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Cincinnati Chili

Cincinnati Chili is the ultimate comfort food for people who love spaghetti, cheese and chili. Follow our easy Cincinnati Chili recipe and make the decadently delicious dish at home this weekend.

Cincinnati Chili from the Side with Fork

We ate Cincinnati Chili for the first time while traveling. Though we’d heard of the dish before, we’d never had the occasion to taste it until our travels took us to Cincinnati.

This situation is not unique for us. Culinary curiosity has catapulted us to dozens of states in America as well as to more than 40 countries. It’s also the reason we added Cincinnati to our epic US road trip route in 2016.

Neither of us had ever been to Cincinnati; however, we were itching to try the Queen City’s two iconic foods. Yes, the mid-size Ohio city has not one but two iconic foods: Cincinnati Chili and Graeter’s Ice Cream.

Learn about Graeter’s Ice Cream, Cincinnati’s other iconic food.

Mindi Eats Cincinnati Chili
Eating Cincinnati Chili makes us happy. Pairing it with beer makes us happier.

After scheduling a tour at Graeter’s Ice Cream factory on the outskirts of the city, we focused our efforts on one thing and one thing only. Our mission was to eat as much authentic Cincinnati Chili as physically possible in just 24 hours.

Mission accomplished.

What Is Cincinnati Chili?

Fork of Cincinnati Chili
Cincinnati chili is so wrong that it’s right.

Cincinnati Chili lives up to its name insomuch that’s it’s from Cincinnati and its main ingredient is chili. Sort of. The chili in this dish is nothing like chili eaten in Texas or sold in cans across America. Instead, it’s more like a Greek meat sauce with flavors of cinnamon, clove and bay leaf. It’s kind of like pastitsio meets spagbol meets a burrito.

Read about the 40 best noodle dishes in the world.

In Cincinnati, cooks start by topping oval plates with spaghetti and then smother the simple pasta strands with highly seasoned meat sauce. Based on how the ‘chili’ is ordered, they finish by adding the following:

  • Chili Spaghetti – Nothing – The name says it all.
  • Cincinnati Three Way Chili – Lots of Grated Cheddar Cheese
  • Cincinnati Four Way Chili – Either Chopped Onions or Kidney Beans and Lots of Grated Cheddar Cheese.
  • Cincinnati Five Way Chili – Chopped Onions, Kidney Beans and Lots of Grated Cheddar Cheese.
Cincinnati Chili Toppings
These are the only appropriate toppings for Cincinnati Chili.

You may be wondering about Cincinnati One Way Chili. Wonder no more. One Way Chili isn’t a thing. Without the fixings, it’s just plain spaghetti and we don’t play that way.

Pro Tip
Don’t count out Cincinnati Chili if its combination of disparate ingredients sounds weird to you. In our opinion and, more importantly, the opinion of millions of hungry midwesterners, Cincinnati Chili is dee-licious.

The History of Cincinnati Chili

Cincinnati Skyline
Cincinnati’s appealing skyline provided the name inspiration for the Queen City’s most famous chili parlor.

In many ways, Cincinnati Chili is a quintessential American dish with its all-American cheddar cheese, Mediterranean flavors and Italian pasta. But how and when did it begin?

No flash in the pan (or should we say dutch oven?), Cincinnati Chili has been a thing in Cincinnati since two Macedonian brothers concocted the flavorful gravy in 1922. A century later, the city has more than 100 chili parlors serving versions of the city’s most popular comfort food.

Two Way Cincinnati Chili in Cincinnati(1)
This is the first plate of Cincinnati Chili that we ate at Skyline Chili in Cincinnati. However, it wasn’t the last.

While Tom and John Kiradjieff get credit for inventing Cincinnati at their Empress Chili parlor during the 1920s, Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides took Cincinnati Chili to the next level two decades later when he opened Skyline Chili and modified the recipe in 1949.

Lambrinides clearly did something right – Skyline Chili and Cincinnati Chili are now practically synonymous. The chain now has over 150 locations in four states including Indiana, Kentucky and Florida.

Where Is the Best Cincinnati Chili?

Two Way Cincinnati Chili in Cincinnati
We ate this Three-Way Cincinnati Chili in Cincinnati where the dish was invented.

