Cincinnati chili, baby

August 16, 2006

Coney. Ready for its closeup? A coney, Cincinnati-chili style, is a dog slathered with mustard, swimming in Cincinnati chili, dotted with onion and mounded with freshly grated cheddar. If only it were possible to take a bite out of a photo.


'Nati chili

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…

Cincinnati Chili

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:

Printable recipe page


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

Non-traditional add-ins

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.

Beefy water (just wait!)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.

'Nati Chili4. 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.


  1. […] Cincinnati Chili: To some, this is an insane addition. But for us, this is about what we love and enjoy. Cincinnati chili is home food; it makes us think of being back there again. The chili’s odd combination of flavors and cooking method, though, makes it an acquired taste for some people. […]

  2. […] When my husband and I lived in Cincinnati, we had an apartment one block from an Indian restaurant (and across the street from a Skyline Chili, serving Cincinnati chili). Oh, the temptations. Oh, my vanishing waistline. […]

  3. […] Fortunately, my husband makes two varieties — and they’re both so different that they needn’t war in my heart for supremacy. One, Cincinnati Chili, is a hometown favorite, but would be unrecognizable as chili to many a chili-lover. (It’s served over noodles, for starters.) The other is the subject of this post: Spicy, meaty, hearty, Texas chili. […]

  4. I totally understand the Skyline withdrawal. I can find frozen Skyline at Harris Teeter, but its not quite the same as visiting a chili parlor – especially around midnight. I’m anxious to try your recipe.

  5. Good site. Thank you:-)

  6. Nice site. I’m a Pittsburger living in your hometown and have enjoyed many things about Cincinnati as I’ve detailed in my blog. One thing I’ve acquired, is a taste for Cincinnati food – esp. Chili! I’m a Skyline fan more than anything else but I’ll eat Gold Star in a pinch! I even did a profile on Skyline Chili (to educate my friends away from Cinci)

  7. Being from Cincinnati myself (now living near Chicago) I have missed Skyline chili and the canned stuff just isn’t cutting it. I’m looking forward to trying your recipe and then explaining to my girlfriend that I don’t really care if it looks like chili, Cincinnati is the chili capitol of the world and therefore all OTHER chili is just second best…

    BTW.. did you know that the guy who invented chili powder was FROM Cincinnati??

  8. This is about a close as you can come to Cincinnati Chili. I’ve made this reciepe several times and you are very very close. It tastes more like Cincinnati Chili than Skyline, You’ve done a great job. Thanks for bringing Cincinnati Style Chili to Soouthwest Florida. We have a Skyline here but it is just different. I don’t know how, but yours is very closeand alot less expensive, to eat. Keep up the good Cincinnati reciepes. Again Thank You!

  9. my first wife was from cincinnati, we divorced seven years ago. I have missed cincinanati style chili more than anything else. Tonight the wait is over.

    PS. I am an award winning chili cook in Texas, write for a recipe if you would like. Thanks Yall

  10. So, when do you add the bay leaf?

  11. This chili hits you in the mouth nice n’ hard….great flavor. I much preferred this over spaghetti than on a hot dog (too much meat on meat there).

  12. oh my goodness!!!! i was born and raised in cincinnati and i moved to oklahoma got married to a okie and he had never tried it before, i had my aunt who still lives there sent us a mix. now he loves it so does my kids (well expect for my daughter) now i can make it all the time with your recipe thanks.

  13. Hi! Your pictures are so vivid and beautiful that I almost licked the screen! Thank you for making me hungry! I am a Cincinnati native who loves Cicninnati chili so much that I just launched a website in celebration! It is a social network celebrating the cultural phenomenon of Cincinnati chili! Whether you’re a first-timer or a life-timer, this is the place for you. See you there, Jessica

  14. I recently got married, to a great guy from Cincinnati, and he loves Skyline chili! I am totally going to practice this recipe and surprise him with authetic Cincinnati chili in DC for our one year anniversary! He’s going to love it! Thank you!

  15. This looks so delicious. I posted a similar recipe on my blog, Culinspiration, but it’s nice to have one from a Cincinnati native!

  16. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  17. I live in New Hampshire now. I grew up in the “Natty” neighborhood Clifton. Man that Skyline used to rock till about 3:30-4:00am on weekends. We used to love Camp Washington Chili and Vince’s Chili Kitchen in Elmwood also. I learned to make my own years ago. I also make my own goetta. You guys should try that one.

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  20. […] for kidneys. But I am a firm believer that if you do it in moderation things will be just fine! So I’m sharing the recipe I’m using even though it does not fit with our renal theme. I want to wish you all a Merry […]

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