This Cincinnati chili recipe is an easy midwestern classic made popular by Skyline Chili chain of restaurants. The chili includes a unique blend of spices, is slow-simmered for hours, and served over spaghetti with a variety of topping options (if you choose them all, then it’s known as “5-way”). Perfect for chilly days and the ultimate in comfort food, serve the chili alongside a simple salad or cornbread for a hearty meal.
Years ago, when I shared my favorite classic chili recipe, it spawned a discussion about Cincinnati chili, which I had never eaten before. I was flooded with tons of recipes from readers and couldn’t wait to fire up a pot.
Of all the recipes I received, I was most drawn to this one sent to me by Mary; she said she began eating Cincinnati chili as a kid when she would eat dinner at a friend’s house before swim lessons. She said that she’s made tons of different recipes for Cincinnati chili over the years but the one she sent me, which hails from a church cookbook, is her absolute favorite.
What is Cincinnati chili?
Cincinnati chili is a Mediterranean-spiced beef dish (some call it chili, some call it a sauce) that is served atop spaghetti or hot dogs.
It was created by Macedonian immigrants that settled in the Cincinnati area in the 1920s. They served the “Mediterranean beef stew” as a hot dog topping and, later, began to include spaghetti, calling it “chili spaghetti” (it is believed that this was a spin on traditional Greek dishes like moussaka and pastitsio). Customers began requesting additional toppings, and the owners developed the “way” system of ordering to make it easy.
How is it different and how is it made?
I’ll be completely honest – when I made this chili initially, it totally took me out of my chili comfort zone. While it was cooking, the smell reminded me of moussaka, which is a Greek dish that has a meat layer consisting of ground beef or lamb cooked in a mixture that also includes cinnamon and/or allspice (which makes sense once I found out that Cincinnati has its roots in the Mediterranean!).
These are the things that set Cincinnati chili apart from the chili that most of us grew up eating:
Unique Seasonings: Cincinnati chili has the requisite chili powder and cumin that provides that characteristic chili flavor, but it also includes cinnamon, allspice, bay leaves, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, and cocoa powder.
All ingredients added at once: There is no browning or sauteing the meat or onions in Cincinnati chili; everything is added to the pot before you put it on the stove, stirred together, and then cooked.
The Toppings: Traditional chili toppings usually include things like shredded cheese, sour cream, tortilla or corn chips, etc. But this is no ordinary chili! Cincinnati chili is served over spaghetti noodles and topping options include shredded cheese, chopped onion, and chili beans.
I totally went into it with a strong side-eye, but I didn’t alter the recipe at all and forged ahead, cooking and serving it as directed. And you know what? We loved the heck out of this meal!
It cooks up super thick and flavorful, and that spaghetti I was skeptical about? It’s crazy, but it just totally WORKS.
How to serve the chili
You may have heard the phrase “Cincinnati chili 5-way” and it refers to the topping options on the chili. Aside from the chili itself, these are the serving options and their terms:
Served over spaghetti (2-way)
Served over spaghetti with shredded cheese (3-way)
Served over spaghetti with shredded cheese and chopped onion (4-way)
Served over spaghetti with shredded cheese, chopped onion, and chili beans (5-way)
I went all the way and served it up 5-way and absolutely, positively devoured it.
Many people also serve it with oyster crackers on top, which we love, as well.
You can also serve the chili over a hot dog to make a Coney dog; add the diced onion and shredded cheese, too!
Slow cooker and Instant Pot adaptations
If you want to use your slow cooker or Instant Pot to cook this chili, you absolutely can! See directions below:
Slow Cooker: To make this in a slow cooker, combine all of the ingredients as instructed in the recipe, then cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours. I recommend removing the lid halfway through cooking so that the excess liquid evaporates, or it will be a soupier consistency than making it on the stovetop.
Instant Pot/Pressure Cooker: To make this in a pressure cooker, add all of the ingredients and stir together, as directed in the recipe. Lock on the lid, bring to high pressure and cook for 30 minutes. Let the pressure come down naturally, then unlock the lid.
Storage and freezing instructions
Storing Leftovers: Leftovers should be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Reheat in a microwave or on the stovetop.
Freezing Instructions: This chili freezes exceptionally well! Once completely cool, place in an airtight container and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight then reheat in the microwave or on the stovetop.
If you’ve never had Cincinnati chili before, I highly encourage you to give it a try! It’s easy to make, a crowd favorite, and don’t forget to pile on those toppings! Include a bag of oyster crackers on your grocery list, too :)
If you make this recipe and love it, remember to stop back and give it a 5-star rating – it helps others find the recipe! ❤️️
In a large Dutch oven or heavy stockpot, stir together the ground beef and water until soupy.
Stir in all of the remaining ingredients and bring to a rapid simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 3 hours.
Serve over cooked spaghetti noodles (2-way), top with shredded cheddar cheese (3-way), chopped white onions (4-way), and/or canned, drained chili beans (5-way). Leftovers should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
I used 85% ground beef and there was just a bit of grease when I stirred it at the end. I tend to like 85% for things like chili and meat sauce since it adds more flavor, but if you want to eliminate any grease, you may want to go with 90% lean.
Nutritional values are based on one serving without toppings