THIS cincinnati chili recipe will knock your socks off! IT’s Ridiculously easy and the ultimate comfort food!
If you haven’t tried Cincinnati Chili before, you are in for a treat! It’s a thick, ground beef meat sauce punctuated by a unique blend of warm, sweet-and-savory spices served not in a bowl but over hot dogs or spaghetti piled with your choice of kidney beans, chopped onions, cheese and/or oyster crackers. Cincinnati Chili is made by virtually dumping the ingredients together in one pot without even browning the meat then simmering until thickened. It might sound odd, but this technique makes for the easiest bowl of comfort food around that’s hearty, aromatic, packed with flavor and can’t-stop-eating delicious – guaranteed. This sensational Cincinnati Chili recipe makes fantastic leftovers (it’s even better the next day) so it’s fabulous for make ahead meals and crowds and it also freezes beautifully for an instant dinner any night of the week.
We are pretty much obsessed with warm, hearty chili recipes around here. If you love chili like us, don’t miss Crockpot Chili, Turkey Chili, Creamy White Chicken Chili, Crockpot White Chicken Chili, Buffalo Chicken Chili, Barbecue Chicken Chili, and Mango Black Bean Chili (one of the first recipes I ever posted – SO GOOD, but excuse the pics ;)).
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How to make Cincinnati Chili Video
What is Cincinnati CHili?
Cincinnati Chili was invented in the 1900s in Cincinnati and has become a famous regional comfort food. In fact, the Smithsonian has honored it by designating the chili as one the Most Iconic Foods in America. It is the quintessence a of a cultural melting pot with Midwestern seasonings mixed with Greek flavors all piled on a tangle of Italian noodles. So, what exactly is it?
Cincinnati Chili is saucy ground beef served over spaghetti or hot dogs spiced with chili powder and cumin and the unique addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, flavorings supposedly inspired by Greek moussaka. The chili is made by simmering all of the ingredients together without browning the meat first.
To serve, the spaghetti and chili are topped with a pile of fluffy grated cheddar cheese (called a 3 way), or sometimes onions (4 way) and/or beans (5 way). The chili is also popular on top of hot dogs “Coneys” along with mustard, onions and a mound of cheese.
What makes Cincinnati chIli different?
Let’s take a deeper look at what sets this iconic dish apart. Here are five areas that distinguish Cincinnati Chili from your traditional TexMex Chili:
- The seasonings: ingredients for Cincinnati chili include the typical cast of chili characters such as beef broth, tomato paste, chili powder and cumin, but what sets this chili apart is the inclusion of cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and possibly brown sugar and unsweetened chocolate or cocoa powder. This blend makes for a unique warm, cozy, savory-sweet flavor profile.
- No beans! Cincinnati Chili does not contain beans or onions, instead you have the option to add beans and onions on top of the chili.
- The preparation: Cincinnati Chili doesn’t brown the meat first. Raw ground beef is crumbled and simmered in water or beef broth along with the rest of the ingredients until thickened. I know this goes against everything we’ve learned about building layers of flavor by browning the meat first, but the dump and simmer method is done for two reasons: 1) it creates the unique uniform, finely textured, soft meat crumbles as opposed to distinct crumbles and 2) the pot simmers with the fat and remember fat = flavor. (You are welcome to let the chili rest overnight in the refrigerator and skim off the fat in the morning if you wish.) The final result is a velvety thick chili of fine meat crumbles that definitely doesn’t look pretty, but will taste phenomenal.
- The consistency: Cincinnati Chili is not a soup-like or a chili-like consistency. Instead, it should be the consistency of thick ground meat pasta sauce, like a reduced Bolognese.
