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What makes Cincinnati chili different?

Cincinnati chili is a unique type of chili that originated in Cincinnati, Ohio. It has several characteristics that distinguish it from other chili styles, including its flavor profile, serving method, and toppings.

What is Cincinnati chili?

Cincinnati chili is a meat sauce developed by Greek immigrants in Cincinnati in the 1920s. It is made by simmering ground beef and spices into a thin, spicy chili. Unlike other chilis, Cincinnati chili has a unique blend of Mediterranean-inspired spices like cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and chocolate. This gives Cincinnati chili a distinct sweet flavor.

The chili is also thinner and more sauce-like compared to chunky Texas-style chili. This allows it to be served over spaghetti or hot dogs, which is the traditional way it is eaten. Toppings like cheese, onions, and beans are also signature.

History of Cincinnati chili

Cincinnati chili originated at the Empress Chili parlor, which was opened in 1922 by two brothers from Greece, Tom and John Kiradjieff. They wanted to create a chili using flavors inspired by their home cuisine.

Other Greek immigrant families also opened chili parlors and developed their own recipes, leading to the evolution of Cincinnati-style chili. Two other notable chili chains that opened in the 1940s were Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili, which helped popularize and spread Cincinnati chili outside the city.

Today, there are over 200 chili parlors and restaurants serving Cincinnati chili around the Greater Cincinnati area. It remains a beloved local specialty food.

Unique seasoning blend

What sets Cincinnati chili apart is its distinctive Mediterranean-inspired blend of spices. While most chilis are made with more traditional chili powder, Cincinnati chili uses an array of sweet spices rarely found in other chili recipes.

These seasonings include:

  • Cinnamon – Provides a sweet, aromatic note
  • Allspice – Adds hints of cloves, pepper, and nutmeg
  • Cloves – Contributes a subtle sweetness
  • Chocolate – Brings a rich, earthy flavor
  • Paprika – Supplies a touch of smokiness

Additional commonly used spices are cumin, garlic powder, and oregano. Beef broth and tomato paste are also typical ingredients.

This unique seasoning blend gives Cincinnati chili a distinctive flavor profile compared to other regional chili styles. The sweetness plays against the acidity of tomatoes for a complex, savory-sweet flavor.

Thin, sauce-like consistency

While many chilis have a thick, chunky texture, Cincinnati chili is intentionally made much thinner. It has a consistency closer to a thin tomato sauce rather than a hearty stew.

To achieve this, the ground beef is cooked into very fine crumbles. The spices are also strained out after simmering, leaving behind a smooth sauce. A touch of cornstarch helps thicken it slightly while still maintaining a pourable consistency.

This thin texture allows Cincinnati chili to be served in specific ways unique to the city. Instead of eating it on its own in a bowl like chunky beef chili, Cincinnati-style chili is almost always served as a sauce poured over spaghetti, hot dogs, or cheese coneys (hot dogs topped with chili, cheese, onions, and mustard in a bread cone).

The thin consistency lets the chili coat the other ingredients evenly and fully soak into the spaghetti noodles. The thinner sauce is also easier to eat layered on top of foods without being overly dense or messy.

Serving traditions

Unlike other chili styles that are eaten in a bowl, Cincinnati chili is almost always served on top of other foods:

On spaghetti

The most iconic way to eat Cincinnati chili is over a big pile of spaghetti noodles. The thin meat sauce coats each strand of cooked spaghetti, allowing the flavors to directly absorb into the pasta. This dish is called “2-way” with just spaghetti and chili.

On hot dogs

Serving Cincinnati chili on hot dogs is also a very common tradition. Known as cheese coneys, these are hot dogs topped with chili, yellow mustard, chopped onions, and shredded cheddar cheese in a specially-shaped bread bun. The chili’s smooth consistency makes it perfect for topping hot dogs.

