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I judge baked goods at the county fair. Here’s how you win Best in Show.

i-judge-baked-goods-at-the-county-fair-here’s-how-you-win-best-in-show.

Purple Howard County Fair Best Of Show ribbon on plastic container of pie

Jane Radford’s Best of Show ribbon for her Walnut Molasses pie at Howard County Fair, 2007
Image: Katherine Frey/The The Washington Post (Getty Images)

I have held many titles in my life: chef, author, food critic, Hot Pocket taste tester, mother of two. Three years ago I added what I believe is by far the most impressive of all titles to my multi-hyphenate life: Official County Fair Judge, Baking Division. (Apologies to my children, who could have ranked higher if they made me a nice babka every now and again. But, they didn’t.)

As a city gal I knew nothing of county fairs outside of what I had seen in movies or read about on The Takeout. (Cows made out of butter? A life-sized statue of Kevin Costner, also made out of butter? What a world!) Since most of what I understood about county fairs involved carnival rides and sticking things in deep fryers, I had missed one very important element of the proceedings: the very serious competitions in which participants vie for the blue ribbon. For thousands of amateur bakers, the county fair is essentially the Olympics, and the planning, practicing, and perfecting of their entries is no casual affair.

During my first go-round judging the bread competition at Maryland’s Howard County Fair, I was blown away by how good the baked goods were, and quickly realized that I had underestimated the responsibilities I was shouldering. These were not merely attendees of the fair who decided to submit their loaves of bread on a lark—these were hard-core bakers, and though they came to compete, they did not come to play.

To be an Official County Fair Judge, you have no choice but to be as critical as you can, because in a tight field of top-notch talent, even the tiniest things can be the difference between winning and losing. Here’s how I decide who gets to be a champion, and who gets to spend the next 11 months cursing my existence.

Baked goods need to look their best

When you’re baking just because, it’s fine to make mistakes. Hell, I’m a professional, and I still make mistakes! Baking should be fun, and you should never do something that stresses you out as a hobby. If you’re so worried about perfection that it sucks the joy out of the process, you should hang up your apron and support your local bakery instead. However, if you’re baking competitively, stress comes with the territory, because the slightest of mistakes will count against you.

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When I judge a savory bread, I will rip a chunk off the loaf with my bare hands to get a visceral sense of its gluten development. I’ll then hold it about one foot from my face so I can carefully inspect its crumb, which will reveal if the bread was properly proofed and baked. Sweet breads get sliced up with a knife, but the same harsh examination tactics apply. I want you to succeed, but I’m looking first and foremost for any ways in which you’ve failed.

A seeded challah bread from the Howard County Fair

I’m still dreaming about this challah.
Photo: Allison Robicelli

Because the level of competition is so fierce, any glaring mistakes will knock an item straight out of contention. A perfect, heartbreaking example of this is the challah bread pictured here, which I swear was one of the most perfect challahs I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. (The other judges agreed.) Had its shape been more uniform, its braiding more even, it could have easily won the whole shebang. But I need to judge all aspects of the entries, and because of that one mistake, a challah that could make the angels sing didn’t even make the podium.

Creativity is key

Once the field is narrowed down to the most technically flawless entries—there were nine of them this year!—I begin awarding points for creativity. Now, I must stress that by “creativity” I don’t mean crazy, unnecessary flavors meant to shock and/or amaze; I mean taking a tried-and-true recipe and making smart, well-thought-out tweaks to make it your own.

Raspberry cheese danish with lemon glaze and almonds

Ladies and gentlemen: the winner of the 2021 Howard County Fair Bake-off!
Photo: Allison Robicelli

After another round of tasting, technical examination, and a lot more tasting, the field of nine semi-finalists was whittled down to three baked goods that were better than just about anything I’ve tasted before:

  • Chocolate Cardamom Buns
  • flawless (and I mean flawless) Pecan Sticky Buns
  • Raspberry Cheese Danish

They could have all been winners, but ultimately, the danish won it all because of two simple, brilliant tweaks. First, fresh lemon juice was employed in the glaze instead of water, a decision that added a lot to the final product. Second, instead of following the shaping directions called for in the traditional recipe, this entrant decided to make two raspberry-and-cheese-stuffed jelly rolls and braid them together, meaning there was an even amount of filling in every bite. This also kept the danish from feeling heavy or soggy—it was a success on every level.

If you think you and your perfectly latticed pies have what it takes to stand before an Official County Fair Judge to have everything from your crust crimping to filling ratios scrutinized, I encourage you to give it a shot! You only live once, and the best judges are truly rooting for you to succeed. Besides, if you fail to place in the competition, at least you have the perfect consolation prize sitting right in front of you—all you need is a fork.

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