- The serving style: Cincinnati Chili is not your typical chili and should not be eaten in a bowl with a spoon. When Cincinnati Enquirer’s food editor Polly Campbell was asked about eating the chili in a bowl with a spoon she scoffed, “Ridiculous. Would you order a bowl of spaghetti sauce? Because that’s what you’re doing.” Rather, Cincinnati Chili is traditionally served over hot dogs or spaghetti and your choice of kidney beans, minced raw onion, a mound of finely grated cheddar cheese and/or oyster crackers. The toppings are known as “ways,”: a 2-Way, 3-Way, 4-Way or 5-Way, depending on which toppings you choose.
where did cincinnati chili come from?
Unlike many recipes, we actually know where Cincinnati Chili came from! John and Tom Kiradjieff, Cincinnati-based Greek immigrants, invented Cincinnati Chili. The brothers fled Greece during the Balkan Wars in 1921 and the next year opened a Greek restaurant in Cincinnati but with limited success. In order to appeal to more American palates, they began serving a stew with traditional Mediterranean spices speculated to have been modified after moussaka or pastitsio.
Shortly after, the restaurateurs began serving the stew as a topping for spaghetti and for hot dogs which they called “Coneys.” The recipe became known as Cincinnati Chili, the restaurant’s signature dish. Subsequently, the name of the restaurant changed to Empress Chili Parlor.
As a response to customers’ requests, the brothers soon began adding piles of grated cheese to both the spaghetti and the hot dogs. To make ordering more efficient, the brothers created the “way” system of ordering, which has since been copied by nearly all of their competitors. Today, 100 years later, Cincinnati Chili is a midwestern way of life. It’s a pasta sauce, a hot dog sauce and your new favorite food combo since peanut butter and jelly.
Where did Skyline Chili Come from?
Nicholas Lambrinides grew up in Kastoria, Greece before immigrating to Cincinnati where he worked as a cook for the inventors of Cincinnati Chili at their Empress Chili Parlor restaurant. He left the restaurant to launch his own Skyline Chili restaurant in downtown Cincinnati in 1949. His restaurant was quite literally named for the Cincinnati skyline, as his first restaurant on Gateway Avenue overlooked the city’s stunning riverfront views. Since that first location, Skyline has developed a cult-like following with over 160 locations with the majority of those in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, but a few in Florida as well.
Is Cincinnati chili the same as skyline?
Although “Skyline Chili” is now virtually synonymous with Cincinnati Chili itself—they are not one in the same. Skyline Chili is a brand of Cincinnati Chili served at the Skyline diner chain, whereas, Cincinnati Chili is the general type of chili and can be found at a slew of other restaurants such as Dixie Chili and Gold Star. Skyline Chili, however, is the most famous and will win in terms of national popularity and reputation every time.
cincinnati CHILI RECIPE
I am so excited for you to try this Cincinnati Chili recipe, especially if you’ve never tried it before! It’s like a big, comforting, satisfying hug that will warm you from the inside out. My version contains a little bit of bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cayenne, apple cider vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. It is an unusual combo but trust me, it works. You will find it almost impossible to stop eating it!
This Cincinnati Chili recipe is for all those busy days, chili days (pun intended), game days, Sundays and every day in between. It’s also great for make ahead meals and entertaining because it’s all hands off once the pot starts to simmer and everyone can pile on their own toppings. And whatever you didn’t eat (not likely) you can freeze!
Here’s why this recipe works:
- No seasoning packets! Many home cooks in Ohio use Skyline seasoning packets but the adept homemade seasoning blend in this recipe will blow the packets out of the water! Plus, it takes seconds to gather the seasonings.
- It is customizable. Some recipes have nutmeg, some don’t; some recipes have chocolate or cocoa powder, some don’t; some recipes have cayenne pepper, some don’t. Moral of the story, you can customize this recipe to make it perfect for YOU!
- My trick for deepening the flavor: although the authentic way to cook Cincinnati Chili is to just dump all the ingredients in a pot, I like to sauté the tomato paste and seasonings first. This blooms and enhances the spices and makes the tomato paste taste richer, deeper and less “tinny.”
- My trick for velvety meat: Cincinnati Chili should be super soft and fine. I like to use an immersion blender to achieve the spoon tender texture but you can also use a potato masher.
