In and around the Cincinnati, Ohio, area, people eat the bejeezus out of chili (two million pounds each year, according to the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau), and most of what they're eating is what's called Cincinnati chili served up at many mom and pop chili parlors, and chains like Skyline, Gold Star, and Empress.
Some argue that Cincinnati chili is not chili at all, since it doesn't contain beans, nor is it hot in the way of spices. Cincinnati chili is essentially a thin sauce of boiled ground beef with aromatic spices, and not dissimilar to many Greek meat sauces—Greek immigrants, after all, are alleged to have originated Cincinnati chili.
Cincinnati chili just straight up is eaten in a bowl. Order yourself up a Coney dog in the Cincinnati area (other variations of Coney dogs, or Coney Island dogs, exist), and you're eating a hot dog topped with Cincinnati chili, yellow mustard, and diced onions. Add cheese to the dog and make it a Cheese Coney. But, when most people think of Cincinnati chili, they think of spaghetti topped with chili and cheese. When ordering Cincinnati chili it's important to specify which "way" you want it.
2-way: spaghetti, chili
3-way: spaghetti, chili, shredded Cheddar
4-way: spaghetti, chili, onions OR kidney beans, shredded Cheddar
5-way: spaghetti, chili, onions, kidney beans, shredded Cheddar
6-way: not widely accepted, but it seems to be a 5-way with whatever other ingredient (garlic, sour cream, etc) a chili parlor or home cook likes to add.
Now, since I've never eaten Cincinnati Chili in Cincinnati—or any other place, for that matter—I did an extensive amount of looking around to find a recipe. What I found is that, with any regional food, people are very firm in their beliefs about what Cincinnati Chili is and how it should be prepared and eaten – and, of course, every recipe is different. So, I took notes and devised a recipe of my own, trying to incorporate what I thought were the right elements from many recipes. Vegetarian meat crumbles are most definitely wrong, but that can't be helped here.This is what I found to be the general consensus about Cincinnati Chili:
Cincinnati chili is much thinner than your average chili. Some say it's even soup-like, and will pass it through the food processor a bit. I didn't go that far.
Meat is finely ground beef. Never brown the meat; the meat should be boiled.
There should not be tomatoes in the chili. Some use tomato sauce, but some even say no to tomato sauce—even though most recipes contain tomato sauce. Tomato paste is supposedly the more authentic ingredient.
Onions are not in Cincinnati Chili—even though most recipes contain onions—but raw diced onions are on top of the chili. I found one recipe that stewed the chili with a whole onion, then removed the onion before serving. As a person who thinks onions make everything taste better, I found this to be a nice compromise and cooked my chili in this fashion. Then, after eating a plate of 4-way chili for a no-onion-in-chili experience, cut up the sweet, sweet onion and stirred it in the pot.
Kidney beans are used. Never are they cooked in the chili. They are cooked separately and added to the top of the chili.
Everyone stresses that Cincinnati chili is not hot, although it's not uncommon to squirt hot sauce on top of a plate of the stuff. The chili does have a unique blend of spices—which seem to be unique to every recipe and chili parlor. Chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne, salt, black pepper, bay leaves, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce seem to be in almost every recipe, so I included all of these (except Worcestershire, since it's not vegetarian). Sugar, cloves and cardamom appear in about half of the recipes, so I included them, as well. Oregano, marjoram, tarragon, thyme, paprika, turmeric, and coriander appear only occasionally, so I skipped them. I went middle of the road in the amount of each spice I included.
Some claim chocolate or cocoa powder is the secret ingredient — along with the spice blend, of course. Some claim that Cincinnati chili never started out with chocolate. I added the chocolate
Most use a beef broth. In recipes I found from someone's neighbor's uncle that used to work in a chili parlor, there was no broth, just water. I made mine with water, trying to stay closer the the recipes from chili parlors. Halfway through the cooking, the chili was lacking depth, so I changed it to vegetable broth (easy to do, since all I had to do was drop in some bullion paste).
Use a thick spaghetti noodle, not thin spaghetti or vermicelli.
Sharp Cheddar is the only way, and thinly shredded so that it melts easily on top of the hot chili. Pile it on heavy.
If you're gonna crumble crackers on top of your Cincinatti chili it better be Oyster crackers. Saltines are not allowed.
Cut or Twirl
You're supposed to cut the noodles, so that each fork-full will have a bit of each componet. Do not twirl the noodles around the fork. I did both, and it's about the same as to what makes it on your fork.
The final recipe I made is fairly true to most of the recipes out there (except the whole meat thing), but, of course, I've never had the real deal. Don't let the cookie spices scare you; Cincinnati chili does not taste like dessert, but just a very aromatic meaty sauce.
A big plate of carbs smothered in greasy, spicy meat sauce topped with cheese sure sounds like comfort food to me, so I can't blame Ohioans for eating boat-loads of the stuff, but, in the end, I felt like I had done nothing more than homemade Hamburger Helped a plate of spaghetti. Still, glad I tried it, 'cause trying is half the battle...er...or something like that.
Feel free to chime in with your memories of eating Cincinnati chili, whether you love it or hate it, and, of course, how you make it at home. Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili
2 quarts vegetable broth
2 pounds MorningStar burger crumbles
6 ounces tomato paste
1 medium onion, peeled, left whole
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- Throw all of the ingredients in a large pot on the stove and stir. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until liquid has reduced, but chili is still a bit thin and runny.
- Remove the onion and bay leaves. For a thinner consistency, you may want to run a portion of the cooked chili through a food processor or blender.
- Serve on top of a bed of cooked spaghetti noodles topped with any combination of diced onion, kidney beans, shredded Cheddar cheese, or Oyster crackers.