Cincinnati-Style Chili

The Evolution of a Recipe

Over the recent holidays I took the opportunity to trot out an old family favorite recipe.  My “Cincinnati-Style Chili” is great when the kids are home or when friends are over, as it makes a large batch that will feed a crowd. And it offers the opportunity to work with spices you might not think of using in chili. My kitchen demo explaining the steps can be heard below, in this BONUS TRACK of the Indiana Home Cooks Podcast:

At some point in my younger days, my family became acquainted with a fast food eatery called Skyline Chili.  It was started in Cincinnati by a Greek immigrant who opened his dining establishment within site of the downtown Cincy skyline.  He served authentic Greek dishes, and his chili was a big hit with customers. Today dozens of Skyline Chili restaurants dot the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and beyond.  With a unique seasoning blend, added toppings of beans, onions, shredded cheese (chili three-way), all nestled in a bed of spaghetti, what’s not to love?  (Hoosiers know Steak N Shake has its own version of this dish as well.)

Not long after getting our first taste of Skyline Chili, my mom happened upon a recipe for “Cincinnati Chili.”  She made it and we judged it as good as Skyline’s.  It became one of our family’s favorite wintertime meals.  

Many years later, newly married and contemplating the eternal question “What’s for dinner?” I remembered the Cincinnati Chili recipe and thought how good that sounded, and I knew my husband would love it.  I called my mom and asked her to read the recipe to me over the phone.  What I transcribed is shown below.  “June 15—Stacy” referred to  the upcoming wedding date of my cousin, which my mom had recently learned and informed me of on the same phone call. Our recipe files sometimes contain vital information that has nothing to do with food.

Now this recipe transcription may leave you scratching your head. I failed to record the second ingredient correctly, and it took several attempts to determine that it is indeed tomato sauce, and not paste. Too bad I didn’t use a pencil. And I didn’t even write the title of the recipe at the top until several years later. The sheet was always folded and filed under “C,” and when I came to the recipe headed with “June 15–Stacy,” I knew I’d found Cincinnati Chili. 

Rather than forcing you to decipher my quirky recipe notations, I’ll share what I hope are clearer instructions below. They have evolved over the years. Give it a try this winter for a hearty, family-pleasing dinner.

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Cincinnati Style Chili

Makes 8-10 servings

  • 2 lb. ground beef
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 2 T canola or vegetable oil
  • 2 T chili powder
  • 1tsp dried chipotle powder
  • 1 tsp dried ancho chili powder
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 T vinegar, any kind
  • 1 T Worchestershire sauce
  • 3 cups water, divided
  • 1 15-oz can tomato sauce
  • 1/2 oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp dried chili pepper, if more heat is desired

For serving, you will need:

  • Cooked spaghetti
  • 1 or 2 14-oz cans red beans or chili beans, rinsed and drained
  • Shredded cheese (Colby, Colby-jack, pepper jack, cheddar, any of those)
  • Diced sweet (raw) onion, optional

Measure all dry spices and set aside.

In a large pot or dutch oven, brown ground beef, then remove from pot, drain, and set aside. Into pot (med to med-low heat), drizzle oil, then add chopped onions. Sauté for about a minute, then put in all the pre-measured dried spices. Stir them into the onions and cook another minute. You should begin to smell the fragrance of the spices.  Return the ground beef to the pot, then add garlic, salt, vinegar, Worchestershire sauce and one cup water. Turn up heat to med or med-high, and allow mixture to come up to a boil. Stir and scrape up any bits that are stuck on the bottom of the pot. Add the tomato sauce, chocolate, bay leaf and 2 more cups of water. (Go ahead and add the dried chili powder if desired, or add later if you feel chili needs more heat. Or serve it at the table and let everyone decide for themselves!) Also, you can add the beans right to the pot at this point, or reserve and heat them up later to serve with the chili.

The chili at this point is very watery. That’s ok, it will cook down. Allow pot to come back up to boil, then turn down heat to low and let it simmer 2-3 hours, with the lid on, but slightly vented. Stir occasionally making sure chili is not sticking or burning on the bottom. If it cooks down and seems too thick, add more water. 

Serve over cooked spaghetti, topped with beans (if serving separately), cheese, and onions if desired.

Version 2
Measure spices and seasonings ahead of time.
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Chili has cooked down and thickened nicely.
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What else can I say about this artifact…