- My ultimate trick for the best Cincinnati Chili: I encourage you to try and make this recipe a day ahead of time because it tastes 1000X better the next day! This is a bonus for you because all you have to do is gather the toppings – dinner is already made!
WHAT INGREDIENTS GO in cincinnati CHILI?
Cincinnati Chili is characterized by its unique blend of ingredients. Of course, you can add more or less of any of the ingredients to make the chili exactly as you wish. You will need:
- Ground beef: I recommend using 85-15% lean Angus beef for the best flavor. Angus meat is known for being more tender, marbled, and flavorful than regular beef, although regular beef will work just fine as well. By using leaner ground beef, the fat will flavor the chili but doesn’t make it unappetizingly greasy. Of course, you can go even leaner if you wish.
- Beef broth & beef bouillon: use reduced sodium beef broth so we can also use beef bouillon which is slightly salty and adds intense, concentrated flavor.
- Tomato sauce: one 15 ounce can creates a richer sauce than using just broth. I recommend the brands San Marzano, Cento and Muir Glen.
- Tomato paste: adds rich, concentrated tomato flavor. I save unused tomato paste by flash freezing it by the tablespoon on parchment paper, then cut out the individual tablespoons, wrapping them up then storing together in a sealable bag.
- Garlic: use 5 garlic cloves or dump in 1 ¼ teaspoon garlic powder.
- Worcestershire sauce: is a flavor bomb all packed into one bottle. Just a splash deepens the complexity of the chili with its intense umami flavor from the soy mingled with sour from tamarind and vinegar, sweetness from molasses and sugar, and dimension from the cloves, celery seed, and chili pepper extract.
- Bittersweet chocolate: is a controversial ingredient. Some enthusiast say it’s not authentic, some swear it makes all the difference. I personally love the combo of the chocolate and the sugar provide, like a nod to mole.
- Brown sugar: balances the bittersweet chocolate and the acidity of the tomato sauce.
- Apple cider vinegar: cuts through the richness and brightens up the sauce.
- Traditional chili seasonings: chili powder, ground cumin, smoked paprika, dried oregano, cayenne pepper, pepper, salt and onion powder provide the building blocks of flavor.
- Warm seasonings: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice & cloves add the unique warmness and are what set Cincinnati Chili apart from all others!
Cincinnati chili RECIPE variations
If you’re trying to stick with authentic Cincinnati Chili, there is not a ton of wiggle room, but here are a few ideas:
- Swap chocolate for cocoa powder. Use 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder instead or omit it altogether. Add the cocoa powder with the beef broth if using.
- Use turkey instead of ground beef. You may want to add additional beef bouillon to taste to give the ground turkey chili an extra beefy flavor. If that’s the case, omit the salt and add salt to taste at the end of cooking. You can also season with additional beef bouillon at the end of cooking.
- Add heat. Ramp up the spice level by adding cayenne pepper to taste at the end of cooking.
- Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili: swap the ground beef for brown lentils and cook just until tender (about 30 minutes partially covered) or use well drained broken up tofu, brown it for about 8 minutes then continue with the recipe.
How to Make Cincinnati Style Chili
This Cincinnati Style Chili is easy to make in just 6 steps. Here’s how (plus, don’t miss the How to Make video in the recipe card at the bottom of the post):
- Step 1: Bloom the spices. Add the tomato paste, chocolate, garlic, and all seasonings to a large soup pot/Dutch oven and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Step 2: Combine ingredients. Add the beef broth, tomato sauce, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, beef bouillon, brown sugar and bay leaves.
- Step 3: Add beef. Stir in the beef, crumbling it as you add it. Use an immersion blender, potato masher or fork to break up the meat into fine pieces.
- Step 4: Simmer. Simmer uncovered for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally until the sauce has become quite thick.
- Step 5: Taste and season. I like my chili with additional salt and cayenne pepper.
- Step 6: Serve. Ladle the Cincinnati Chili over hot dogs or a bowl of cooked spaghetti with desired toppings such as kidney beans, chopped white onions, freshly grated cheese and oyster crackers. Details to follow.
