foods and cuisines

Cincinnati chili | A taste of the Midwest in a sweet and savory chili that’s unlike any other

Cincinnati chili (or Cincinnati-style chili) is a Mediterranean-spiced meat sauce used as a topping for spaghetti or hot dogs (“coneys”); both dishes were developed by immigrant restaurateurs in the 1920s. In 2013, Smithsonian named one local chili parlor one of the “20 Most Iconic Food Destinations in America”. Its name evokes comparison to chili con carne, but the two are dissimilar in consistency, flavor, and serving method; Cincinnati chili more closely resembles Greek pasta sauces and spiced-meat hot dog topping sauces seen in other parts of the United States.

Ingredients include ground beef, water or stock, tomato paste, spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove, cumin, chili powder, bay leaf, and in some home recipes unsweetened dark chocolate in a soupy consistency. Customary toppings include cheddar cheese, onions, and beans; specific combinations of toppings are known as “ways”. The most popular order is a “three-way”, which adds shredded cheese to the chili-topped spaghetti (a “two-way”), while a “four-way” or “five-way” adds onions and/or beans before topping with the cheese. Ways are often served with oyster crackers and a mild hot sauce. Cincinnati chili is almost never served or eaten by the bowl.

While served in many local restaurants, it is most often associated with the over 250 independent and chain “chili parlors” (restaurants specializing in Cincinnati chili) found throughout greater Cincinnati with franchise locations throughout Ohio and in Kentucky, Indiana, Florida, and the Middle East. The dish is the Cincinnati area’s best-known regional food.

Main ingredients: Ground beef, Tomato paste, Spice
Alternative names: Cincinnati-style chili
Region or state: Greater Cincinnati
Similar dishes: Rochester hot sauce, Hot wiener sauce

Preparation, ordering, serving and eating of Cincinnati chili

Raw ground beef is crumbled and boiled in water and/or stock, then tomato paste and seasonings are added and the mix simmered for several hours to form a thin meat sauce.Cincinnati chili is always seasoned with cinnamon, allspice, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, and chili powder. Many home recipes call for a small amount of dark unsweetened chocolate, but according to Dann Woellert, author of The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, “There is no chili parlor in Cincinnati that uses chocolate in its chili. Many recipes call for an overnight chill in the refrigerator to allow for easy skimming of fat and to allow flavors to develop, then reheating to serve.

The “way” system
small oval white plate holding partially-eaten 5-way, showing spaghetti, sauce, cheese, and oyster crackers
Partially eaten 5-way from Skyline, garnished with oyster crackers

Ordering Cincinnati chili is based on a specific ingredient series: chili, spaghetti, shredded cheddar cheese, diced onions, and kidney beans.[11] The number before the “way” of the chili determines which ingredients are included in each chili order.[4] Customers order a:

Two-way: spaghetti topped with chili
Three-way: spaghetti, chili, and cheese
Four-way onion: spaghetti, chili, onions, and cheese
Four-way bean: spaghetti, chili, beans, and cheese
Five-way: spaghetti, chili, beans, onions, and cheese

small oval white plate with cheese coney showing bun, hot dog, sauce, and shredded cheese
Skyline cheese coney (hot dog topped with Cincinnati-style chili, mustard, onions, and a heap of shredded cheese)

Some chili parlors will also serve the dish “inverted”: cheese on the bottom, so that it melts. Some restaurants, among them Skyline and Gold Star, do not use the term “four-way bean”, instead using the term “four-way” to denote a three-way plus the customer’s choice of onions or beans. Some restaurants may add extra ingredients to the way system; for example, Dixie Chili offers a “six-way”, which adds chopped garlic to a five-way. Cincinnati chili is also used as a hot dog topping to make a “coney”, a regional variation on the Coney Island chili dog, which is topped with shredded cheddar cheese to make a “cheese coney”. The standard coney also includes mustard and chopped onion. The “three-way” and the cheese coney are the most popular orders.

Very few customers order a bowl of plain chili. Most chili parlors do not offer plain chili as a regular menu item. Polly Campbell, former food editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer, calls ordering a bowl of Cincinnati chili “Ridiculous. Would you order a bowl of spaghetti sauce? Because that’s what you’re doing.”
Serving and eating

Ways and coneys are traditionally served in a shallow oval bowl.  Oyster crackers are usually served with Cincinnati chili, and a mild hot sauce such as Tabasco is frequently available to be used as an optional topping to be added at the table. Locals typically eat Cincinnati chili as if it were a casserole, cutting each bite with the side of the fork instead of twirling the noodles.

What is Cincinnati chilli called?

You may also hear Cincinnati chili called Skyline chili. This moniker actually comes from a Cincinnati restaurant, Skyline Chili, that got its name for its spectacular view of the city’s skyline.

Why is Cincinnati chili famous?

Cincinnati chili was made famous by the Lambrinides brothers, the creators of Skyline Chili in Price Hill in 1949, which has become the iconic version of the dish. There are now more than 100 locations of Skyline across the Cincinnati area, and as far away as Florida.

How do you eat Cincinnati chili?

With hot sauce. Poured over spaghetti, hot dog, fries, potato or burrito. With a side of oyster crackers.