Cincinnati is the obvious answer to the question of where’s the best Cincinnati Chili. The better question is where to find the best Cincinnati style Chili in Cincinnati. Unlike the specific ways to order Cincinnati Chili, that answer isn’t so easy.

Some people will quickly respond with Skyline Chili, the city’s 800-pound chili gorilla. Not only does Skyline have a secret recipe and numerous locations, but eating at Skyline is an absolute must for its slice of midwestern culture.

Inside Camp Washington Chili in Cincinnati
Camp Washington Chili has been feeding Cincinnati as well as travelers like us since 1940. If you don’t believe us, read the sign on the wall.

Others will respond with Camp Washington Chili, a local institution with just one location and prestigious accolades that include a James Beard award. As a bonus, this Cincinnati chili parlor has a dinner menu and hours that extend through the night.

As noted above, Cincinnati has more than 100 chili parlors. Other top Cincinnati Chili restaurants include Blue Ash Chili, Chili Time, Dixie Chili, Empress Chili (the original), Gold Star Chili (a chain), Pleasant Ridge Chili and Price Hill Chili.

Pro Tip
Don’t twirl your spaghetti when you eat Cincinnati Chili in its home city. Locals are choppers instead of twirlers and will know right away that you’re not a native Ohioan.

Cincinnati Chili Ingredients

Cincinnati Chili Ingredients
The ingredient list for our Cincinnati Chili recipe is extensive. Pictured here are chopped onions, lean ground beef, chili powder, white sugar, unsweetened chocolate, cumin, ground cloves, cinnamon, allspice, garlic powder, black pepper, tomato paste, red pepper flakes, cheddar cheese, apple cider vinegar and chopped garlic cloves. Not pictured is a bay leaf, salt and water.

We’re not going to lie. The number of ingredients required to make authentic Cincinnati Chili is daunting at first glance. However, a deeper look reveals that almost every ingredient is a pantry staple in kitchens around the world.

We mentioned before that Cincinnati Chili has Mediterranean roots and the dish’s ingredients validate this assertion. We’re talking about spices like cloves and cinnamon as well as unsweetened chocolate.

Chili Peppers and Chilis
We ground ancho, guajillo and chilie de árbol pepper to make chili powder for this recipe.

Make no mistake – this recipe has some kick. Ingredients like red pepper flakes and chili powder add a punch that justifies drinking a refreshing beer or two with the dish.

We went the extra mile and made our chili powder from scratch by grinding and blending ancho, guajillo and chilie de árbol peppers and then adding a blend of spices like garlic powder and oregano. However, chili powder sold in American grocery stores and on Amazon should suffice.

Click here to buy gourmet chili powder from Amazon.

True Confession
We only made the chili powder from scratch because we can’t easily buy proper American-style chili powder in our home city of Lisbon. It was worth the extra effort.

How To Make Cincinnati Chili

Adding Chili Pepper to Cincinnati Chili
We put our homemade chili pepper to good use when we added it to our Cincinnati Chili recipe.

Call us crazy but we think it’s fun to make Cincinnati Chili at home. The hardest part is measuring all of the ingredients before dumping them into a dutch oven with two pounds of ground beef. See below for an Instant Pot cooking option.

While you can use a pot with a heavy bottom, a dutch oven works best and will let you do a low and slow simmer without burning the bottom. We recommend that you stir your chili frequently either way.

Click here to buy a dutch oven from Amazon.

After we added all the ingredients, we were amazed by the number of empty prep bowls that surrounded the pot. They numbered more than a dozen!

By preparing the mis en place in advance, making the actual recipe was a breeze.

Click here to buy prep bowls from Amazon if you don’t have enough to complete this and other recipes.

Mashing Cincinnati Chili
This is what our Cincinnati Chili looked like before we mashed the ingredients together.

To be honest, we’re not sure which step was more fun – dumping everything into the pot or mashing it all together with a large potato masher. Yes, we use a potato masher to make our Cincinnati Chili recipe.

Click here to buy a potato masher from Amazon if you don’t already have one in your kitchen.

Cincinnati Chili on Masher
And this is what it looked like after a few minutes of cathartic mashing.

While not as fun as dumping or mashing, pouring six cups of water into the pot is the last step before letting the chili simmer. You can do other things in the kitchen or on your computer while the dutch oven does its magic over the next couple hours.