Slow Cooker Cincinnati Chili
This recipe is easily made in the slow cooker as well. Combine all ingredients in the slow cooker but use only 3 cups of beef broth. You need less broth because the liquid won’t evaporate in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on HIGH for 3-4 hours, or LOW for 6-8 hours. If the finished chili is too wet, remove the lid and continue to cook so some of the liquid will evaporate. If you like it saucier, stir in additional broth.
Pressure Cooker Cincinnati Chili
This recipe can also be made in an Instant Pot, but reduce the broth to 3 cups. Sauté the tomato paste, garlic, seasonings and chocolate using the “sauté” function on the pressure cooker. Add the remaining ingredients and break up the meat using a potato masher or immersion blender. Cook on high pressure for 30 minutes. Let the pressure come down naturally.
How do you Eat Cincinnati Chili?
Now that we have our aromatic, meaty, iconic Cincinnati Chili, there are a few choices for serving – as spaghetti sauce, hot dog topping or in a bowl:
- On spaghetti: the spaghetti is served in a shallow bowl topped with the chili, kidney beans, diced onions, cheese and/or oyster crackers. This is my favorite way to devour Cincinnati Chili. It’s like a unique Bolognese sauce that becomes exponentially better with the toppings. I will detail the “ways” to top the spaghetti below. Locals eat Cincinnati Chili over spaghetti by cutting each bite as if it were a casserole instead of twirling the noodles on a fork. I guess I’m not a local, because I still like to twirl.
- On a hot dog: this is called a Coney. Also served in a shallow dish, the hot dog is nestled in a steamed bun with a drizzle of mustard, a mound of chili, diced onions, and a heap of finely shredded cheddar cheese.
- In a bowl: yes, you can eat Cincinnati Style Chili in a bowl, but should you? Some restaurants like Skyline still offer the chili plain in a bowl, but local legend has it that nobody’s ever ordered it that way. It’s just not how it’s meant to be eaten!
CINCINNATI CHILI “WAYS”:
Cincinnati Chili is served according to the “way” system, which makes it easier to order. The number before the “way” of the chili determines which ingredients are included in each chili order. Different Cincinnati Chili restaurants have some different rules when it comes ways, but here are the general guidelines:
- 2-Way: spaghetti topped with chili (not recommended – add those toppings!)
- 3-Way: spaghetti topped with chili and cheese
- 4-Way Onion: spaghetti topped with chili, onions, and cheese
- 4-Way Bean: spaghetti topped with chili, beans, and cheese
- 5-Way aka “the works”: spaghetti topped with chili, beans, onions, and cheese
Once you have your perfect dish, people traditionally top their “ways” with oyster crackers and hot sauce.
CINCINNATI CHILI CONEYS:
Coneys also come in different combinations:
- Bun, hot dog, (optional mustard) chili
- Bun, hot dog, (optional mustard) chili, cheese
- Bun, hot dog, (optional mustard) chili, onion
- Bun, hot dog, (optional mustard) chili, onion, cheese
Tips for making Cincinnati style chili
Making Cincinnati Chili is pretty straightforward, but here are some helpful tips and tricks:
- Use lean ground beef. I prefer lean ground beef regardless, but it is especially important if you don’t want to let the chili sit overnight in the refrigerator and skim the fat off the next day.
- Customize the ingredients. When I posted a preview of my Cincinnati Chili recipe on Instagram, someone messaged me that they hate Cincinnati Chili. So, my advice is if you have never tasted Cincinnati Chili before, make the recipe as written. If you have tasted it and you know you don’t like the chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, etc. then reduce the quantity or omit the offending ingredient. Customizing the recipe is part of the beauty of making homemade Cincinnati Chili!
- Use freshly grated cheese for the best chili. Freshly grated cheddar has a better texture and is richer and more flavorful.
- Cook on low. Don’t rush the process. The chili will deepen in flavor and produce the best texture if simmered on low.
