Move over Great British Baking Show, this is how you judge blue ribbon winners at the Colorado State Fair

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Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Colorado State Fair Pantry Competition in the Creative Arts Building at the fairgrouns in Pueblo. (August 21-22, 2023)

Blue ribbon-winning pies, pickles and other delicacies are now on display at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. The goodies are part of the pantry competition where home cooks from around the state vie to prove their kitchen prowess.

The competitors

On the Monday before the fair began, people carrying carefully wrapped chocolate cakes and fluffy yeast breads converged at the historic Creative Arts building. Some folks pulled carts stacked with baked goods nestled in protective boxes, gleaming jars of preserves and other food items.

Puebloan Melissa Smith dropped off peach pie, blueberry muffins, snickerdoodle cookies and chocolate-covered cherries. Kelli Tate brought amber honey, light amber honey and a frame of capped honey from her Manzanola farm.

Dennis Reeves waited while his wife Paula Reeves entered 21 items, including potica, a dessert-style bread with nuts and spices that’s popular in Pueblo because of the city's Slovenian heritage. She also entered crunchy peanut butter cookies and white chocolate scones with fresh lavender. 

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Kelli Tate enters amber honey, light amber honey and a frame of capped honey from her Manzanola farm in the 2023 Pantry Competition at the Colorado State Fair.

“My daughter encouraged me to enter (last year),” said Reeves, who is from Pueblo West. “We take the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before everything is due and I bake and it's kind of a bonding time for us.”

Last year was her first time competing and when she and her family returned to the exhibit hall after the judging, she discovered she’d won the Kitchen Royalty title by scoring the most points in multiple divisions. 17 of her entries won ribbons. 

“I was just floored,” she said. “Totally, totally floored.” 

Her husband Dennis patted his stomach and smiled when asked what it was like to live with Kitchen Royalty.

Then there’s Jim Slak, also of Pueblo. He said he’s been competing on and off for years and once took home the grand champion pie award. He brought just one entry this year - an apricot-raspberry pie.

“It's a concoction I drew up on my own,” he said. “I started the experiment about six months ago, tinkering with it. That's what makes it fun.” The process, he said, means he and his family get to eat a lot of pie.

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Staffer Deric Stowell gathers pies to bring to the judging table during the 2023 Pantry Competition at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo.

The judging

Fair staff sort the entries into hundreds of competition categories and age groups. They then organize the categorized and anonymized entries on tables for judging the following day. 

Some judges have degrees in food sciences or agriculture, others, like Loretta Ivory of Centennial take certification courses. Once a kitchen royalty winner herself, she said she's been judging the pantry competition for about 30 years.

After unwrapping a carrot cake baked in a bundt pan, Ivory starts by evaluating the attractiveness of the entry.

Loretta Ivory of Centennial judges a carrot cake at the Colorado State Fair Pantry Competition in the Creative Arts Building at the fairgrounds in Pueblo. (August 21-22, 2023)

“They did a very nice job of icing this,” she said.

Next, she checks the top and bottom for signs of over or undercooking and then slices into it.

“When I’m cutting I’m looking for the ease of the knife going through the cake,” she said, noting that it also helps her determine how well it’s baked. Then, she inhales the cake’s spicy scent

“While people say they eat with their eyes, a lot of taste is also smell,” Ivory said.

“Then, of course, taste is the last part,” Ivory said. “And this is actually a lovely carrot cake, so I’m going to give this a blue ribbon.”

There are some categories like this one that only have one entry, but that doesn’t mean it’s an automatic winner. Judges sometimes give second or third place or no ribbon at all to single entries in a class.

But there are some entries that don't even get tasted. Ivory examines an uneven cake that slumps in the center. Cutting into it, she noted that it was overly moist.   

“It's underbaked and that is why it fell,” she said. “So let's make those comments for this young person.”

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News

Then there’s the failed grape jelly over at the preserves table.

“This one, no. It can’t be spooned, so it can’t be tasted," said Deb Kuhl. She traveled from Wheat Ridge in the Denver metro area to judge the preserves and other canned items.

Cherry jelly was the next class of items in the division. Kuhl opens a jar and spoons some onto a white paper plate. She checks the label to see what altitude it was processed at and for how long, noting that higher altitudes require longer processing times.

“(The) color is gorgeous,” she said before tasting it. “That is lovely… mmm…mmm… mmmm…We have a winner,” she said. “This has everything you want when you are looking for a jelly. A good seal. Just the right amount of softness to be able to be spreadable. The flavor is stupendous.”

The class for chocolate chip cookies baked by adults had 11 entries. 

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Michelle Nelson of Haswell prepares to judge chocolate chip cookies made by adults at Colorado State Fair Pantry Competition in the Creative Arts Building at the fairgrounds in Pueblo. (August 21-22, 2023)

Judge Michelle Nelson of Haswell in Kiowa County cuts tiny bits from each one and lines them up on several plates. Then she methodically samples them, commenting as she went along.

“That one's pretty buttery, softer than it looks (with) good chocolate chips,” she said. “Let’s try this really white-colored one. It’s alright. The chocolate’s a little waxy in this one…”

The first sample is the winner. Nelson said although she likes cookies and other sweets, trying only small amounts is crucial to make it through the judging.

Potato chips and lemon water are Ivory’s secret to persevering through tasting dozens of different items. But still, at the end of the day, she said she was in a food coma. "That’s why my husband drives me home.”

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Canned fruit is lined up on tables before judging at the 2023 Colorado State Fair Pantry Competition. Quilts and other General Entry items are on display in the Creative Arts Building at the fairgrounds in Pueblo.

The changes, the results and a few tips

Many of the classes in the pantry competition are the same as they were decades ago. But general entry manager Trisha Fernandez said they did get rid of one division – microwave cookery.

She said she asked the fair board to axe the category after no one entered it for three years. “It (was) probably more popular in the seventies,” she said.

They also recently decided to change the title of the overall winner from “King or Queen of the Kitchen” to “Kitchen Royalty” to be more aligned with current norms, according to Fernandez.

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Blue ribbon winners for the pantry competition on display at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

Organizers also made a change to how the judging took place. Prior to 2020 the judging was open to the public. But there were issues with the integrity of the competition, Fernandez said, because, despite the blind tastings, spectators would often get excited when their entries were being judged and would blurt out that it was theirs.

Ivory said she misses having the opportunity to talk to the audience during the judging and educating people about baking and cooking. She does have a few tips for aspiring state fair pantry competitors:

  • Use a small amount of vodka in pie crusts to keep it flaky. 
  • Double the aluminum pans required for the pie competitions, and poke holes in the outer one to allow it to heat more evenly. 
  • Don’t use a brush on fudge to try to smooth it, because it actually makes it gritty. Instead, heat it for 1-1.25 minutes and no more. 

But her most important tip is to read the rules and follow them.

“If you want to win at the state fair, first of all, don’t make me work hard to give you a blue ribbon,” she said. “You work hard, make it easy for me.”

The top three entries in each class will be on display during the fair, although anything that becomes unsightly will be removed. The baked goods that don’t make the cut are donated to the local soup kitchen on the day of the judging. 

This year more than 90 amateur cooks and bakers from around the state entered nearly 700 culinary creations in the pantry competition. Deborah Pettit of Westminster won Kitchen Royalty and Joshua Romero of Pueblo West won Youth Kitchen Royalty.

Colorado State Fair
An award is presented during the 1950 Pantry Competition at the Colorado State Fair.

Editor's note: The Colorado State Fair is a financial supporter of KRCC, but has no editorial influence.

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