Thick, meaty, and comforting, Skyline Cincinnati Chili is a big deal in Ohio. The flavorful meat sauce is served at "chili parlors" over a bed of spaghetti noodles or hot dogs. Top it with mounds of finely grated cheddar cheese, onions, beans, and oyster crackers for "the works", or just stick with the a simple 3-way of chili and cheese.

Pasta & sauce is always a homerun when it comes to getting dinner on the table at our house. Some of our other favorites are Penne Alla Vodka, Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, and Fettuccine Alfredo.

Two white plates with spaghetti and Cincinnati Chili topped with cheese and oyster crackers.

I love making regional favorites for my American Eats series where I'm sharing famous foods from every state, and Cincinnati Chili is a dinnertime staple in the Queen City.

Around Ohio you can buy packets of Cincinnati chili seasoning and many people use those. Or they just pick up a can of Skyline or Gold Star Cincinnati chili from the grocery store or stop at one of the many restaurants that serve it. But in other parts of the country where you can't find this thick, ground beef meat sauce on every corner, you can just open your spice cabinet and make your own.

While you technically could eat Cincinnati chili in a bowl, it's not very common. Instead, it's used more like a bolognese sauce and spooned over piles of steaming spaghetti noodles. With its unique ingredient list like chocolate for complexity and depth and a blend of unexpected Greek-inspired spices like cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, this is like no other chili you have ever had before.

Why this Recipe Works

  • Easy with almost no prep work. You don't even brown the meat first. Instead, you pretty much just dump everything into one pot and simmer for an hour or two to let the flavors develop and a meaty, rich sauce form.
  • Excellent leftovers. Many people don't eat Cincinnati chili the day it's made and instead let it sit in the fridge over night to reheat the next day because it gives time for the flavors to meld.

What is Cincinnati Chili?

Cincinnati chili isn't thick like traditional TexMex chili or thin like a soup. It's more like a really meaty spaghetti sauce. It was invented in Cincinnati, Ohio in the early 1900's by Greek-born brothers John and Tom Kiradjieff who left Greece in 1921 and opened Empress Chili Parlor in 1922. Many Greek and Macedonian immigrants settled in the Cincinnati, Ohio region, and this dish is sort of a combination of Midwest food and Greek flavors.

There are three distinguishing features of Cincinnati-Style Chili:

  1. Seasonings & Spices: Chili powder and cumin are in here, of course, like most any chili. But what sets Cincinnati chili apart is the unique addition of cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. Whether chocolate or cocoa powder should be added to Cincinnati chili is a hot topic, but it adds a layer of complexity that we like.
  2. Cooking Method: It might seem strange for experienced home cooks to make a recipe where you don't brown the meat first, but that's how authentic Cincinnati chili is made. The saucy ground beef is chopped up fine while it cooks so the consistency is very loose with small crumbles of meat instead of chunks of ground beef in a sauce. Otherwise the technique is pretty much just dumping everything in a pot and letting it simmer down to a nice, thick meat sauce.
  3. Toppings (known as "Ways"): Unlike other chili recipes, there are no beans in Cincinnati-style chili. However, you can add them on top, if you like. Finely chopped raw white onion is another popular addition, while finely grated medium cheddar cheese is common, if not mandatory (in our opinion). The different toppings you choose are designated as "ways". You can also splash some hot sauce on top for even more flavor if you like things spicy.
A plate of 4-way Cincinnati chili with a fork in it.

Ingredient Notes

This is a quick overview of some of the important ingredients you'll need for this Cincinnati chili recipe. Specific measurements and full recipe instructions are in the printable recipe card at the bottom of the post.

  • Ground beef: We like to use a lean ground beef like 85/15 since it has less fat and makes for a nicer, less greasy chili.
  • Spices: Don't be intimidated by the long list of recipe ingredients. It's mostly just a bunch of spices already in your cupboard at home. Chili powder, ground cumin, smoked paprika, oregano, and cayenne pepper are par for the course, by a little ground cinnamon, allspice, and cloves add a new flavor dimension that sets Cincinnati chili apart.
  • Chocolate: Yes, chocolate. It doesn't make the chili sweet, and you won't be able to taste it, but it adds depth and complexity to the flavors of the chili that works really well.
Ingredients for making Cincinnati Chili.

