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You eat chili out of a bowl with a spoon, right? Well, not Cincinnati Chili. Cincinnati Chili is usually served over spaghetti and topped with things like cheese and oyster crackers (!) and spiced with the likes of cinnamon and cloves and chocolate. Sound crazy? It might be. But as weird as it may sound, it just works, as many regional dishes that might seem a little out of left field do.

Think of it like this — it’s more akin to a Mediterranean meat sauce (thanks to those unique spices) so is much more at home atop pasta than it is being eaten by the spoonful. But maybe the best way to wrap your head around it is just to try it — I think you’ll be really glad you did.

Cincinnati Chili came to be in the 1920s when immigrant restaurateurs were attempting to expand customer bases by branching out beyond traditional styles of ethnic cuisine. You can definitely say they succeeded. Cincinnati chili is maybe the definition of branching out, and today it’s served in countless local restaurants but also in over 250 “chili parlors” in the greater Cincinnati area and their franchise locations that stretch out far beyond that. It’s undoubtedly the regions best known regional food.

I think you can attribute Cincinnati Chili’s success largely to how unique it is. It’s not chili in the way that, say, Chili Con Carne is, though at the core it is a slow simmered meat-based stew. (Or sauce? We won’t get into which it is here. You don’t have all day.) But it’s prepared and seasoned very differently from a traditional chili and served differently too.

First up, the preparation:

To make Cincinnati Chili, you take a couple of pounds of ground beef and you boil it. (I know. I’ve never heard of such a thing either, but it works.) As the meat simmers, you break it apart with a fork so it’s very fine. Once it’s cooked through, you add onions, tomato sauce, maybe some vinegar, garlic, and Worcestershire sauce, and seasonings like chocolate, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, cloves, and allspice. Nothing is seared, nothing is sauteed. It just all simmers away for three hours until those flavors really meld. (You might want to check on it occasionally and add water if needed if the liquid content gets too low.)

The result is something that reminds me a little bit of a Mexican mole sauce (that’s thanks to the chocolate) and a lot of a Greek red sauce (that’s thanks to the cinnamon and cloves, I think) but really it’s all its own entity now. It’s very flavorful, and comforting too, and made even more unique by how it’s served.

Very few diners would order a bowl of plain Cincinnati Chili. In fact, most restaurants won’t even serve it that way as it’s kind of like eating a bowl of spaghetti sauce. Instead, you order it two-way (served over spaghetti), three-way (served over spaghetti with cheese), four-way (served over spaghetti with cheese, and onions or beans), or five-way (spaghetti, cheese, onions, AND beans). Oyster crackers are a nice garnish.

Serves 6

10m prep time

3h 30m cook time

5.0
Rated 5.0 out of 5
Rated by 4 reviewers
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Ingredients
  • 2 lbs lean ground beef
  • 1 quart water, or more as needed
  • 2 white onions, finely chopped
  • 1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For serving:
  • Spaghetti
  • Shredded cheddar cheese
  • Kidney beans
  • Chopped onion
  • Oyster crackers
Preparation
  1. Add ground beef to a large pan or Dutch oven and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, breaking up beef with a fork to a fine texture. Boil until meat is thoroughly cooked, about 30 minutes.
  2. Add onions, tomato sauce, vinegar, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, chocolate, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, cloves, allspice, and stir. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 hours. Add water as needed if too much liquid burns off.
  4. Serve over spaghetti with your favorite toppings and enjoy!

Recipe adapted from All Recipes.