Cincinnati chili, babyAugust 16, 2006
A four-way (hold your laughter) Cincinnati chili platter. Yes, four-ways: 1. Noodles 2. Chili 3. Onion 4. Cheese. Makes perfect sense, no?
Cincinnati chili — and more specifically, Skyline chili — is an acquired taste that quickly becomes an unhealthy addiction. Unhealthy is easy to explain: It’s a meaty chili sauce splashed over spaghetti or a dog with at least 1/4 lb. of cheddar cheese piled on top. Acquired, because most self-respecting Texas-type chili people would not recognize Cincinnati chili as anything of the sort. And since I spent the first part of my childhood in San Diego, the cognitive dissonance of being told I was going to eat chili and being served this was, at first, too much. Chili over noodles? Chili without beans or peppers? What the heck? Why don’t they just all it “weird spaghetti,” I thought.
Fortunately, native-born ‘Natians don’t have to overcome this semantic difficulty. They’re served this stuff in their high chairs (or at least they sample the oyster crackers every chili parlor serves). So they quickly know the joy of ambling up to the counter of a chili parlor and asking for a three-way (I said, no laughing). And ultimately I got over my Cincinnati chili aversion to the point that I actually went through withdrawal when we moved away. It’s hard to come by in any place besides Cincinnati… which, once you’ve gotten the taste, will be hard to fathom. So, I insisted on hunting down some semblance of a recipe and making it. God bless the Internet.
Now my husband has taken that faithful to Skyline (king of chili parlors) recipe and forced it to submit to his will. The result is a spicier, and slightly hotter, concotion that is quite delicious. Although I still splash mine liberally with Tabasco. It’s the secret ingredient to making Cincinnati chili perfect. How some go without is beyond me…
Read on for my husband’s recipe and backgrounder…
I grew up in Cincinnati. If you’ve ever been to the region, you’ve likely seen, heard or gone to one of the big-name chili parlors throughout the region; the two biggest are Skyline and Gold Star. Chili parlors are a staple of the community, and really help to give the area some of its unique flavor and charm. I can’t come home to Cincinnati without at least one visit to Skyline.
And, yes, I did say chili parlor, like ice cream parlor. It’s a whole vernacular in Cincinnati. Most places even let you belly up to the counter and watch the meals being prepared. If you go, I recommend you sit there. What will be in front of you is the steam table. It keeps the pasta, chili,beans and hot dogs nice and warm. If you go during a busy time, you’ll get an earful of short-order cook slang, Cincinnati-chili style. The waitresses yell at the guys at the steam table; sit back and watch the kitschy fun. (When we go, they almost know to yell: “Two chili cheese and two 4-ways.”)
This recipe comes with some major caveats. First, and most important, this isn’t chili the way you might think of chili. You know: a thick stew with a tomato base and nice hearty chunks of meat and vegetables. This isn’t that kind of chili, friend. The meat isn’t browned, there is no chili powder, there are no large pieces of anything. This is an entirely different animal. This is Cincinnati Chili.
(It’s based on a tradition of Greek short-order cooks who developed the recipe during the first half of the twentieth century.)
Second, Cincinnati chili is not served in a bowl, stew style. It’s traditionally served either over spaghetti (with a mound of mild cheddar cheese on top) or Coney dog style (over a hot dog covered in mild cheddar cheese). The spaghetti version can be ordered in a trio of ways: First and most common is a 3-way (no jokes, folks! This is serious culinary business — and the names get worse from here). A 3-way is spaghetti with chili and cheese. Next is a 4-way: spaghetti with chili, cheese, and onion or, if you ask for it, kidney beans. Finally, there is the 5-way: spaghetti with chili, cheese, onion and kidney beans.
Third caveat: This is my take on the chili. The standard-bearer of Cincinnati chili is Skyline. It is the biggest and most popular of the chains. It’s where I go when I’m home. However, this isn’t Skyline’s recipe. Mine is a bit more intense with its spices and adds a couple of non-traditional elements, which I separated from the rest of the recipe. The chili pepper and chipotle powder add a nice heat that I feel is lacking in the more traditional recipes. I also replace the mild cheddar with sharp, I think it holds up against the flavor better.
Finally, this recipe requires you to really throw away your sense of cooking for a bit. If you are an accomplished cook, you’ll think I’m messing with you when I tell you some of the steps. It is that bizarre. But if you have a little faith, I promise the final result will be worth it.
So here we go:
5 cups water
1 ¼ lbs lean ground beef (93/7)
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
1 8 oz. tomato sauce
4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp all spice
3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 oz unsweetened chocolate, shaved
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp chipotle powder
1 lbs grated sharp cheddar.
1 medium onion chopped (optional)
1 can of kidney beans (drained) (optional)
Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
1.In a large pot, heat the water to a boil. Once boiling… add the ground meat. Yes. Just do it. Don’t brown it. Don’t warm it up, just put the meat in the water, perhaps breaking it up a little. Don’t think “This can’t be right.” Just do it.
NOTE: The leaner the meat, the better. Because of the way this is cooked, if you use 80/20 (meaning 80% lean to 20% fat), you’ll need to skim the top of the chili later. 80/20 is great for burgers and many other recipes, but here I try to keep the extra work down by using 93/7 ground beef.
2. Let it return to a boil and add the tomato sauce, salt, onion, garlic and Worcestershire sauce.
3. Let it return to a boil and add all the spices (EXCEPT the bay leaf) and the chocolate. Yes, that’s right. I said chocolate. It should be bakers’ chocolate — nothing actually sweet. It’s, once again, one of those flavors I can’t and don’t want to believe is there, but… it is. The chocolate adds its various nuances to the chili, and you wo uld notice its absence. Grate it over the chili and stir to make sure its integrated.
4. Turn down the heat and let simmer for 30 minutes. You can skim some of the fat if you like. Let it cool for 10 minutes, because you’re going to grind the chili down using a stick blender or food mill. Once it’s no longer rocket hot, grind the concoction until most of the big pieces of onion are gone and the meat has been made loose but still identifiable.
NOTE: You can skip this step, but the consistency of the chili will not be quite right. It will have a more rustic texture which will be fine; but to truly get it right, you’ll likely need to cook it extra long amount of time.
5. Cook at a simmer for another 40 minutes. At this point, it will look like a bit of a chocolatey-colored grainy stew or soup. This is what you are going for. Congratulations, you’ve crossed the threshold from culinarily-confounding regional delight to ready-to-consume regional delight. Serve over spaghetti, over a hot dog, add on your desired go-withs, and enjoy.