Classic Cincinnati Chili Recipe

If you spent your early 20s anywhere near Cincinnati, you've likely had the pleasure of stumbling into a Skyline Chili late at night, looking for a big plate of spaghetti or a double coney to soak up the liquid contents of your grumbling belly. Your first time, you weren't so sure — chili on spaghetti? Or dripping off of a steamed hot dog? Tempting as it was to say no, you were convinced into it, and ever since, you sing the praises of the unusual combos (usually, still, past midnight). There's something so temptingly, delightfully delicious about the piled-high plates of cheesy spaghetti, the chili the obvious star of the show with an unusual sweetness and mouth-watering tenderness. How, you wonder, is this chili made?

Developer and Ohioan Michelle McGlinn has the answers for you, and as it turns out, it's pretty easy to make Cincinnati on a homemade level. The secret that everyone knows, of course, is the chocolate — but we have a few more tips for nailing that ultra-specific taste and texture. And if you've never had the delicacy that is Cincinnati chili? Let us be the first to introduce you.

Gather the ingredients for Cincinnati chili

This is a long ingredient list with quite a few things that aren't usually in chili, but most are likely already in your pantry. First, you'll need ground beef of any leanness and water to boil it in (Yes, we said boil — keep reading!). After the meat, you'll need oil, onion, garlic, and tomato paste. You'll need a generous pour of Worcestershire, apple cider vinegar, tomato sauce, and beef broth.

The spices are where it gets interesting: You'll need bay leaves, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, oregano, and dark brown sugar. And of course, no Cincinnati chili is complete without chocolate. Grab unsweetened cocoa powder to throw in at the end and a pinch each of salt and pepper to balance it all out. As for serving, that's where things get optional. To keep it classic, however, it's a good idea to have spaghetti and shredded cheese on hand to round out the dish.

Begin by boiling the beef

It isn't the most appetizing way to start a recipe, but we promise, boiling the beef will make a difference in how soft and crumbly your chili is. Unlike Texas chili, the meat is crumbled like taco meat to be very fine. If you've browned ground beef before, you know that it tends to clump together no matter how much you crumble it. The fix? Cover it with water, then slowly bring it to a boil. This method removes the fat, making a completely lean beef that doesn't clump together. You'll notice this fat while the beef boils: It rises to the top and builds up along the sides of the pot. This is totally normal, and just needs a gentle wipe down after draining.

To do this correctly, just bring the beef to a boil and stir to break the meat apart while the water simmers. The beef will lose its pink color and turn gray, meaning it is done. This only takes a couple of minutes, so it's not a hard step to add.

Spice (and sweeten) up this Cincinnati chili

While you may have tried cinnamon or even a pinch of brown sugar in your chili before, using them all together is pretty unique to Cincinnati chili. The chili is supposed to be sweet — not too sweet, but just right. This is what makes Cincinnati chili so difficult to get right!

Use ground spices to avoid fishing any beads of clove out of your chili. Stir everything but the cocoa powder in before simmering the chili. A gorgeously sweet, warm aroma will fill your kitchen in no time.

Add the cocoa powder

While we prefer the taste of cocoa powder, many swear by using a small chunk of unsweetened baking chocolate, often listed as 100% cacao. Either works, but just be sure you're using unsweetened or the chili will be sickeningly sweet. Believe it or not, the chocolate is meant to enhance the flavor of the beef and cut some of the sweetness from the spices.

Add the chocolate after simmering for the best flavor. Add a little bit at a time in conjunction with salt and pepper until the chili is to your liking. Remember, it is supposed to be a little sweet.

Serve the chili as desired

Per McGlinn, there are a few different ways you can enjoy this chili, aside from diving in face-first, of course. If you're serving this Skyline Chili-style (Cincinnati's most famous chili restaurant), serve the chili on top of buttered spaghetti or on hot dogs with a mound of finely shredded cheddar. Because of the rich sweetness of the chili, it's actually best suited as a spaghetti sauce with the carbs soaking up some of the flavor (and calling it a sauce makes a little more sense, right?)

Skyline's menu is structured into "ways": a 4-way will have kidney beans or onions on top of the cheddar, and a 5-way will have both. Want to serve it like a local? Add some oyster crackers on top for added crunch.

You can store Cincinnati chili mixed with the spaghetti for up to 5 days in the refrigerator. Avoid storing the cheese on top, because it will clump and melt into the chili when reheating. Store the chili on its own and use it on top of fries, baked potatoes, or even inside of a burrito — all menu items at Skyline, so you'll be fitting in like a local in no time.

Classic Cincinnati Chili Recipe
5 from 48 ratings
If you like your chili on the sweeter side, then this classic Cincinnati chili recipe is guaranteed to please.
Prep Time
5
minutes
Cook Time
35
minutes
Servings
4
Servings
fork twirling spaghetti with chili
Total time: 40 minutes
Ingredients
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil (such as vegetable or canola)
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 ½ teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1 ½ cups beef broth
  • 3 large bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
Optional Ingredients
  • Cooked spaghetti, for serving
  • Finely shredded mild cheddar cheese, for serving
  • Diced onion, for serving
  • Kidney beans, for serving
Directions
  1. Place the ground beef in a deep pot or Dutch oven. Cover with water and bring to a boil, crumbling the beef finely while the water heats. Boil until beef is browned and fats collect at the top of the water, about 3-4 minutes. Strain the beef, discarding the liquid.
  2. If using the same pot, wipe the residue carefully with a paper towel and heat the oil over medium heat. Return the boiled beef to the pot with the garlic and onion and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
  3. Add the tomato paste, Worcestershire, and vinegar, and stir well to combine. Add the tomato sauce and beef broth and stir well again.
  4. Add all the seasonings but cocoa powder, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine, then bring to a simmer. Simmer until thickened, about 30 minutes.
  5. Stir in the cocoa powder and cook through for about a minute. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and taste. If the chili is too sweet for your taste, add another pinch of cocoa powder and salt.
  6. To serve Skyline Chili-style, ladle the chili over the spaghetti and top with shredded cheddar. Serve with diced onion, kidney beans, or both on top.
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