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Perfect Cincinnati Chili

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.


Where Did Cincinnati Chili Originate?

Before we begin today, we need to revisit our Geography 101 lessons. Class, where is the Republic of Macedonia located?

  • South of Kosovo and Serbia
  • North of Greece
  • East of Albania
  • West of Bulgaria

Those are all excellent and correct answers. I am so very proud of all of you. Macedonia is located on the Balkan Peninsula, in southeastern Europe.

Why are we talking about Macedonia? Because it was the birthplace of the men who created Cincinnati Chili. Here's the story.


The year was 1922. The BBC was founded. James Dole purchased the Island of Lana'i. Kurt Vonnegut was born. Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt. And in Cincinnati, Tom and John Kiradjieff opened a restaurant on Vine Street, between 8th and 9th. They took the name of their business from their next-door neighbor—the Empress Burlesque Theater.

The brothers wanted to share the cuisine of their childhood, but a German-centric community didn't have a taste for Greek-style cuisine. So, as the story goes, they added spices to their traditional stew, tossed in some ground beef, and served it over noodles. And Cincinnati chili was created.

More than eight decades later, the Empress recipe remains "secret." Of course, so do the ingredients of all the other chili purveyors in town. Most find Empress to be a little spicier than its sweeter competitors. The Empress family insists it is the same chili as one would find on Vine Street in 1922."There has been no tweaking, ever," insists Tracy Kiradjieff-Evans. "This is my grandfather's recipe and it's never been changed. If we changed the recipe, it would not be Empress."

— (Its Rightful Place, by Rick Bird, October 2010)

What Is Cincinnati Chili?

What is Cincinnati chili? Perhaps it is easier to explain by listing what it is not:

  • Cincinnati chili is not a five-alarm smoldering cauldron of ground beef suspended in a tomato-y broth.
  • There are no beans (at least in the chili itself).
  • It is not served with cornbread or sour cream.

And, there is a brief list of "additions" to Cincinnati chili that also make it unique:

  • Cincinnati chili is always served over cooked spaghetti pasta. This is called "2-way chili". Do you suspect that since there is a "2-way" that there might perhaps be a 3-way? You'd be right. And there is also a 4-way and a 5-way. Allow me to explain.
  • Cincinnati chili 3-way is spaghetti, chili, and cheese.
  • The 4-way version is spaghetti, chili, cheese, and onions.
  • Go wild and crazy and you can have 5-way with spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, and beans.

For truly authentic, absolutely perfect Cincinnati chili, one has to be very particular about the ingredients. So, let's examine what makes that ultimate 2-, 3-, 4-, or 5-way Cincinnati chili.



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This is where it all begins—the foundation.

  • This is not the place for angel hair pasta. Nor should you consider whole wheat, gluten-free, or any pasta shape other than traditional, true spaghetti. Nothing fancy, not fresh from the deli or home-made.
  • Buy a box, bring a large stockpot of well-salted water to a boil, cook the spaghetti to al dente, drain, and get ready to turn it into an amazing meal.
bowl of shredded cheddar cheese

bowl of shredded cheddar cheese

Cheddar Cheese

  • Real Cincinnati chili demands cheddar cheese—not mozzarella or Parmesan.
  • Please don't use the already shredded-and-packaged stuff. Pre-shredded cheese is coated with cornstarch to keep the strands from sticking together. That means that they clump rather than melt. You want melt on this dish.
white onions

white onions

White Onions

White onions, yellow onions, Spanish onions—what's the difference?

  • Yellow onions account for 90 percent of the onions purchased in America, but they are best for cooking. The heat of sauteeing, simmering, or roasting makes them sweet and soft. But they have quite a bite if left raw and Cincinnati chili demands raw onions.
  • Spanish onions are slightly milder than the yellow, but they are also larger and typically a bit more expensive.
  • The perfect choice for an onion used raw is the white onion. Keep in mind that they also have a higher moisture content (more water), so they do not store as well as the more common yellow onion. Buy them when you need them, and don't plan on storing them for a long period of time.
kidney beans

kidney beans

Dark Red Kidney Beans

I'm going to give you a hall pass on this ingredient. I don't expect you to purchase a bag of dried dark red kidney beans, sort, soak, drain, recover with water, and simmer until done.

Buy a can of dark red kidney beans. If you can, I would suggest low sodium, but whatever you choose, open, drain, rinse under cool running water, and then gently warm on the stove or in the microwave.

Now, wasn't that easy?

How to Make Great Chili

We've been talking about all of the "supporting actors", the ingredients that help build that 2-, 3-, 4-, or 5-way chili, but now it's time to talk about the star of the show. The chili.

Forget everything you have done or heard or thought you heard about cooking chili. This is different, so different that you are going to need to trust me. Take my hand, hold on tight, and we will do this together, one step at a time.

This recipe is an adaptation of one I found on I have made a few changes based on the comments of reviewers. However, this recipe by Melissa Hamilton has a rating of 4.5 stars (out of a perfect score of 5). I wholeheartedly agree with that rating.


  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 2 (8 ounce) cans tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 3/4 tablespoons cocoa
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 bay leaf


  1. Place the ground beef in a large pan, cover with the water, and bring to a boil, stirring and breaking up the beef with a fork to a fine texture. Slowly boil until the meat is thoroughly cooked, about 30 minutes, then remove from heat and refrigerate in the pan overnight.
  2. The next day, skim the solid fat from the top of the pan and discard the fat.
  3. Place the beef mixture (simmered beef and water) over medium heat, and stir in the remaining ingredients.
  4. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer (low heat), and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 hours. Add water if necessary to prevent the chili from burning.

Slow-Cooker Vegan Cincinnati Chili

I'm including this version for my daughter. She's been a vegetarian for 20 years (isn't that amazing?) and I'm proud of her for holding to her conviction. This recipe by Healthy Slow Cooking uses lentils and veggie crumbles (faux ground beef) which provide all of the texture and umami flavors you want, and because it isn't meat, there's no fat to solidify and skim off. Therefore, this recipe comes together much quicker than the original.

oyster crackers

oyster crackers

Oyster Crackers

If the perfectly cooked spaghetti is not enough carbohydrates for you, keep in mind that oyster crackers are always served on the side with this dish. Of course, you can buy them at the grocery store, but have you ever thought of making your own?

This recipe from Molly Sheridan of Serious Eats takes about 80 minutes total, but only 20 minutes of that is actual "working" time. Give it a try. They're fun to make (and quality-control sampling is mandatory).

© 2018 Linda Lum

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