How to Make This Recipe

Start by adding the ground beef to a large Dutch oven or heavy duty pot along with the water. Use a potato masher, whisk, or even just a fork to break up the ground beef until you have an unsettling looking meat sludge. Not the most appetizer description, I know, but let's go with it. I usually use a ground meat chopper to get things started, then switch to a whisk.

Add the tomato sauce and tomato paste, chopped onions and garlic, and all of the spices, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and chopped chocolate. Basically, everything else in the recipe goes in the pot right now.

Stir it all together, then set over medium-high heat and bring everything up to a boil. Once it starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1-2 hours until thickened. You can get away with just one hour of simmering, but the additional time makes for an extra flavorful, thicker sauce.

Once the sauce is done, you can serve it immediately, or you can do what a lot of people do and stick it in the fridge overnight. This allows the fat to solidify on top of the surface of the chili, which can easily be removed before reheating. It also lets the flavors develop even more.

Personally, I find that using 85/15 ground beef means we can skip the overnight step since there isn't as much fat as if you were using 80/20 ground beef instead. And keep in mind that fat means flavor. This isn't exactly diet food anyway.

A large pot of Cincinnati chili surrounded by plates of spaghetti and toppings.

How to Serve Cincinnati Chili

When you order Cinncinnati chili, you do so by choosing a numbered "way" you like it. Oyster crackers are a common garnish, regardless of which toppings you choose, and we love the additional crunch and texture they give to the dish.

  • 3-Way: spaghetti topped with chili and a mound of shredded cheddar cheese.
  • 4-Way: spaghetti topped with chili, a mound of shredded cheddar cheese, and diced onions OR beans.
  • 5-Way (aka "the works"): spaghetti topped with chili, a mound of shredded cheddar cheese, diced onions AND beans.

Cincinnati Chili Coneys

Similar to "ways" where you get the chili ladled over spaghetti, you can also order coney dogs made with Cincinnati chili. These combinations are very typical:

  • Bun, hot dog, chili
  • Bun, hot dog, chili, cheese
  • Bun, hot dog, chili, cheese, and mustard OR onion
  • Bun, hot dog, chili, cheese, mustard AND onion

Recipe FAQ's

What is Skyline chili?

Skyline is an Ohio restaurant that helped popularize Cincinnati chili. It's by no means the only restaurant that sells it, but it is definitely one of the largest as it has expanded to multiple states and you can also purchase it in cans in the grocery store.

How do you thicken Cincinnati chili?

If you want your chili to have a thicker consistency, I recommend cooking it longer to allow more of the liquid to evaporate off, rather than thickening with flour or cornstarch.

Can I make a vegetarian or vegan version?

Sure, just leave out the Worcestershire sauce, which is made with anchovies or fish sauce and use a plant-based meat substitute instead of the ground beef. There are actually some really good ones out there that you can hardly tell aren't the same as the real thing. Or you could use 1 pound of finely chopped cremini mushrooms and 1 ½ cups uncooked brown lentils instead.

Storage & Freezing

This is good for 4-5 days in the fridge, or it can be frozen for up to 6 months. To freeze, let the chili cool to room temperature, then transfer to a freezer-safe airtight container or Ziploc bag.

If frozen, thaw before reheating on the stovetop, in the microwave, or in a slow cooker for 1-2 hours on LOW.

A mound of Cincinnati chili sauce on top of spaghetti noodles in front of a white pot and another plate.

Recipe Tips

  • Slow Cooker Cincinnati Chili: Reduce the water to 3 cups. Cook on LOW for 6-8 hours or on HIGH for 3-4 hours. Remove the lid halfway through the cooking time to allow some of the liquid to evaporate off so the sauce isn't too runny.
  • Instant Pot Cincinnati Chili: Reduce the water to 3 cups. Follow the same steps as the stovetop version for breaking up the meat in the water, then add remaining ingredients. Cover and seal, then cook on HIGH pressure for 30 minutes, followed by a 15 minute natural release.
  • Reheating: If you are reheating leftovers, there might be fat on the top. You can either skim it off or leave it and it will melt back into the sauce, adding lots of flavor. You might also need to add a little water to thin out the sauce if it is too thick as the chili tends to thicken as it cools and sets up.
  • More ways to use leftover chili: Use leftovers on top of baked potatoes or stirred into your favorite macaroni & cheese for an easy chili mac. You can even use it to burritos or tacos.