- Customize the chili consistency. After you’ve simmered the chili and the beef is done cooking, you can customize the consistency. For thicker chili, continue to simmer until reduced and thickened to your liking. For thinner/saucier chili, add additional low sodium beef broth in ¼ cup increments until it thins to desired consistency.
- Season to taste. If you feel like your chili is missing something at the end of cooking – it is likely salt and/or cayenne pepper, but as always, taste first! I personally like my chili with a little more kick than traditional Cincinnati Chili so I add extra cayenne pepper at the end of cooking. I feel like this really makes the flavors come alive.
- Refrigerate the chili overnight. Some people like to refrigerate their chili overnight so they can skim the fat off the top the next day but I refrigerate it overnight because it tastes 1000X better the next day! I can’t explain it, but something magical happens overnight as the flavors, meld and build, transforming a lackluster chili into a dizzyingly delicious chili.
- Don’t skim all of the fat. If you decide to refrigerate the chili overnight, I don’t recommend skimming off all of the fat. Fat=flavor so the more fat you remove, the more flavor you lose. When reheating the chili the next day, you will likely have to add additional broth to thin it out some.
WHAT CAN I PREP AHEAD?
As previously described, you can prepare this entire Cincinnati Chili recipe ahead of time and refrigerate. Other than that, the beauty of this recipe is that it requires almost zero prep, the garlic is the only ingredient in the actual chili that needs to be minced. You can, however, prep the toppings – dice the onion and shred the cheese beforehand or anytime the chili is simmering so you are 100% ready when the chili is ready.
What to Serve with Cincinnati Chili?
Cincinnati Chili is a stand-alone meal without traditional sides. Still, we love it with the following:
- Breads: Moist Cornbread, Soft and Fluffy Dinner Rolls, or Garlic Parmesan Breadsticks.
- Salad: a big green salad, Caesar Salad, Wedge Salad with Blue Cheese Ranch or Cucumber Salad.
- Veggies: Roasted Asparagus, Sautéed Lemon Garlic Brussels Sprouts, or Roasted Broccoli.
HOW CAN I USE LEFTOVER cincinnati style CHILI?
Should you be so lucky as to have leftover Cincinnati Chili, it can be served on pretty much anything from potatoes, to burgers to nachos. Here are a few ideas:
- Rice or Mashed Potatoes: similar to topping spaghetti, but use rice or mashed potatoes! Top the rice/potato chili with desired toppings. You can also stir the chili directly into cheesy rice or stir fried rice.
- Baked Potatoes: who doesn’t love potatoes and chili?! Bake the potatoes, slice them open and top with spoonfuls of chili, onions, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and bacon.
- Chili Mac and cheese: stir leftover chili into your favorite mac and cheese recipe like this Homemade Mac and Cheese or layer it in this Million Dollar Mac and Cheese.
- Chili Nachos: top your favorite cheesy chips with this this Cincinnati Chili recipe with all the toppings – sour cream, green onions, jalapenos, etc.
- Cornbread and Chili Gravy: smother your favorite cornbread with chili and dig in!
- Tacos, Burritos, Quesadillas, Taquitos: use the thick chili in place of taco meat in any of your favorite Mexican recipes.
- Add to soup: stir the chili into virtually any soup in place of the called for protein or add it to veggie soups like Potato Soup, Cabbage Soup, Minestrone Soup, etc.
HOW LONG IS cincinnati CHILI GOOD FOR?
This Cincinnati Chili recipe can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days. If you don’t think you’re going to finish your chili in four days, then be sure to freeze the leftovers.
HOW TO REHEAT Cincinnati chili
- Stove: reheat on the stove over medium low heat, stirring occasionally until warmed through, adding additional broth as needed.
- Microwave: transfer to a microwave-safe dish, add additional broth as needed, cover with a microwave-safe lid or paper towel. Microwave for 90 seconds, stir, then continue to microwave for 30-second intervals, if needed.
