Cincinnati Chili

By Christine Gallary and Faith Durand | September 20th, 2023

This Midwestern dish serves beans on top of spaghetti


This Midwestern specialty, called Cincinnati chili, has beans and is typically served over a bed of spaghetti.

Cincinnati chili may seem like a head-scratcher of a dish: Is it a chili or is it a pasta? The answer is both. This iconic combination of spaghetti topped with a hearty, spiced chili, and oftentimes a pile of brightly colored, shredded cheddar cheese, hails from the Midwest. It may seem sacrilegious to those with other notions of chili, but this is definitely worth a try. Plus, it makes for a quick and filling weeknight dinner.

What is Cincinnati chili?

Cincinnati chili was created in immigrant restaurants in the Midwest in the 1920s. It’s ground beef simmered in a sauce filled with Mediterranean spices. There are two key ingredients in Cincinnati chili that differentiate it from other kinds of chili: ground cinnamon and dark chocolate. The final chili is more sauce-like in texture, and not as thick as a chili normally eaten with a spoon. It’s similar to Greek pasta sauces or the type of chili that’s served on chili dogs.

Cincinnati chili is often served layered in an oval dish: cooked spaghetti, chili, and optional toppings of shredded cheddar cheese, kidney or chili beans, and minced onion.

Main ingredients in Cincinnati chili

  • Ground beef: Get lean ground beef if you can, or drain off any excess grease from the pan before you add the spices. A lot of traditional Cincinnati chili recipes just boil or simmer the beef without browning, but we like the deeper flavors that browning first adds.
  • Aromatics: Like most good chilis, this one starts with sautéed garlic and onions.
  • Spices: One surprising ingredient is the large quantity of ground cinnamon, a spice usually found in sweets. Cinnamon adds a warm note to the spice blend that also contains chili powder, allspice, and cumin. While Cincinnati chili is normally not spicy, you can also add some cayenne for a kick.
  • Cocoa: Cocoa or unsweetened baking chocolate is the other key ingredient in Cincinnati chili – it adds deeper background flavors. I like to use natural unsweetened cocoa powder over baking chocolate since it’s easier to find and I always have some in my pantry.
  • Liquids: The chili is simmered in a sauce made with tomato sauce, water, Worcestershire sauce, and apple cider vinegar.
  • Toppings: Cooked kidney or chili beans, minced onions, and shredded cheddar cheese are the traditional toppings for Cincinnati chili. Orange cheddar is the most traditional. Shred it very finely so it tops the chili in a brightly colored, fluffy cloud.

How to serve Cincinnati chili

Cincinnati chili is not meant to be eaten by itself, and it’s always served over spaghetti (although you could go rogue and serve it over hot dogs for a killer chili dog). To truly experience Cincinnati chili, though, you should try it with toppings. Here’s the lingo you need to know on how to order it properly:

  • Two-way: Spaghetti topped with chili (the basics)
  • Three-way: Spaghetti, chili, and finely grated cheddar cheese (lots of it!)
  • Four-way: Spaghetti, chili, minced onion, and cheese on top
  • Five-way: Spaghetti, chili, minced onions, kidney or chili beans, and cheese on top

Cincinnati chili is quite a hearty meal in itself, so keep the sides light and full of veggies. A lemony green salad with radicchio and pepitas or some homemade spring mix tossed with your favorite vinaigrette will do nicely.

Cincinnati Chili

Serves 6

Ingredients:

For the chili:

  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • 3 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 2 bay leaves

Serving options:

  • 1 pound dried spaghetti
  • 1 (about 15-ounce) can kidney beans
  • Finely grated sharp cheddar cheese, preferably yellow
  • Small-diced yellow onion

Directions:

  1. Finely chop 1 medium yellow onion (about 2 cups) and mince 4 garlic cloves (about 2 teaspoons).
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large high-sided skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic, 1 pound lean ground beef, and 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt. Cook, breaking up the beef into small pieces with a wooden spoon and stirring occasionally, until the beef is no longer pink, about 8 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, place 3 tablespoons natural cocoa powder, 2 tablespoons chili powder, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground allspice, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper if desired in a small bowl.
  4. Sprinkle the spice mixture over the beef and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce, 2 cups water, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, and 2 bay leaves. Stir to combine and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until the flavors meld and the chili thickens to a meat sauce consistency, about 45 minutes.
  6. About 15 minutes before the chili is ready, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add 1 pound dried spaghetti to the boiling water and cook according to package directions until just tender. Drain well, drizzle with a little olive oil, and toss to coat.
  7. Taste the chili and season with more kosher salt as needed. It should be heavily seasoned since it will be served on spaghetti. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Drain 1 (about 15-ounce) can kidney beans and rinse under hot tap water; drain again and transfer to a serving bowl.
  8. Serve the chili over cooked spaghetti topped with finely grated cheddar cheese, small-diced yellow onion, and kidney beans if desired.

Recipe notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to four days or frozen for up to two months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and rewarm on the stovetop over medium heat or in the microwave.

Christine Gallary is food editor-at-large and Faith Durand is senior vice president of content for TheKitchn.com, a nationally known blog for people who love food and home cooking. Submit any comments or questions to editorial@thekitchn.com.

©2023 Apartment Therapy. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Other seasonal faves:

Loaded 7-Layer Black Bean Dip

Vegetarian White Chili

More from Boomer

Diner-Style Breakfast at Home

By JeanMarie Brownson | May 22, 2024

5 Cheaper Proteins for a Summer BBQ

By Lauren Wicks, EatingWell.com | May 17, 2024

Strawberry Cheesecake Bars

By Katie Leaird, America’s Test Kitchen | May 15, 2024