On potatoes

Loaded chili potatoes or chili spuds are another Cincinnati specialty. French fries, home fries, or baked potatoes are smothered with a mountain of chili, cheese, and onions. The starchiness of the potatoes soaks up the meaty chili juices perfectly.

On chilli mac

For an over-the-top indulgence, Cincinnati chili is served on top of spaghetti, then also with added melted cheese and beans. This 3-way (spaghetti, chili, cheese) or 4-way (spaghetti, chili, cheese, beans) combination lets you experience multiple layers of flavors and textures in one dish.

Unique toppings

Beyond the chili itself, Cincinnati chili is also characterized by its creative toppings:

Shredded cheddar cheese

No Cincinnati chili dish is complete without a handful of shredded cheddar cheese. The orange cheese provides a creamy contrast to the savory chili. The abundance of cheese is one reason why Cincinnati chili goes so well with starchy sides that can absorb all the dairy.


Chopped white onions are another standard topping. They add a fresh, pungent crunch that cuts through the richness of the cheese and chili. Raw onions are used instead of cooked for more bite.


Kidney, pinto, or navy beans are often added on top of chili dishes. Beans give the meal more protein and fiber. Their thick, stew-like texture also balances the thin chili sauce.

Oyster crackers

These small, round crackers are served alongside Cincinnati chili. Their saltiness and crunch complement the chili’s savory spice. They also help soak up the sauce.

Flavor variations by brand

There are over 100 different chili parlors and brands serving unique recipes across Cincinnati. While they all share the basic blueprint, each has their own proprietary spice blend that distinguishes their flavor:

Skyline Chili

The largest and most well-known chain, Skyline is considered the classic Cincinnati chili. Their recipe features a distinct hint of chocolate mellowed out by cinnamon and allspice.

Gold Star Chili

Gold Star has a spicier, more coarsely ground blend with pronounced notes of cumin, oregano, and cloves. They use a secret mix of up to 18 ingredients.

Camp Washington Chili

Known for their “one-way” dishes with just chili ladled over hot dogs or spaghetti, Camp Washington has an ultra-smooth chili made with a touch of honey for subtle sweetness.

Pleasant Ridge Chili

This indie shop uses only fresh chiles for a chili with a bigger chili powder punch compared to other spots. Their chili mac bowls are especially popular.

Blue Ash Chili

Featured on Food Network for a specialty “Big Ash” bowl, Blue Ash Chili is beloved for their ultra-fine ground beef that makes their chili sauce silky smooth.

What makes it different from other chili styles?

Cincinnati chili varies greatly from more familiar chili styles like Texas red chili or green chili:

Trait Cincinnati Chili Texas Chili
Meat Finely ground beef Chuck beef chunks
Texture Thin, smooth, sauce-like Thick, chunky, stew-like
Spices Cinnamon, allspice, cocoa Chili powder, cumin, garlic
Serving Vessel On spaghetti, hot dogs, etc. In a bowl by itself
Toppings Cheese, onions, beans Fritos, sour cream, avocado

As shown, Cincinnati chili has a unique sauce-based consistency flavored with Greek-inspired spices. It is always served on other foods and topped with classic Cincinnati-style toppings. This sets it apart from chili styles elsewhere in the US.

Where to find the best Cincinnati chili

There are many great options for taste-testing true Cincinnati chili:

Skyline Chili

With over 130 locations, Skyline is the largest and most ubiquitous Cincinnati chili chain. While not everyone agrees it’s the absolute best, it’s a great introduction to the city’s signature dish. Their cheese coneys and chili spaghetti are classic choices.

Camp Washington Chili

Founded in 1940, Camp Washington claims to have invented the cheese coney. They serve their ultra-smooth chili in a convivial, retro diner environment. Their triple-decker sandwiches are not to be missed.

Pleasant Ridge Chili

A favorite of locals, Pleasant Ridge Chili is known for chili with a bit of heat. It has been run by the same family since it opened in 1954. Their chili mac is their most raved-about menu item.