You’ll start to smell the blending of tantalizing flavors right away. In fact, our kitchen smelled like a Mediterranean spice market once we assembled all the ingredients. The aromas only improved as the dish cooked.

Pouring Water into Cincinnati Chili
A whole bunch of ingredients are used to make Cincinnati chili. Just add water and you’re on your way.

Expect the chili to cook for at least two hours. You’ll know it’s ready when its consistency resembles a thick Italian meat sauce as opposed to a super thick Texas chili.

It’s time to make spaghetti around the two-hour mark. A lot of recipes are flexible about the type of pasta you use. This is not one of those recipes.

For this recipe, you need to use the kind of simple spaghetti you may have eaten with meatballs as a kid. You’ll want to cook the pasta a few minutes past al dente.

Ladeling Cincinnati Chili on Spaghetti
Don’t rush when it comes to ladling the chili. You don’t want the dish to be too hot or the cheese will melt too quickly.

Plating our Cincinnati Chili recipe is easy peasy as the dish is intended to be messy. Use tongs to plate the pasta and a ladle to cover the pasta with the chili.

Chopped Onions on Top of Cincinnati Chili
You can add as much onions as you want when you make Cincinnati Chili at home. This is how much we add.

If you haven’t done so already, this is the time to decide if you want to make 3-way, 4-way or 5-way chili. Since we decided to make 4-way chili, we added chopped raw onions in addition to shredded cheddar cheesse.

We had kidney beans on hand but decided not to use them. If we had decided otherwise, we would have made 5-way chili. Maybe next time.

Cincinnati Chili from Above
When we say add a lot of cheese, we mean it.

The final step is to smother the entire dish with shredded cheddar cheese. Don’t be shy. You’ll want to add a lot of cheese. This is not a dish where less is more. You’ll understand as soon as you take a bite.

Pro Tip
Grate the cheddar cheese with a box grater into long strands while the chili is cooking and then put the shredded cheese into the freezer to chill for a maximum of 20 minutes. You do not want the cheese to melt.

Click here to buy a box cheese grater from Amazon.

Cincinnati Chili Instant Pot Option

Forkful of Cincinnati Chili
Cincinnati Chili tastes great if you cook in an Instant Pot. In fact, it should taste the same.

You may be wondering if you can cook Cincinnati Chili in an Instant Pot. The answer is YES.

While we don’t have an Instant Pot ourselves, a reader has advised that this recipe cooked like a dream in her Instant Pot. She followed all of the steps and measurements as outlined in this recipe. However, she cooked the chili for 25 minutes in the Instant Pot instead of 2 hours in a dutch oven.

If you have an Instant Pot, we say go for it!

What Goes with Cincinnati Chili?

Cincinnati Chili and Hot Sauce
Adding hot sauce is a bit excessive considering the great flavors in this dish. We’re okay with that label.

To be honest, you don’t NEED to add anything to our Cincinnati Chili recipe but you may WANT to add some hot sauce for extra zip. We added a few dashes of Louisiana hot sauce and the smoky flavor worked well.

Click here to buy Louisiana Hot Sauce from Amazon.

The fine folks in Cincinnati often add crushed oyster crackers to their Cincinnati Chili spaghetti dishes. Since we’re not from Cincinnati, that’s overkill for us. The dish isn’t exactly dainty – not that we’re complaining.

While we’re on the same page about not adding oyster crackers, we agree to disagree when it comes to dessert. It’s a local tradition to eat a York Peppermint Patty after eating a plate of chili spaghetti in Cincinnati. It’s and American candy classic!

Discover 39 more American candy favorites.

Cincinnati Chili Variations

Cincinnati Chili with Two Forks
One plate and two forks sums up how we like to eat homemade Cincinnati chili.

We save the best for last. It turns out that our Cincinnati Chili recipe tastes even better the next day. In other words, don’t throw away the leftovers!

You can always cook some more spaghetti to whip up another round of 3, 4 or 5-way chili or you can make one of the following with the savory meat sauce:

  • Cheese Coney (i.e. Cincinnati Chili Dog)
  • Chili Dip
  • Chili Fries
  • Chili Lasagna
  • Chili Pizza

Better yet, maybe you’ll create your own recipe. As we always say… Your Kitchen, Your Rules.

