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Cincinnati Chili … Sort of … Not Really

February 16, 2011
I never make Cincinnati chili. Let me just get that out there. Like the French who never bake their own baguettes because there’s a bakery on every corner, there are three chili parlors within a three mile radius of my house serving up three delicious versions of Cincinnati chili (and canned versions from those restaurants can also be found in every Kroger). Why would I bother? SoupAddict has — like many of you — a long list of other recipes just begging to be made.

But when I saw a recipe for Cincinnati chili in the February issue of Bon Appetit, I had to try it. I’ll be upfront about my motives: morbid weary curiosity. The recipe replaces ground beef with lamb, in an interesting nod to Cincinnati chili’s Macedonian roots.

SoupAddict is hardly one to fuss about food authenticity, since it’s beyond certain that she has messed with regional recipes that neither should have nor needed to be messed with. But she did it anyway, and unapologetically so.

However, we’re talking names here. Adding lamb to chili and calling it “Cincinnati chili” is like making a bean stew and calling it “Texas chili” (Texas chili is all about the meat, baby). Only Texans are allowed to make vegetarian Texas chili. For the rest of us, our creations are called simply vegetarian chili.  😉

One further comment: Bon Appetit’s recipe is basically a riff on this well-worn (and not very authentic) Cincinnati chili recipe, with lamb instead of beef. And completely puzzling additions of fresh parsley and goat cheese. [Scratches head]. I totally left those out. Unapologetically.

Cincinnati chili is famous for its unusual spices, including cinnamon, allspice and chocolate. Believe it, it’s true.
In true Cincinnati chili, onions and garlic must be chopped very, very finely, so that they disappear completely into the chili sauce (although I honestly believe the secret original recipes call for onion powder and garlic powder, not fresh).

Here, it doesn’t matter: it’s just regular chili we’re makin’, with lamb, cinnamon and chocolate, like you do every day. No need to make a fuss about onion cube size.

I intentionally left the ground lamb in its large chunky string state, and the recipe does not instruct you to do otherwise, but if you want authentic texture, run the ground meat through your food processor so that no chunks remain. The meat should be pebbly small.
Unlike in this recipe, authentic Cincinnati chili meat is boiled, not browned, in plain water. But don’t boil the lamb here — brown it per instructions. Regular chili, people, regular chili.
A long cooking time will meld all the flavors nicely. It’s not Cincinnati chili by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a very decent chili.
Cincinnati chili is served either over spaghetti or used as a hot dog topping (called, coneys).
Here’s your typical “three-way.” Spaghetti, meat, cheese. Cheddar cheese — sharp cheddar cheese, preferrably, — not goat cheese. A four-way adds chopped raw onions, and kidney beans is a five-way.

Not Quite But Still Tasty Cincinnati Chili

Changed to remove the more egregious ingredients, from and Bon Appetit, February 2011.

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 cups chopped onions
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 pounds ground lamb
1 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
4 2/3 cups (about) low-salt beef broth, divided
1/3 cup tomato paste
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon (packed) brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 pound spaghetti
2 15-ounce cans kidney beans, rinsed, drained coarsely
Cheddar cheese
Chopped onions

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large deep skillet over medium heat. Add onions; sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add garlic; stir 1 minute. Add lamb; cook until browned, breaking into pieces, about 15 minutes. Add cocoa and next 5 ingredients; stir 3 minutes. Stir in 4 cups broth and next 6 ingredients. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer uncovered until thickened, stirring often, about 1 hour. Spoon fat from top of chili. Season with salt and pepper. Thin with broth by 1/3 cupfuls.

Meanwhile, cook spaghetti in pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Transfer to large bowl.

Divide spaghetti among bowls. Top with chili. Garnish with cheese and onions.

  1. February 16, 2011 10:12 pm

    Ha! I remember my first five-way from Skyline. I was 17 and in possession of a much sturdier stomach. At that point in life, I had never even heard of goat cheese and am not sure what I would have done with it on my chili. Those were the days… I think this version would agree with “my much more mature” stomach 🙂

  2. Nick permalink
    February 17, 2011 9:41 am

    Looks yummy. I made a (sort of, I guess) Cincinnati Chile recipe some years ago that seemed similar to this, only it used ground beef instead of lamb. Did I blaspheme?

  3. Peggy permalink
    February 18, 2011 2:24 am

    There is no substitute for Skyline Chili. Why even try?

    • Tom M. permalink
      March 25, 2011 1:52 pm

      Thankfully there’s only one. It makes it easier for me to avoid (not a fan)!

  4. February 18, 2011 11:50 am

    I love ground lamb.

    I may have to try this even though I have a world renown chili recipe. There may be a revolution in my house over this…

  5. February 19, 2011 1:19 am

    This looks so good! Love the richness of the sauce.

  6. Darlynne permalink
    February 21, 2011 12:51 pm

    SoupAddict, I know you never make real Cincinnati chili, but is there a recipe you’d recommend? Or one you saw and thought had possibilities? You’ve made me hungry, again. Thanks!

    • SoupAddict permalink
      February 21, 2011 1:51 pm

      Hi Darlynne,
      Cook’s Illustrated has a really close version of it (but their online recipes are gated behind an online subscription – if you’re an online subscriber, log in and search for “Cincinnati Chili”). I did a quick google search, and found a blog that posted a recipe based on Cook’s version. The spice quantities are a little different from Cook’s, but they’re close enough:

      • Darlynne permalink
        February 22, 2011 12:11 pm

        Thank you, SoupAddict. And now I see there are even spice packets available. My cup runneth over.

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