Outside of Cincinnati, Cincinnati-style chili is known as “that weird cinnamon chili on spaghetti.” But around Cincinnati, it’s a way of life.
There are well over 200 joints, called chili parlors, serving the stuff. Its legitimacy as chili is not up for debate. If chili can be green or white, why can’t it have cinnamon and allspice and be served over spaghetti?
People in Cincinnati won’t say this, but to get a better mental grip on Cincinnati Chili, think of it as Middle American Bolognese: a kicked-up meat sauce to serve over pasta with cheese. Sounds great, right? Because it is.
Making Cincinnati Chili will get you out of your comfort zone. Your payoff comes when you tuck into a giant plate of grade-A comfort food.
Video: How to Make Cincinnati Chili
Origins of Cincinnati Chili
In the early 1900s, Cincinnati saw an influx of Greek and Macedonian immigrants. Brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff opened Empress Chili Parlor in 1922. They took a diner-ized version of a Greek stew seasoned with Mediterranean spices and gave it a familiar handle: chili.
As far as serving it over spaghetti, this is simply a development in the long tradition of offering working-class customers starchy and filling food.
Cincinnatian and food historian Dan Woellert wrote an entire book on the subject: The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili. I highly recommend reading it. After making and eating this recipe first, of course.
What Makes Cincinnati-Style Chili?
Three things distinguish Cincinnati chili from other kinds:
- The Seasonings: Chili powder and cumin are required for almost any chili recipe, but in Cincinnati chili, you’ll find spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and possibly nutmeg, paprika, and/or oregano. Worcestershire sauce is also a standard ingredient. A little unsweetened chocolate or cocoa powder is controversial, but not unheard of.
- No Browning, No Sautéing: Any Cincinnati chili recipe that begins with “Heat the olive oil . . . ” is inauthentic on two counts: there’s no sautéing, and there's no olive oil. This counters everything you’ve ever been taught about building up layers of flavor in a soup or stew. But remember, this is diner food with a caravan of spices. Just dump everything in the pot, stir it as it comes to a boil, and that’s that. This creates a pasty, uniform texture as opposed to distinct crumbles of ground beef. It will not look pretty at first. But stick with us—it works.
- The Toppings: Repeat after me: You don’t put beans in Cincinnati chili. You may, however, put beans on top of the chili. Minced raw onion, fluffy piles of finely grated mild cheddar cheese, and oyster crackers are also traditional accompaniments. At a chili parlor, they call these “ways,” as in 2-Way, 3-Way, and so on up to a 5-Way, which has chili, beans, onions, and cheese over spaghetti.
The Different "Ways" to Serve Cincinnati Chili
What makes a 2-way plate of chili different than a 5-way? Here's the scoop:
- 2-Way: Chili served over spaghetti.
- 3-Way: Chili served over spaghetti with finely shredded cheddar cheese.
- 4-Way: Chili served over spaghetti with diced onions and finely shredded cheddar cheese.
- 5-Way: Chili served over spaghetti with warmed canned red kidney beans, diced onions, and finely shredded cheddar cheese.
Bowl, Plate, or Hot Dog?
When it comes to actually serving the chili, you have a few choices:
- On spaghetti: This is the Bolognese concept we touched on earlier, topped with all the “ways” mentioned above.
- In a bowl, like regular chili: “That’s obvious!” you may say, and you are right.
- On a hot dog: This is called a Coney. Top a beef hot dog in a steamed bun with chili, diced onions, and finely shredded cheddar cheese. Some folks might put a squiggle of yellow mustard on the chili before adding the other stuff. This is not only allowable, but excellent.
What about sides? Other than oyster crackers? No traditional sides. There’s a lot going on with Cincinnati chili. You eat it and you die. Full stop.
See how Cincinnati chili offers many opportunities for personalization? It’s almost like taco night, but without all that tiresome chopping!
Two Secrets to Our Cincinnati-Style Chili Recipe
In much of Ohio, you can get packets of Cincinnati chili seasoning, and most people who make it at home use those. But Cincinnati chili made with good, fresh ingredients blows those packets out of the water.
For the best chili, I deploy a few Cincy-approved tricks:
First, I brown the tomato paste in a dry, heated pot before adding anything else. Okay, this counters what I just told you above about not browning anything, but rules were meant for breaking, right? Skipping this step is fine, but it makes the tomato paste taste less tinny while also bumping up its savory umami character.
You can use ground beef of any fat content, but my preference is for 80:20. The flavor of the fat cooks into the chili and then rises to the top as the chili cools overnight and solidifies in the fridge for easy defatting. If you don’t plan on refrigerating the chili overnight before serving it, use lean ground beef.
