Tweaking recipes to win blue ribbons

Cooking contests have been on my mind for the past couple of weeks, not only because I get press releases regarding where local cooks are competing, but also because February to me is the deepest, sleepiest month when traditional breads, Crock-Pots and slow-cooked stews move to the front burner.

Locals such as Lynelle Caldwell, whose pear oatmeal cookies recently won a blue ribbon on a home cooking and social networking internet site, are doing what most of us try to do, but she’s getting recognition for her efforts. We tweak recipes every day. The difference between most of us and Lynelle Caldwell is that she’s thoughtful, precise and organized when she tweaks.

Caldwell is the subject of a short food story that will run this Wednesday. Interviewing her was a delight and a reminder to me why I enjoy the privilege of being a food writer. A life-long cook and provider of meals for families, Caldwell is the youngest of six children expected at an early age to learn the ropes in the kitchen.

Now Caldwell spins more than a couple of plates at a time, being the sole breadwinner, raising a teenager and winning KitchenAid mixers and blue ribbons when food manufacturers put out the call for recipes. Caldwell recognizes the importance of using ingredients that are readily available. She, and Durango cattlewoman Patti Buck, also a competitive cook, have their finger on the pulse of what families like to eat.

Is there anything new out there in a world swimming in cookbooks, not to mention free internet cooking sites?

Probably not. But there are people who recognize that ingredients can be coupled differently to create new textures, flavors and ways of looking at traditional food treats.

You’ve heard me say it before, but I’ll say it again: Cooking can be casual, but baking is precise. Getting creative with macaroni and cheese is a heck of a lot easier than experimenting while baking a cake at high altitude. Yet that is what Caldwell does.

Many of these cooking contests require that contestants use a specific product so manufacturers can generate recipes for product labels. Tested recipes, conveniently displayed on labels, help sell everything from french-fried onion rings to Dijon mustard.

Here are five tips for novices contemplating entering a cooking contest:

1. Read contest rules, deadlines and scoring systems very carefully. Provide your contact information in as many ways possible, so that contest organizers can reach you any hour of the day. Sign all releases in exactly the manner requested.

2. Look at recipes that may have placed or won in the same contest, but the previous year. Chances are the judges are looking for similar recipes, but different enough to be edgy and reflective of the food trends of the day.

3. Give yourself an edge by using multiple brands from the same manufacturer. For example, instead of listing 1 teaspoon of prepared mustard, promote French’s Mustard by being brand specific. If Durkee is sponsoring the contest, find as many Durkee products as possible to pack your ingredient list with what Durkee is selling.

4. As you tweak to get your recipe ready for submission, carefully note and measure the amounts of ingredients used. A temperature difference of as little as 25 F can make a big difference in cooking times. Document changes with photographs. Cut into cupcakes, muffins, pies, casseroles and be observant of texture, aroma and color.

5. Know the basics – how baking powder works, how one fat can substitute for another, what constitutes a good acid-sweet balance in a marinade, how chocolate is processed and egg whites are beaten. Think of yourself as a food scientist in a home lab. Then become an artist.

Most of all, have fun. Caldwell said she’s pleasantly surprised whenever she gets a call back and becomes a finalist. Sounds like she’s got a good handle on the art and science of cooking for prizes.