Blue Ash Chili

Featured on national TV, Blue Ash Chili impresses with their enormous “Big Ash” bowls meant for sharing. Beyond classics like the 4-way, they have creative menu items like chili tacos.

The Chili Hut

This tiny mom-and-pop shop in Cincinnati’s North College Hill neighborhood receives huge praise for their chili’s intensely savory, complex flavor. It’s some of the highest-quality chili in town.

Signature Cincinnati chili recipes to try

Once you get a taste for Cincinnati chili, you can try making it at home with these authentic recipes:

Cincinnati Chili

This traditional Cincinnati chili recipe from Saveur uses a homemade blend of spices simmered into a smooth, meaty sauce. It makes enough to pour over hot dogs, spaghetti, or fries for the complete experience.


  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 1⁄2 cups tomato sauce
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar


  1. In a large pot, cook ground beef over medium heat until browned and crumbly. Drain excess grease.
  2. Add spices and stir continuously for 2 minutes to toast spices.
  3. Add tomato sauce, stock, vinegar, and brown sugar. Simmer for 15 minutes.
  4. For best flavor, refrigerate overnight before using. Keeps for up to 1 week refrigerated.
  5. To serve, spoon over spaghetti, hot dogs, or potatoes and top with shredded cheese, beans, and onions.

Cincinnati Cheese Coney

This copycat recipe from Taste of Home recreates the classic cheese coney served at chili joints across Cincinnati:


  • 1⁄2 pound ground beef
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1⁄4 cup beef broth
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • 4 hot dogs
  • 4 hot dog buns
  • Yellow mustard
  • Chopped onion
  • Shredded cheddar cheese


  1. In a skillet over medium heat, cook ground beef until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Drain grease.
  2. Add spices and stir for 1 minute. Stir in tomato sauce, broth, brown sugar, and vinegar. Simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Cook hot dogs according to package directions. Place each hot dog in a bun.
  4. Top each hot dog with chili sauce, mustard, onions, and cheddar cheese.

How to order Cincinnati chili like a local

The unique menu and ordering terminology for Cincinnati chili can confuse newcomers. Here’s a guide to ordering like a Cincinnati pro:

Way System

Cincinnati chili dishes are ordered by “ways”, which refers to the number of ingredients:

– 2-way: spaghetti + chili
– 3-way: spaghetti + chili + cheese
– 4-way: spaghetti + chili + cheese + onions or beans
– 5-way: spaghetti + chili + cheese + onions + beans

For example, ordering a “4-way with onions” means you want spaghetti, chili, cheese, and onions.


– Small = Child size, good for kids under 12
– Regular = Average adult portion
– Large = Very big portion or meant for sharing
– Big Ash = Enormous bowl served at a few locations like Blue Ash Chili

Classic Items

– Cheese coney – hot dog with chili, cheese, onions, mustard
– Chili cheeseburger – hamburger with chili and cheese
– ChiliBake – pile of spaghetti baked with chili and cheese on top
– Chili spaghetti – spaghetti topped with chili


– Know that Cincinnati chili is thin and tends to spill over the sides of a bowl. Order spaghetti or potatoes as a base.

– Be exact with your “way” order. The chili parlors expect you to know exactly how you want your dish made.

– Start with a 2-way or 3-way if it’s your first time. The 5-way can be heavy for newcomers.

– Order a side of oyster crackers and crumble them on top to help absorb the chili juices.

Key takeaways

– Cincinnati chili originated as a Greek immigrant creation, using spices like cinnamon, chocolate, and allspice.

– It has a thin, sauce-like consistency instead of being thick and chunky.

– Signature serving styles are ladled over hot dogs, spaghetti, or potatoes.

– Typical toppings include onions, cheese, and beans.

– Each brand has its own proprietary spice blend that gives it a unique flavor profile.

– While new to outsiders, ordering by “ways” and getting cheese coneys is standard for Cincinnati locals.

– With its distinctive flavors and culture around it, Cincinnati chili truly stands in a league of its own.