Ultimately, Cincinnati Chili is so many things at once. It is chili. It is hot dog sauce. It is pasta sauce. It is customizable. It is proletarian. It is divisive. It is American. It will be your new favorite thing, if you let it.
Slow Cooker Cincinnati Chili
This recipe is easily made in the slow cooker. Combine all ingredients (except for the vinegar and chocolate) in the slow cooker. Cook on HIGH for 4 hours, or LOW for 8 hours.
If you leave the lid on or ajar, the chili will be liquidy, more like a soup. I like it saucy and concentrated, so I leave the lid off. This will reduce the yield by a few cups. You could also start cooking with the lid on and then remove it halfway through so the liquid has time to evaporate.
Pressure Cooker Cincinnati Chili
This recipe can also be made in either an electric pressure cooker (like the Instant Pot) or a stovetop pressure cooker. The cook time is the same for both; just reduce the water in the recipe to 3 cups.
Heat the pressure cooker insert over medium-high heat (either on the stovetop or using the “sauté” function on the pressure cooker) and add the tomato paste.
Cook about a minute or two, scraping the bottom of the pot constantly to keep the paste from getting burned. It’s okay if it gets a little browned—that’s what you want. Add the remaining ingredients (except the vinegar and chocolate). Remember to reduce the water to 3 cups. Stir to break up the meat.
Lock on the lid, bring to high pressure, and cook for 30 minutes. Let the pressure come down naturally. Unlock the lid. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight. Lift or scrape off any solidified fat; discard. Bring to a boil and then add the vinegar and chocolate.
Vegetarian and Vegan Cincinnati Chili
It's surprisingly easy to make a vegetarian or vegan version of Cincinnati Chili.
- Use vegan Worcestershire sauce. (Traditional Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies or fish sauce.)
- Swap plant-based beef crumbles for the ground beef.
- Or, for a less processed version, use 1 pound minced cremini mushrooms and 1 1/2 cups uncooked brown or green lentils in place of the ground beef in Step 2. (You may need to add some extra water and decrease the cooking time, simmering until the lentils are tender but still hold their shape.)
- Omit the cheese or use vegan shredded cheese for a vegan version.
Want More Diner Classics?
- Joe's Special (Scrambled Eggs with Spinach, Beef, and Mushrooms)
- Salisbury Steak with Mushroom Gravy
- Crispy Hash Browns
- Chicken Fried Steak
- Biscuits and Gravy
While it's fine to eat this on the day you make it, cooking the chili a day in advance allows you to easily discard the fat, plus it lets the spices settle into each other, giving you a rounder flavor. You can by all means keep the fat cap on there. It's what a lot of chili parlors do in the Queen City, ensuring a light film of reddish-orange grease on every bowl.
For the chili:
2 pounds ground beef (80:20 is good)
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
4 cups water
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 large onion, minced (about 3 cups)
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, optional
Options for serving:
Finely shredded mild cheddar cheese
1 (15.5-ounce) can small red kidney beans, drained and warmed
Minced yellow onion
Hot cooked spaghetti
Cook the tomato paste:
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the tomato paste to the dry pot and cook, constantly scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, until the tomato smells rich and toasty and you start to see browned (not burned) patches in the bottom of the pot. This should take 1 to 3 minutes.
Combine the ingredients in a pot:
Remove the pot from heat and add the ground beef and water. Mix them together into a sludge. It will not look pretty, but press on. There's a method to this madness.
Return to medium-high heat and bring to a simmer, stirring all the while, so the sludge breaks up into a mealy paste. Add all the remaining ingredients except the vinegar and chocolate.
Simmer gently, uncovered, for 2 to 3 hours:
Stir the chili often. You want the volume to reduce a bit. (To be honest, just one hour of cook time is okay, but for optimal chili-ness, go long.)
Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight:
Refrigerate in an air-tight covered container. (Note: you can eat the chili immediately if you want to.)
De-fat the chili:
The next day, lift or scrape off any solidified fat from the top of the chili and discard.
Warm and serve:
Bring to a rapid simmer, then add the vinegar and chocolate. (The chocolate won’t make it taste sweet—it adds a hint of sophisticated complexity and acts as a foil for all those spices. Chili parlors in Cincinnati don't use chocolate in their recipes; it's a highly contested addition, but I stand behind it.)
Serve any “way” (see headnotes). The chili will also keep refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to a year.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 20g||26%|
|Saturated Fat 8g||38%|
|Total Carbohydrate 11g||4%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||11%|
|Total Sugars 5g|
|Vitamin C 9mg||45%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|