Cincinnati—aka Cincy or Queen City—is well-known for its chili. We're here to tell you why this Midwestern staple is so special, right down to its long list of spices and one not-so-secret ingredient.
When most people think of chili, it’s usually dark brown Texas-style beef chili or one brimming with ground meat, beans, tomatoes and hot chile peppers. Unless you’re from Cincinnati, of course. Cincinnati chili is a whole other bowl game.
The major difference between this Midwestern classic and other kinds of chili is that it’s more like a thin meat sauce that’s slightly sweet and filled with aromatic spices. Also, Cincinnati chili is usually served on top of cooked spaghetti or hot dogs and covered in a mound of shredded cheese and chopped onions.
This unique take on chili can be traced back to the 1920s, when brothers and Macedonian immigrants Tom and John Kiradjieff opened their restaurant, The Empress, in Cincinnati. When creating their version of American chili, the Kiradjieffs took inspiration from their homeland by adding cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice to a tomato-based ground meat stew. Cincinnati chili also has chili powder and—secret ingredient alert—unsweetened chocolate to amp up the beefy flavor.
Serving this type of chili on top of spaghetti was a no-brainer for the brothers: If you’ve ever had Greek specialties like moussaka or pastitsio, you’ll see and taste similarities. Pastitsio, for instance, is like a Greek-inspired lasagna with spicy-sweet meat sauce and noodles. But any likeness stops there. Cincinnati chili is purely an American staple now, and one of the region’s most iconic, ubiquitous dishes.
You’ll find it at many restaurants and more than 180 “chili parlors” around Queen City as well as other parts of the U.S., including famous spots like Skyline Chili,Camp Washington Chili, Dixie Chili, Blue Ash Chili andGold Star Chili.
It might be a little different, but it’s one of our favorite chili recipes from coast to coast!
What Is Cincinnati Chili?
Cincinnati chili is a stew of ground beef, tomato paste and a striking blend of aromatic spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove, cumin and chili powder. Dark chocolate is often added for a unique sweetness.
You’re most likely to see it served on a plate (not a bowl) of spaghetti or on a hot dog. Depending on your preference, it can come with a mountain of grated cheddar cheese, kidney beans and diced onions, and served with oyster crackers for crunch.
What makes Cincinnati chili different?
Unlike most types of chili, the meaty part of Cincinnati chili has a thinner, more soup-like consistency, rather than a chunky one. The spices and chocolate make it sweeter. And it’s usually served on a mound of spaghetti with toppings.
What are the key ingredients in Cincinnati chili?
For Cincinnati chili, you don’t want to use ground beef that’s too lean. One of the hallmarks of this chili style is its richness, and beef fat is what contributes to that most. In fact, some chili experts insist every vat of Cincinnati chili must have a layer of orange-tinged fat swimming on top.
These are the real workhorses of a properly made Cincinnati chili. Aromatic warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove, cumin and chili powder are all used. It’s similar to the Greek meat sauce used in things like pastitsio and moussaka, but still a little different.
Using unsweetened chocolate, either in powder or bar form, doesn’t make Cincinnati chili taste sweet. Instead it adds richness and depth to the sauce, brings out the beefy flavor of the meat and balances the spices. Using chocolate in a sauce like this is very similar to making mole sauce, a cornerstone of Mexican cooking.
Are there beans in Cincinnati chili?
Not the way you’re used to seeing in regular chili. Kidney beans are often served as a topping along with cheese and chopped onion.
The Best Cincinnati Chili Recipe
This recipe comes from contributor Tari Ambler from Shorewood, Wisconsin. It makes five servings.
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 2 cups water
- 1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
- 1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons chili powder
- 1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Optional: hot cooked spaghetti, shredded cheddar cheese, additional chopped onion, rinsed and drained kidney beans, oyster crackers
Step 1: Cook the meat
In a Dutch oven over medium heat, cook the beef and onion until the meat is no longer pink and the onion is tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. While cooking, break the meat into the smallest crumbles possible; this is not chunky chili. When cooked through, drain some of the fat off the meat.
Step 2: Add the spices and simmer
To the pot with the meat and onions, add the water, tomato sauce and paste, chili powder, chocolate, garlic, cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaf and spices. Bring everything to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 to 2 hours. The consistency should be more soupy than a thick stew.
Step 3: Serve with your favorite toppings
Discard the bay leaf and serve, if desired, on top of cooked spaghetti with any variation of cheese, additional chopped onion, kidney beans and oyster crackers.
How to Eat Cincinnati Chili
First, never eat Cincinnati chili with a spoon. This is a fork food, at least that’s what the locals will tell you. As mentioned, one of the most popular ways to eat this chili is on top of spaghetti with various toppings. It’s also super popular on hot dogs, which are called coneys—maybe an homage to New York’s Coney Island, but more likely the Coney Island amusement park built in Cincinnati in the late 1800s. Whether it’s served on spaghetti or as a Cincinnati chili dog, get it with a mountain of cheese and onions.
There is a method to the madness, however. To order Cincinnati chili like a true Cincinnatian, you’ll want to use the proper lingo. There are a few different “ways” to order your ideal bowl with confidence:
- 2 way: chili + spaghetti
- 3 way: chili + spaghetti + cheese
- 4 way: chili + spaghetti + cheese + onions or beans
- 5 way: chili + spaghetti + cheese + onions + beans
A proper coney can be a simple bun, hot dog and chili, or one topped with chili, mustard, onion and cheese.
Tips for Cincinnati Chili
Can you make Cincinnati chili in advance?
Like any chili, Cincinnati chili can be made in advance, and even tastes better the next day. When the chili cools, you’ll probably see a layer of solidified orange-colored fat on top. If you want, you can srape that fat cap off and discard before reheating the chili on the stove or in the microwave. But locals will tell you a bowl of Cincinnati chili just isn’t the same if it doesn’t have a pool of reddish-orange fat.
How do you store Cincinnati chili?
Store leftover chili, without the toppings, covered in the refrigerator for up to four days.
Can you freeze Cincinnati chili?
Before adding optional ingredients, allow the chili to cool completely. Store in airtight freezer-safe containers for up to four months. To reheat, allow it to thaw in the refrigerator overnight, then reheat in a saucepan, stirring occasionally and adding water if needed.