Cincinnati Chili History and Recipe

Outside of the state of Texas, Cincinnati, Ohio is the most chili-crazed city in the United States.  Cincinnati prides itself on being a true chili capital, with more than 180 chili parlors.  Cincinnati Chili is quite different from its more familiar Texas cousin, and it has developed a cult-like popularity.  What makes it different is the way the meat is cooked.  Cincinnati Chili has a thinner consistency and is prepared with an unusual blend of spices that includes cinnamon, chocolate or cocoa, allspice, and Worcestershire.  This is truly the unofficial grub of Cincinnati.

The people of Cincinnati enjoy their chili spooned over freshly made pasta and topped with a combination of chopped onions, shredded Cheddar cheese, refried beans or kidney beans, and crushed oyster crackers.  If you choose “the works,” you are eating what they call Five-Way Chili.  Make sure to pile on the toppings – that’s what sets it apart from any other chili dish.  To test a restaurant for authenticity, ask for a Four-Way.  If the server asks you whether you want beans or onions, you know this is fake Cincinnati chili, since Four-Way always comes with onions.

Cincinnati Chili

History:  Macedonian immigrant Tom Kiradjieff created Cincinnati chili in 1922.  With his brother, John, Kiradjieff opened a small Greek restaurant called the Empress.  The restaurant did poorly however, until Kiradjieff started offering a chili made with Middle Eastern spices, which could be served in a variety of ways.  He called it his “spaghetti chili.”  Kiradjieff’s “five way” was a concoction of a mound of spaghetti topped with chili, chopped onion, kidney beans, and shredded yellow cheese, served with oyster crackers and a side order of hot dogs topped with more shredded cheese.

Check out another delicious version of Cincinnati Chili.

Cincinnati Chili Recipe:
Prep Time
15 mins
Cook Time
1 hr 30 mins
Total Time
1 hr 45 mins
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Keyword: Cincinnati Chili History and Recipe
Servings: 6 to 8 servings
Cincinnati Chili:
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 pound extra-lean ground beef (hamburger)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin*
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (red pepper)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa or 1/2 ounce grated unsweetened chocolate*
  • 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 (16-ounce) package spaghetti pasta, uncooked, dried
  • Oyster Crackers
  • Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • Onion, chopped
  • 1 (16-ounce) can Kidney Beans
  1. In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, sautonion, ground beef, garlic, and chili powder until ground beef is slightly cooked.

  2. Add allspice, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, unsweetened cocoa or chocolate, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, cider vinegar, and water.  Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, 1 hour 30 minutes.  Remove from heat.

  3. Cook spaghetti according to package directions and transfer onto individual serving plates (small oval plates are traditional).  Learn How To Cook Pasta Properly.

  4. Ladle Cincinnati Chili mixture over the cooked spaghetti and serve with toppings of your choice.

  5. Oyster crackers are served in a separate container on the side.

  6. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

  7. Cincinnati chili lovers order their chili by number.  Two, Three, Four, or Five Way.  Let your guests create their own final product.

  8. Cincinniti ChiliTwo-Way Chili:   Chili served on spaghetti.

  9. Three-Way Chili:   Additionally topped with shredded Cheddar cheese.

  10. Four-Way Chili:   Additionally topped with chopped onions.

  11. Five-Way Chili:   Additionally topped with kidney beans.

Recipe Notes

* See comments below on the Original Cincinatti Chili recipe by Sindi Holmlund.

Comments from Readers:

I’m from Cincinnati and my Grandmother worked at the Empress restaurant when she was young.  She got the original recipe for Cincinnati chili from the owner’s wife.  When my Grandma died, my Dad gave me her recipe box and there it was, the Original Cincinnati Chili Recipe.  The recipe you have is not quit correct, as the original recipe does not have cumin or cocoa in it, but had bay leaves.

Oh, and another thing, it was originally just called 3-way.  That meant that it could be ‘used’ three ways.

1. On hot dogs.

2. Over spaghetti. – And YES, you HAVE to put the oyster crackers on top of the spaghetti.

3. With added beans, as a bowl of chili.

Over time people changed it to mean what ‘topping’ they wanted on it.  I moved from Cincinnati to Florida when I was very young and the two things I missed the most were 3-way and White Castles.  I can make the 3-way, but there’s no substitute for the real thing when it comes to White Castles.  When my Dad visits, I make him bring me a bag of 24. – Sindi Holmlund

I lived in Cincinnati all my life. I learned the “secret” of making Cincinnati Chili.  One very important thing is – never brown the ground beef and don’t put onion in the mix.  The onions are saved to put on top.  The ground beef is mixed with the ingredients plus water and boiled for several hours.  Also use tomato paste instead of tomato sauce.  Thanks for your great recipes – Laura Madigan

Another secret for making your Cincinnati Chili even more authentic is to put the ground beef in a food processor and get it very finely chopped before boiling. When finished the chili should be a bit watery – this is where the Oyster Crackers come in. – Paul Hoernes

Cincinnati Chili

Comments and Reviews

42 Responses to “Cincinnati Chili History and Recipe”

  1. Renee Labrenz

    I love Cincinnati Chili, and I agree with Sindi. Leave out the cocoa and the cumin.

