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
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • 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)
  • Cinnamon
  • Allspice
  • Nutmeg
  • Ground cloves
  • Cumin
  • 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.

More Chili Recipes to Try

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