In cooking, as in life, a bit of healthy competition can motivate people to show up, show out, and shine. Cook-offs, bake-offs, any kind of food-related “off”—framing a food-focused get together as a contest will get guests excited about contributing to the party.
A cook-off is a simple concept: Pick a food, and ask people to make and bring their best version of that food. Everyone eats everyone else’s food. A winner is chosen and the losers are lightly ridiculed, but it’s all in good fun, for there are no real losers at a cook-off (because everyone gets to eat a lot). But hosting a fun, effortless cook-off (or bake-off, or whatever) requires a little bit of planning.
Pick a riffable food
This is the first, and most obvious step. Foods that allow for a lot of variation are the best choice. A croquembouche-off wouldn’t be much fun or make much sense, as you have to a pretty advanced pastry chef to riff on such a standardized recipe (one exception being our microwave method).
Chocolate chip cookies, on the other hand, allow for lots of riffing. Chili is another cook-off icon, as are wings, or any kind of BBQ. Lasagna, meatloaf, meatballs, macaroni and cheese, and dips also make good cook-off subjects. If your friends aren’t the cooking types, you can always have a martini-off.
Provide the boring stuff
Don’t count on your guests to bring anything but the food they will be judged on. They will not bring bowls for their chili, they will not bring napkins for their wings, they will most likely not bring serving utensils of any kind. It is up to you, as the host, to provide those things. If your cutlery drawer is only stocked for a house of two or four, you may need to supplement your collection with a quick trip to Goodwill—my go-to for serving utensils, eating utensils, and bowls, cups, and plates that are so cheap, you won’t be sad if they get broken in the line of duty.
If your guests are planning to bring slow cookers, electric warmers, or anything else that needs to be plugged in, make sure you have enough power strips and extension cords so everyone can keep their dish at the appropriate temperature.
Oh, and don’t forget ice, especially if you are hosting a martini-off.
Keep the serving sizes small
The whole point of a cook-off is to try lots of different versions of the same food. If you give your guests large bowls or plates, they are going to fill them. This is simply human nature. Set out saucers instead dinner plates, mugs instead of bowls, or maybe even those little paper food boats you see at all the food festivals.
Provide the fun stuff, too
Unless a garnish is part of your guest’s specific vision for their dish, the task of providing garnishes and assorted accoutrement will most likely fall to you, the host. For chili, this means cheese, sour cream, and jalapeños. For a bake-off, this might mean a cold pitcher of milk, or maybe some whipped cream. For a martini-off, you should provide olives and lemon zest, and maybe even some pickled onions.
Keep it secret
Even the most emotionally mature friend groups are rife with bias, so it’s best to keep things as anonymous as possible until the winner is revealed. Assign each dish a number instead. Everyone will be more chill once their stomachs are full.
Provide multiple ways for people to “win”
“Best” is such a subjective metric, so I like to provide additional ones. In addition to handing out straightforward score cards to “rate” each entry, provide spaces for people to write in superlatives like “most creative,” “spiciest,” “best use of chocolate” or “most alcoholic,” depending on the dish at hand. (This will help ensure the competition remains healthy, a state I aspire to achieving someday.)