What to Serve with Cincinnati Chili

This is a standalone dish, which means it is usually served all by itself without any sides. But if you want to round out the meal, we enjoy it with garlic bread or cornbread, a nice green salad, or some roasted veggies since it's a pretty heavy dish with all the meat, pasta, and cheese.

More Ground Beef Recipes

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Copycat Skyline Cincinnati Chili

4.67 from 6 votes
Amy Nash
Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 2 hrs
Total Time 2 hrs 5 mins
Course Dinner
Cuisine American
Servings 8 -10 servings
Thick, meaty, and comforting, Skyline Cincinnati Chili is a big deal in Ohio. The flavorful meat sauce is served at "chili parlors" over a bed of spaghetti noodles or hot dogs. Top it with mounds of finely grated cheddar cheese, onions, beans, and oyster crackers for "the works", or just stick with the a simple 3-way of chili and cheese.

Ingredients
  

Chili

  • 2 pounds lean ground beef (we use 85/15 but 80/20 is also a popular choice)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2-3 Tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons beef bouillon
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 ounce unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate, chopped (optional)
  • 2 bay leaves

For Serving

  • Cooked spaghetti noodles
  • Shredded mild or medium cheddar cheese
  • Chopped white or yellow onion
  • Kidney beans, rinsed, drained, and warmed
  • Oyster crackers

Instructions
 

  • In a large Dutch oven, combine the ground beef and water. Use a potato masher, whisk, or fork to break up the meat into very fine pieces until you essentially have a slurry of meat water.
  • Add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, onion, garlic, all seasoning and spices, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, beef bouillon, brown sugar, and chocolate to the Dutch oven and stir well to combine.
  • Turn the heat on to medium-high. Bring the chili to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1-2 hours until thick, stirring occasionally.
  • Taste and adjust seasoning by adding more salt or cayenne pepper, if needed. At this point you can cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight and reheat the next day, or enjoy immediately.
  • Serve over cooked spaghetti or hot dogs with your desired toppings. See notes for different "ways".

Notes

  • 3-Way: spaghetti topped with chili and a mound of shredded cheddar cheese.
  • 4-Way: spaghetti topped with chili, a mound of shredded cheddar cheese, and diced onions OR beans.
  • 5-Way (aka "the works"): spaghetti topped with chili, a mound of shredded cheddar cheese, and diced onions AND beans.
  • Slow Cooker: Reduce the water to 3 cups. Cook on LOW for 6-8 hours or on HIGH for 3-4 hours. Remove the lid halfway through the cooking time to allow some of the liquid to evaporate off so the sauce isn't too runny.
  • Instant Pot: Reduce the water to 3 cups. Follow the same steps as the stovetop version for breaking up the meat in the water, then add remaining ingredients. Cover and seal, then cook on HIGH pressure for 30 minutes, followed by a 15 minute natural release.
  • Thickening chili: If you want your chili to have a thicker consistency, I recommend cooking it longer to allow more of the liquid to evaporate off, rather than thickening with flour or cornstarch.
  • Storage: This is good for 4-5 days in the fridge, or it can be frozen for up to 6 months. To freeze, let the chili cool to room temperature, then transfer to a freezer-safe airtight container or Ziploc bag. If frozen, thaw before reheating on the stovetop, in the microwave, or in a slow cooker for 1-2 hours on LOW.

Nutrition

Calories: 202kcal | Carbohydrates: 7g | Protein: 25g | Fat: 8g | Saturated Fat: 3g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 3g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 71mg | Sodium: 725mg | Potassium: 528mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 3g | Vitamin A: 790IU | Vitamin C: 2mg | Calcium: 50mg | Iron: 4mg
Tried this recipe? Show me on Instagram!Mention @HouseOfNashEats or tag #houseofnasheats!

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About the author

Hi, I'm Amy

I enjoy exploring the world through food, culture, and travel and sharing the adventure with mostly from-scratch, family friendly recipes that I think of as modern comfort cooking.

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Reader questions and reviews

  1. 3 stars
    Pretty big issue, although it seems to be a universal mistake. There is no chopped onion in Cincinnati chili. None. Not ever.

    1. Thanks for letting me know, Mark! I tried my best to research the recipe thoroughly and saw a number that had dried onion in them but since I never have that on hand I went with fresh. I appreciate your insight!