Cincinnati Chili Recipe

Digging into Cincinnati Chili
We chopped our Cincinnati Chili with our forks… and then we ate it.

While we can’t guarantee that you’ll love our easy Cincinnati Chili recipe, we’ll be surprised if you don’t. Cincinnati Chili is as easy to make as it is to eat. It will likely be the best Mediterranean meat sauce you’ve ever served over spaghetti.

Cincinnati Chili is a hot American plate of yum. You know you want to try it and we say go for it.

Cincinnati Chili fro the Side

Cincinnati Chili

Yield: 8
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Additional Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours 5 minutes

Cincinnati Chili is the ultimate comfort food for people who love spaghetti, cheese and chili.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds lean ground beef
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper (to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon salt (to taste)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 6 ounces tomato paste (can or tube)
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 pounds spaghetti (If serving all at once.)
  • 6 cups bright orange cheddar cheese, grated

Optional Toppings

  • 1 chopped raw onion
  • 1 can kidney beans

Instructions

  1. Throw all the ingredients in a 5-6 quart pot (preferably a dutch oven).
  2. Pour water over all the ingredients
  3. Mash all the ingredients together using a large potato masher.
  4. Bring the mixture to simmer and cook 2 - 2.5 hours, stirring occasionally so that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.
  5. Chili is done when it reaches a saucy consistency. Don't let it get too thick. The goal is a saucy consistency that ladles easily over the spaghetti.
  6. Boil spaghetti until it's soft. We recommend that you follow the directions on the spaghetti package and add 3 to 5 minutes.
  7. Drain spaghetti into a colander and then transfer back to the pot. After you make sure that your pasta pot is off the heat, pour one large spoonful of the chili into the pasta pot and mix. (This step prevents the pasta from sticking together.)
  8. Use tongs to serve spaghetti on large plates.
  9. Ladle a large amount of chili on top of each plate of spaghetti.
  10. Optional: Place chopped raw onions and/or kidney beans on top of the chili.
  11. Ue your hands to smother everything with a mountain of grated cheddar cheese. You should only see the bare edge of the chili and spaghetti.

Notes

  • Cut the ingredients in half if you want to prepare this dish for four people.
  • Don't hesitate to make extra chili. It tastes even better the next day.
  • If you add the cheese when the chili is piping hot, the cheese will melt. To avoid this situation, wait five minutes after you ladle the chili over the spaghetti before adding the cheese. Another option is to chill the cheddar cheese in the freezer for about 15 minutes before you smother it over the chili. Don't stress too much - the dish should taste great even if the cheese gets melty.
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 609Total Fat: 18gSaturated Fat: 7gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 8gCholesterol: 104mgSodium: 607mgCarbohydrates: 69gFiber: 10gSugar: 18gProtein: 45g

Nutrition Disclosure: We used an online calculator to calculate this information. Though 2foodtrippers.com has attempted to secure accurate data, these nutritional figures are estimates.

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About the Authors

About the Authors

Daryl & Mindi Hirsch

Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Disclosure

We update our articles regularly. Some updates are major while others are minor link changes and spelling corrections. Let us know if you see anything that needs to be updated in this article.

Mark Dietrich

Friday 17th of September 2021

There is no chopped onion in Cincinnati chili. Never was, never will be.

Bob

Wednesday 14th of April 2021

I hope while you were in Cincinnati you tried another of our iconic foods, goetta.

Jana

Wednesday 7th of April 2021

Are we supposed to keep the lid on the Dutch oven, or let some water evaporate? Thanks Mindi and Darryl!

Daryl and Mindi Hirsch

Wednesday 7th of April 2021

No lid is necessary - you can let some water evaporate. If you find that the chili gets too thick, you can add water. Keep an eye on it and stir as needed. Enjoy!

Roshan Kumar

Wednesday 17th of February 2021

So delicious recipe and easy to prepare. I really loved it. By seeing images only, I feel like eating. Thanks for sharing this recipe.

Brittany

Saturday 6th of February 2021

My mouth watered the whole way through this article! Can't wait to recreate a college favorite!!

Daryl and Mindi Hirsch

Wednesday 10th of February 2021

Hi Brittany. Sounds great. Enjoy!

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