satisfaction comes when someone finally takes a bite and smiles.

Now quick, enter your recipe before you forget what all those chicken scratch notes mean.

These winning recipes are healthy, too!
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Sue Stetzel
Sue has been working with Taste of Home since 2011. When she isn’t writing, she’s answering your burning cooking questions and working with our team of Community Cooks. She spends her free time cooking, crafting, and volunteering for various organizations in her home town.