  2. Joy hesford

    I too lived in Cincinnati most of life and now in Florida. Never fry meat, cook in water for 3 hours, and our family recipe was with Bay leaves and tomato paste, not sauce. I also miss white castles. When we go home, we eat a lot of them plus bring some back. Frozen ones are not quite as good but we do buy.

  3. chuck struble

    Yep…in California now. White Castles, cheeseconeys and 4-ways are needed to solve the problems of the world. I think Joy is right…tomato paste,no cumin & no cocoa but would add dried onions and 3-4 anchovies(that would be very greek).

  4. Spikemom

    I tried the frozen version made by Skyline and it had an almost star anise or licorice taste to it. Anyone know what that is?

    • JoJo

      Fennel seed, I find make it takes like licorice.

    • Kim

      The star anise or licorice taste is probably fennel

  5. Stephen L McKenney

    The first Cinci Chili I ever had was back in about 1951 or 52…I was about five and the one thing I remember about the restaurant was – in addition to the GREAT taste – that there was a bowling alley on the floor above us! My dad mentioned it a time or two, but I never thought to ask him where the store was! Any other Cincy natives out there old enough to remember anything like that? And, there was a great chili parlor downtown on Fifth Street, near the old Fountain Square location that used to be in operation till the mid-60’s at least. As a young kid, they had the best chili spag and coneys, but they were a ways from where I grew up. Anybody remember the place, or the name?

    • Ron Greiser, Sr

      Empress Chili- John & Tom Kiradjieff owners. I went to Hughes High (‘49-‘52) with Eddie (John’s son). Skyline and Goldstar were started by men who worked in Empress kitchen. Empress still exists but Skyline is now “king”. Kroger’s sells a packaged mix.

    • Jack R.

      Empress Chili was on E. 5th St. across from the Greyhound Terminal. Went there with dad about 1942-43. Also went to Skyline’s original when opened in 1949. Stone’s Chili in Price Hill had the same chili also, prior to Skyline.

  6. alymae

    you can’t forget the hot sauce!!!!!!!! 🙂

  7. Bkhuna

    How can you call anything Chili if it doesn’t have chillies in them? That’s like making Lobster Thermador with tuna fish.

    You Yankees are nuts.

    • Nancy

      Bkhuna the Cincinnati Chili is Cincinnati’s version of chili, which is totally different then a Texas Chili. I’ll re-share the history information that is at the top of the page.
      History: Macedonian immigrant Tom Kiradjieff created Cincinnati chili in 1922. With his brother, John, Kiradjieff opened a small Greek restaurant called the Empress. The restaurant did poorly however, until Kiradjieff started offering a chili made with Middle Eastern spices, which could be served in a variety of ways. He called it his “spaghetti chili.” Kiradjieff’s “five way” was a concoction of a mound of spaghetti topped with chili, chopped onion, kidney beans, and shredded yellow cheese, served with oyster crackers and a side order of hot dogs topped with more shredded cheese.

      • Cece

        Thank you Nancy! Some people just get caught up in semantics rather than recognize and appreciate history and food culture. If we were relying solely on logic, we could point to authentic Mexican chili vs. the Americanized version; two polar opposite recipes.

    • Budvarakbar

      In the cafeteria of a very large employer in the Seattle area they used to routinely serve ‘gumbo soup’ that did not have any okra in it!

    • Dan

      Is “tuna fish” different than “tuna”? My cans just say “tuna”. Should I be looking for “salmon fish” and “halibut fish”?!

  8. MsA

    Hust made two pots with and without beans and all the toppings….onions cheese avocado jalapeños roasted red peppers doritos lime and oyster crackers

  9. pat

    how do you use the kidne beans as a topping? are they cooked? how?

  10. Judi

    There are two chili parlors in Cincinnati. One is Empress Chilli and the other is Skyline. Slightly different recipes. Hamburger must be boiled several hours. The chocolate gives it that special flavor and the cumin is a must. This is Cincinnati Chili. Any adds or subtractions does not make it authentic Cincinnati Chili and it can’t be beat!!

    • Noelle

      There are more than two chili parlors. I remember Gold Star achili was another favorite and there was another in downtown Sharonville that was great!

      • Dale

        Gold Star adds a significant amount of paprika.

  11. Mary

    All I know is the Cincinnati Chili chain had one in Youngstown I used to go to all the time

  12. Erika

    Just look at what you’ve done! Now I have to have this for breakfast (just like yesterday)!
    There are no parlors here in Omaha, so I make it once a year. I made it on Sunday and it should be approaching perfection right about now.
    Here’s a secret: it just may be the best leftover ever!

