Made with ground beef, warm spices, and a secret ingredient, this Cincinnati chili recipe is hearty and comforting. Serve it over spaghetti and top it with plenty of cheddar cheese, oyster crackers, and onion, for the best Cincinnati chili you can make at home.
I love how so many states have their own regional dishes that are totally unique. Philly has cheesesteak sandwiches, Chicago has Chicago dogs and deep-dish pizza, Maine has lobster rolls, and New Orleans has po-boys (and on and on). I want to share my newest regional food obsession with you—Cincinnati chili. I may not be from the Buckeye state, but I’ve had this chili many times. Ohioans go nuts over this stuff and with good reason—it’s damn delicious.
Cincinnati chili is in a category all its own. Unlike other chilis like this Southwestern-style turkey chili or my classic beef and bean chili, this one is neither chunky nor spicy. It consists of a thinner ground beef sauce (perfect for topping hot dogs) with a super unique flavor profile featuring warm Mediterranean spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. But there’s also an interesting ingredient you don’t find in other chili recipes—chocolate—which just like in Mexican moles like this one adds a sultry, complex richness.
What’s in Cincinnati Chili
Cincinnati chili is all about the warm baking spices—many of which you don’t typically find in other chili recipes—plus one unusual ingredient: cocoa powder. While the original recipe from the 1920s didn’t call for chocolate, it has since become a standard ingredient in most Cincinnati chili recipes since the 1970s.
Here’s everything you’ll need to make Cincinnati Chili:
- Beef broth
- Ground beef (80% lean works well in this recipe)
- Olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Chili powder
- Unsweetened cocoa powder (no need to use anything fancy, but don’t use dark cocoa powder)
- Ground cloves
- Dried bay leaf
- Tomato sauce (from a can; not marinara sauce)
- Spaghetti noodles
- Cheddar cheese (finely shredded), oyster crackers and more chopped onion
*If you want to add a little heat to your chili, feel free to add some cayenne pepper.
What Makes Cincinnati Chili Different
Cincinnati chili was first served in 1922 at the Empress Chili Parlor, an Ohio restaurant operated by two brothers who were Macedonian immigrants. Since then, other chili parlors and chains opened in Ohio, most notably, the famous Skyline Chili and Gold Star, have made this style of chili famous.
Cincinnati chili isn’t your typical beans, meat, and chili powder chili. What sets it apart from other styles is its list of Mediterranean baking spices and the addition of cocoa powder or chocolate. Don’t be fooled, it may have ingredients you find in more sweet recipes than in savory ones, but Cincinnati chili is wonderfully complex and full-flavored.
Another thing that differentiates Cincinnati chili from other chili recipes is how it’s served. It’s pretty uncommon to find chili served over pasta and served with oyster crackers, but for authentic Cincinnati chili, they’re a must.
How to Make Cincinnati Chili
Now that we’ve covered the basics, this is how to make this Cincinnati chili:
Boil your beef. Add the beef broth and ground beef to a Dutch oven or stockpot and bring to a boil, using a wooden spatula or spoon to break up the meat into little pieces. Once boiling, cover with a lid and reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes. Cooking the meat this way (as opposed to browning), helps the meat break up into a thinner, finer sauce.
Sauté the onion and garlic. While the beef is simmering, sauté the onion in a large skillet over medium heat for about 10 minutes then stir in your garlic and sauté for 1 minute more.
Simmer your sauce. Add the spices to the onion and garlic mixture, stir well, and cook for 1 minute. Cooking the spices deepens their flavor and takes out their raw bite. Add the tomato sauce and bay leaf, and bring the mixture to a boil. Once the mixture is boiling, remove from heat and add to the beef mixture (once that has finished simmering). Add the vinegar, cover the pot, and reduce to medium-low to simmer for at least 1 hour and up to two. The chili will thicken and reduce the longer it cooks.
Cook your pasta and serve. While the chili finishes cooking, cook the spaghetti to al dente. Strain off excess oily drippings or refrigerate overnight and remove the hardened fat. To serve, divide the spaghetti into bowls and top with chili, kidney beans, reserved chopped onion (or omit if you don’t care for raw onion), shredded cheese, and oyster crackers.
Cincinnati Chili Toppings
Cincinnati chili can be eaten plain or on a hot dog, but the signature way it’s traditionally served is atop spaghetti with the following toppings:
- Dark red kidney beans. Drain and rinse the beans before serving them, or mix them into the beef if you like.
- Chopped raw onion
- Cheddar cheese, very finely shredded. I use my food processor to make thin ribbons.
- Oyster crackers
Lingo for Cincinnati Chili Ordering
If you’re somewhat familiar with Cincinnati chili, you may have heard of the various ways to order it.
Here’s the breakdown:
- 2-way Cincinnati Chili: Chili and spaghetti
- 3-way Cincinnati Chili: Chili, spaghetti, and plenty of finely shredded yellow cheddar cheese
- 4-way Cincinnati Chili: A 3-way with beans or onions
- 5-way Cincinnati Chili: A 3-way with both beans and onions
How to Serve Cincinnati Chili
While you can certainly enjoy this chili on its own, I’m a 5-way all day, with chili over some spaghetti, topped with dark red kidney beans, plenty of finely shredded cheddar cheese, a little bit of chopped onion, and oyster crackers on top. Some Ohioans enjoy the crackers on the side with hot sauce, but do what feels right to you.
If you make this recipe, please let me know! Leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating on this recipe below and leave a comment, take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #foodiecrusheats.
Authentic Cincinnati Chili
- 3 cups beef broth
- 2 pounds 80% fat ground beef
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 ½ medium-sized yellow onions , finely chopped and divided
- 5 garlic cloves , pressed or minced
- 3 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¾ teaspoon teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce , (not marinara sauce)
- 2 bay leafs
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 pound dry spaghetti
- 4 cups mild or medium yellow cheddar cheese , finely shredded
- 1 15-ounce can dark red kidney beans , drained and rinsed
- oyster crackers , for serving
- Add the beef broth and ground beef to a Dutch oven or stockpot and bring to a boil, using a wooden spatula or spoon to break up the meat into little pieces. Once boiling, cover with a lid and reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat a separate skillet over medium and add the canola oil. Once the oil is hot, add 1 cup of chopped onion and sauté, stirring occasionally until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the chili powder, cinnamon, cocoa powder, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, kosher salt, cumin, and pepper, stirring well to evenly combine, and sauté for 1-2 minutes.
- Add the tomato sauce and bay leaf, stirring well, and bring to a boil then add to the pot with the beef. Stir in the apple cider vinegar then simmer over medium-low for at least 1 hour up to two. Spoon off excess oil as needed.
- You can either eat the chili immediately or refrigerate it. If refrigerating, you can scrape the fat cap off before reheating or leave it as is.
- When ready to serve, or while the chili finishes cooking (during the last 10 minutes), bring a large pot filled with water to a boil. Once boiling, salt the water generously (like the sea) and add your spaghetti. Cook until al dente and drain.
- To serve, divide spaghetti into bowls, and top with chili, shredded cheese, beans, reserved chopped onion, and oyster crackers.
More Chili Recipes to Try
- Deer Valley’s Famous Turkey Chili
- Killer Beef and Three Bean Chili
- Slow Cooker Chicken Fajita Chili
- Roasted Butternut Squash and Turkey Chili
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We love Cincinnati chili at our house. But I never use tomato sauce. Always use one 6 ounce can tomato paste instead based on a Skyline recipe.
Tomato paste would work too Barb. I’d suggest cooking the paste for a bit with the spices before adding any liquid to remove its raw flavor. Thx for the suggestion!