- Crockpot: transfer to a slow cooker and heat on low for 1-2 hours, adding additional broth as needed.
CAN I FREEZE cincinnati chili?
Yes, this Cincinnati Chili recipe freezes exceptionally well because it does not contain any dairy products, pasta or potatoes which sometimes can become a funny texture once frozen. To freeze:
- Cool: allow the chili to cool completely before freezing.
- Package: transfer to an airtight freezer-safe container or freezer bag. You can even use sandwich size plastic bags for individual portions. Squeeze out any excess air to prevent freezer burn and label
- Freeze: store for up to 6 months.
- Thaw/Reheat: when ready to use, thaw overnight in the refrigerator then reheat in the microwave, crockpot or stove according to aforementioned instructions.
LOOKING FOR more ground beef RECIPES?
- Cheesy Taco Soup
- Lasagna Soup
- Hamburger Soup
- Ground Beef Stroganoff
- Ground Beef Tacos
- Weeknight Spaghetti Bolognese
Tools Used in This RecipeSee Favorite Tools
- 2 pounds lean ground beef (preferably 85/15)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 tsp EACH ground cumin, dried oregano, onion powder
- 1 tsp EACH ground cinnamon, smoked paprika
- 3/4 tsp EACH salt, allspice, cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 4 cups low sodium beef broth
- 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons granulated beef bouillon (or 2 crushed cubes)
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 2 bay leaves
- Cooked spaghetti
- Kidney beans
- 1 chopped white onion
- Shredded cheddar cheese
- Oyster crackers
- Tabasco Hot Sauce
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat in a large Dutch oven/soup pot. Add tomato paste, chocolate, garlic, and all seasonings (through cloves) and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add beef broth, tomato sauce, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, beef bouillon brown sugar and bay leaves.
- Stir in the beef, crumbling it as you add it. Use an immersion blender, potato masher or fork to break up the meat into fine pieces.
- Cover to help the mixture come to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, uncover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally until sauce has become quite thick.
- Taste and season with salt and/or cayenne pepper to taste. I like ½ teaspoon more of each. Time permitting, refrigerate the chili overnight, it tastes 1000X better the next day!
- For serving, ladle over hot dogs or a bowl of cooked spaghetti with desired toppings such as kidney beans, chopped white onions, freshly grated cheese, oyster crackers and hot sauce.
- Refrigerate the chili overnight. Some people like to refrigerate their chili overnight so they can skim the fat off the top the next day but I refrigerate it overnight because it tastes 1000X better the next day! When reheating the chili the next day, you will likely have to add additional broth to thin it out a bit. If you don’t have time to refrigerate it overnight, it can still be served the same day.
- Don’t skim all of the fat. If you decide to refrigerate the chili overnight, I don’t recommend skimming off all of the fat. Fat=flavor so the more fat you remove, the more flavor you lose.
- Turkey Cincinnati Chili: swap the ground beef for ground turkey. You may want to add additional beef bouillon to taste to give the ground turkey an extra beefy flavor. If that’s the case, omit the salt and add salt to taste at the end of cooking. You can also season with additional beef bouillon at the end of cooking.
- Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili: swap the ground beef for brown lentils and cook just until tender (about 30 minutes partially covered) or use well drained broken up tofu, brown it for about 8 minutes then continue with the recipe.
- To store: store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days.
- To freeze: allow the chili to cool completely then transfer to an airtight freezer-safe container or freezer bag. Squeeze out any excess air to prevent freezer burn and label. Store for up to 6 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight when ready to use.
- To reheat on the stove: reheat on the stove over medium low heat, stirring occasionally until warmed through, adding additional broth as needed.
- To reheat in the microwave: transfer to a microwave-safe dish, add additional broth as needed, cover with a microwave-safe lid or paper towel. Microwave for 90 seconds, stir, then continue to microwave for 30-second intervals, if needed.
- To reheat in the crockpot: transfer to a slow cooker and heat on low for 1-2 hours, adding additional broth as needed.
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