  13. Firefighter Jim

    I used to make this at the firehouse and the team loved it.
    I know this is probably against the law somewhere, but… my wife does not eat red meat, so, I make it with ground turkey and I think that there is no real difference in the taste or texture.

  14. Birdie

    I would Love to have a copy of your original copy of the Empress chili recipe my Mother’s Brother worked as a butcher in downtown Cincinnati and they got their meat from his butcher shop. He got the original recipe and was swern to secrecy and when my Mother past away it was past to me . Well we had a fire and lost everything! But there were things about the recipe about how it was really cooked and bay leaves were in the original. Please I Love to have a copy and see if it is like my Mother ‘s. I have never left a comment I don’t even know if you will read this or if someone knows better how to pass this on please help

  15. Big Al

    Someone earlier mentioned Fennel/Licorice. I’ve been to Skyline and Gold Star and remember that taste clearly. One local even said “our chili uses Anise, not Cumin”. I’m surprised that zero recipes I’ve found on the Internet mentions Anise or Fennel. What gives??

  16. Matt

    The cans of Skyline have little white pieces mixed in which kind of look like beef tripe. Anyone what that is?

  17. Michael

    Whoever wrote this is ill informed. Sorry for the nitpicking but, Cincinnati style chili is a passion of mine as it is with any Cincinnatian. In the 25 years I have been eating Cincinnati style chili at different restaurants that serve it, be it Skyline, Goldstar, Empress Chili, Dixie Chili, Blueash Chili or any others, I have never heard anyone say that they want “the works”. If you did say that, the server would, right away know that you have never been to a Cincinnati Chili restaurant before. Cincinnati chili spaghetti is defined in 3 ways. The 3-way is the spaghetti, chili, and cheese. A 4-way (contrary to what the writer said) is a 3-way with the choice of either Beans or Onions on top, some restaurants will put it between the chili and the cheese. Lastly, a 5-way is a 3-way with both beans and onions on top.

    Recommendation for those getting a coney (hotdog with chili and cheese): add a small squirt of catchup along the dog, completely changes everything. Not better nor worse, just different.

    • Steve

      Sorry, but as you said, not to nitpick, but I’m from Manhattan and you NEVER EVER put catsup on a Coney!

      • Bob

        Just call it a hot dog, then you can use catsup.

  18. Ray M.

    This recipe is fantastic. My wife is not from Cincinnati, and like most who are not from the Nati and spoon feed the stuff since birth, hates Cincinnati Chilli from the fast food commercial joints. We now live in the Chicagoland area and I am compelled to make some from time to time. She eats this stuff up, and the kids have requested on several occasions for me to make some for thier Birthday meal. Cincy Chilli is similar to Geotta, everyone has the “Real/Right” recipe, everyone knows the history, and everyone knows how it should really be made. Also, a family fav and something I regularly make for the wife and kids.

  19. Judi

    @ Bkhuna…….1 tablespoon chili powder, it does have chili in it!

  20. Dean

    The recipe I have has chili powder and crushed red pepper…… How does not count as chillies? BACK TO TEX-ASS!!!!!!

    • Nancy

      Please add fresh chillies if they are accessible to you where you live.

  21. Bunk Strutts

    We lived on Skyline and Goldstar (and WC sliders) on weekends when I was in high school. Never knew that Empress was the first. The local Skyline Chili was run by a Greco-Russian family, and ordering was just like the SNL “Cheebuggie” skit.

  22. Rebecca L Butler

    I don’t think anyone has the recipe right there’s one thing they’re missing it has mock turtle in it figure that one out

  23. Donald Castle

    I’m a native Cincinnatian and used to live in Missouri where I made my own version of Cincinnati chilli. All my friends loved it and would ask me to make a batch every time they would visit. My recipe used all the spices listed but was broken down to 13 total spices along with chocolate and Worcestershire sauce. I too would use tomato paste along with Campbell tomato soup. I like it best with Lance toasty cheese peanut butter crackers and jalapeno peppers.

  24. Heather Gough

    So I grew up across the water from Cincinnati and lived on Cincy chili and every time Grandma made it at home it had chocolate in it but I can’t remember if it had bay leaves in it or not. Can anyone tell me how many are needed?

  25. Robin Roland

    Original empress. I detect no chocolate or cocoa but………sumac

  26. Rain

    You can’t talk about Cincinnati chili without mentioning Camp Washington Chili just off the Hopple Street exit on I-75. Also, every Coney I ever had (and there were a lot) had a thin line of mustard on the dog before the chili was added. For heat a bottle of Tobasco was on every table. When this chili was first developed chilis were not readily available so they are not a part of any recipe. BTW let’s not forget LaRosa’s. Thank You Buddy!

  27. Tyler

    IDK what sky line chilli is but my friend says its good, but it looks very un appealing, but my friend grew up eating it and she says its good, imma need to see if her opinions are valid.


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