Cincinnati chili is very different from other chili recipes! This is nothing like the chili you’ll find served in Texas. It has a wonderful, unique blend of spices that will make your kitchen smell amazing while it cooks. Once it’s ready, you get to decide between a number of garnishes, customizing it to your personal preference. This Cincinnati chili recipe is a perfect comfort meal all year long.
About ten years ago, I was visiting my friend Emma, the same gal who introduced me to the wonders of chocolate digestive biscuits.
She was preparing homemade chili- a real treat since I love her cooking (which she now shares with all of Baltimore at her new tea shop. Locals, you need to go check it out. Tell her I sent you!)
I watched, fascinated, as she added cinnamon and cocoa powder, two spices I certainly didn’t associate with chili.
The kitchen smelled amazing and, as usual, her food did not disappoint. It was some of the best chili I’d ever tasted, and I’ve been adding cinnamon and cocoa to my homemade chili ever since.
Imagine my surprise when I recently learned that these are some of the exact spices that go into a Mediterranean-spiced meat sauce known as Cincinnati chili.
What is Cincinnati Chili?
Cincinnati chili was created in the 1920s by a Macedonian immigrant named Athanas Kiradjieff, where he served a version of this chili over hot dogs and spaghetti. His business, Empress Chili, still thrives in Cincinnati today using the original recipe.
Cincinnati Chili Garnishes
Cincinnati chili is served with a specific set of garnishes:
- Two-way: buttered spaghetti topped with chili
- Three-way: spaghetti, chili, and cheddar cheese
- Four-way: spaghetti, chili, cheese, and chopped onions
- Five-way: spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, and kidney beans
Since I needed somewhere to start, I turned to the experts at America’s Test Kitchen for help creating this version. They tested many recipes (including one claiming to be from the original Empress Chili Parlor), and found two issues they wanted to tackle:
- An overwhelming number of spices for the home cook
Since they claimed their recipe solved both issues, I went with it and made only a few minor tweaks. The ingredient list definitely doesn’t feel overwhelming to me, and the results aren’t even slightly greasy because of a method they use to briefly blanch the ground beef.
It removes some but not all of the fat, while sticking close to the traditional method of boiling as opposed to browning the meat.
I noticed that their recipe (and 99% of the recipes I found) used unsweetened chocolate + sugar. While I ultimately realized there was a reason for this, I love killing two birds with one stone when possible.
So I swapped them out for bittersweet chocolate.
Here’s the catch: not all bittersweet chocolate is the same percentage of cacao, so there’s a slight risk. I went for it, using a 70% cacao bar from Valrhona, and thought the recipe had a nice balance.
However, bittersweet chocolate is often sold as low as 60%, and I think that would make the chili taste sweet. Adding in 1-2 teaspoons of unsweetened cocoa powder would correct this, but I’ve included notes on how to use sugar and cocoa powder if you’d prefer to play it safe.
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- 1 1/2 pounds 80-85% lean ground beef
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped (approximately 4 cups)
- 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (depends how spicy you like your chili)
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups homemade chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 cups canned tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, chopped (see notes)
- Optional: 1-2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder (see notes)
- 1 pound spaghetti, cooked, drained and tossed with 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (approximately 3 cups)
- 1 medium red onion, finely diced
- 1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
Bring 2 quarts of water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the ground beef and stir vigorously to separate the meat. After about 30-45 seconds, before the water returns to a full boil, drain the meat into a strainer and set aside.
- Rinse and dry the saucepan, then place over medium heat and add the oil. Add the onions and cook for approximately 8 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and browning around the edges. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Stir in the chili powder, oregano, cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and remaining teaspoon of salt. Cook until fragrant, approximately 30 seconds, then add the water, stock, tomato sauce, and apple cider vinegar, scraping the bottom of the pan to remove any brown bits that have formed.
Add the ground beef back to the pot and turn the heat to high. Once the chili is boiling, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the chili has thickened slightly, approximately 1 hour. Stir in the bittersweet chocolate and simmer an additional 5 minutes. Taste; add cocoa powder if the chili tastes too sweet (the bitterness of the cocoa powder will balance). Season with additional salt as desired.
- To serve: divide the buttered chili into individual bowls. Top with the chili, cheddar cheese, onions, and kidney beans (or any preferred combination). Leftover chili can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days, or frozen for several months.
Try to use bittersweet chocolate that’s at least 70% cacao. Some bittersweet chocolate is as low as 60% cacao, which is closer to semi-sweet chocolate and could result in a sweeter chili. Adding the cocoa powder at the end will offset any sweetness and add richness. Start with 1 teaspoon, taste, and then add the second teaspoon if needed. Alternately, you can omit the bittersweet chocolate entirely, and instead add 2 teaspoons cocoa powder + 2 teaspoons dark brown sugar.
Adapted from More Best Recipes by America’s Test Kitchen
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About the Author
Jennifer graduated from the Culinary Arts program at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, and has worked professionally as a line cook, pastry chef, and cooking instructor. Her cookbook, The Gourmet Kitchen, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.