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Chili Cook-Off Party

For a fun yet low-key party idea, why not host a chili “throwdown” to see who among your friends has the best recipe? Seems like every cook has a favorite (and thinks theirs is the best), so competition will be hot! And if the contest coincides with a game day event or block party, all the better! It’s an easy and inexpensive way to have fun and spice up a weekend afternoon or evening.

Ideas for Invitations


Because a cook-off party requires some research and planning on the part of your guests, it’s a good idea to send invitations about a month before the competition. They don’t need to be fancy—use an online invitation site (great for helping keep track of RSVPs) or simple email. You can also design and mail invitations cut in the shape of chili peppers or aprons. In it,

  • Include the judging criteria as well as prize categories. The easiest version is to structure the competition for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place (the best choice if you’re not sure how many entries you’ll have). For a big crowd, you can break the contest into “categories” that will be judged (e.g. Best Overall Chili, Best Vegetarian, Spiciest, Most Unusual, etc.).
  • Mention what you, the host, will provide—drinkscornbread, toppings and/or dessert.
  • Ask guests to bring their chili in a slow cooker for easy transport and serving.
Party Set-Up


For all kinds of reasons it’s best to conduct the cook-off in or near the kitchen. Arrange the slow cookers so they have easy and safe access to electrical outlets, using a power strip for additional plug-in options if need be. With all the appliances, it’s possible you’ll trip a fuse so be prepared to relocate some pots if necessary. (Note: For a fun twist, try to keep the entries anonymous. Label each chili with a number when it’s received, noting the person who entered it. Names of contestants shouldn’t be revealed until the end after scores are tallied and a winner is announced.) Finally, supply each chili with a large spoon or ladle and have stacks of bowls, spoons and napkins available around the chilies for judging.

For optimum traffic flow, set up an area for the remaining buffet items, such as a tossed salad, trays of Pepperidge Farm® breads, rolls and crackers, and assorted toppings like grated cheese, Pace® Chunky Salsa, sour cream, diced avocado, corn or tortilla chips, sliced green onions, chopped cilantro and lime wedges, in an adjoining room or area off the kitchen. And it’s always smart to place buckets or containers of iced-down drinks around the house for easy access; plus, it frees up space in your fridge and is one less thing guests have to retrieve from the kitchen.

For guests who are sensitive to spicy foods, have a supply of dairy products (milk, yogurt) on hand to help “tame the flame.” Interestingly, water actually intensifies the burning sensation and isn’t the best choice to put out the fire. The fat in dairy products coats the mouth and helps soothe quickly and effectively.

Judging, Scoring & Prizes



Part of the fun of a cook-off party is having all guests participate in the judging process. Provide water and crackers for cleansing the palate between entries and supply each guest with a simple scorecard and pencil to record their opinions.

Judging: Once the chilies are set up, let the judging begin! Here are some suggestions for making the process fair and easy:

  • Display only the entry number on the slow cookers, not the cooks’ names. As host, you should keep a separate sheet with names and assigned numbers to keep track of scores
  • If your competition is by category (Classic, No-Bean, Wild Game, Vegetarian, Green, White, etc.), group the chilies accordingly and label each grouping for clarity.
  • Advise guests to judge each chili on its own merit. Don’t try to compare one chili with another.

Scoring: Depending on how serious you want to make your competition, scoring can be as simple as having judges write the number of their favorite chili on a slip of paper then toss into a basket. Votes are tallied and the chili with the most votes wins, with 2nd and 3rd places following based on results.

You can also opt for a more complex scoring system where each chili is judged on a scale of one to five according to certain criteria: ie., Appearance, Aroma, Taste, Texture, Best Use of Chile/Spices, etc.

Prizes: In the spirit of friendly competition, prizes should be inexpensive, fun and light-hearted. Here are some suggestions:

  • A basket of assorted fresh chile peppers
  • A tiara or crown made from fresh or plastic chiles (look for fake chiles at hobby or craft stores)
  • A “chili fixins” basket with ingredients like Swanson® stock, Pace® Picante sauce, dried beans, dried chiles and spices
  • A string of chile pepper lights
  • Six-pack of artisan beer and “koozies”
  • Simple medals or trophies (dollar or thrift stores often have lots to choose from!)
Menu Ideas


Since chili is essentially the “main dish” of the party, the rest of the menu can be filled out with a few appetizers or snacks, accompaniments and desserts. Below are some ideas to consider as you plan your cook-off (as well as some chili ideas in case you want to get in on the competition too!):

Appetizers & Snacks



Chili Ideas