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All About Cincinnati Chili

For the Super Bowl, I wanted to feature one of my childhood favorites: Cincinnati-style Cheese Coneys. They’re a good light-dinner/heavy-snack food, highly portable, absolutely delicious… perfect. First, I feel the need to entice readers unfamiliar with the delights of Cincinnati Chili… and explain some of the weirdness surrounding it.

It’s very hard to explain the appeal of Cincinnati Chili to those who didn’t grow up around it. What, chili-eaters want to know, is this sauce doing on top of spaghetti? Why isn’t it made with actual chiles or chili powder? Texans are among the few to understand the recipe’s lack of beans, but most people find this troublesome as well. The whole thing seems rather foreign, despite the all-American yellow mustard, yellow cheddar, oyster crackers, and hot pepper sauce required to complete or accompany more than half of the dishes made with it.

The dish is quite similar to saltsa kima, a kind of Greek meat sauce fortified with large amounts of onions, garlic, tomato paste, and a number of aromatic spices. Greeks usually serve this sauce on pasta, often topped with a bit of sharp cheese (mizithra or kefalotyri). Of course, many variations of saltsa kima exist throughout Macedonia, and distant cousins abound from east (South Asian keema) to west (Italian Bolognese).

What makes Cincinnati Chili truly great is the unique spicing, which was first created by the Kiradjieff brothers, the Slavic-Macedonian founders of Empress Chili Parlor. First opened inside of a burlesque theater in 1922, Empress gave birth to a food tradition that continues to dominate the fast-food industry around Cincinnati. According to a Gold Star Chili survey (as quoted by the New York Times in 1989), 80% of Cincinnatians eat at a chili parlor once a week or more.

The type and quantity of spices used by the Kiradjieffs in their beloved chili is a matter shrouded in secrecy and confused by hearsay and assumption. All of the chili parlor chains treat their blends as proprietary secrets, so many keep on guessing, potentially straying further afield in the process. Witness most of the erroneous recipes floating around—many from reputable sources—calling for chili powder or <gasp> oregano. The only spices most can agree on are cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, and unsweetened chocolate.

Thankfully, my father Ethan concocted a recipe that has won official blind tastings among Cincinnati Chili illuminati. I myself cannot tell any difference… everything is in its place: cinnamon, clove, allspice, black pepper, cumin, bay, chocolate, Worcestershire, Louisiana-style hot sauce… all singing harmoniously in every bite. Dad’s creative process is quite exhaustive, but our good friend Matthew Macleid saved him much time. Matt was a high school classmate of John Kiradjieff’s son and reported that the “old man” was known to come up the basement stairs before work each morning with a paper bag full of spices. Matt learned that seven giant spice containers lived in the basement, from which John would mix what he needed for the day’s chili. This enticing clue helped Dad narrow down the possibilities.

A few more details about the chili itself: don’t be tempted to brown the beef (trust us) and, for best results, chill overnight before skimming any rendered fat off the top (the extra time also allows all of the complex flavors to come through).

You can’t talk about Cincinnati Chili without dealing with the “ways.” A “one-way” is just chili, the others include additions in the following order: spaghetti, shredded yellow cheddar, minced onions, cooked red kidney beans.

All ways must be served with oyster crackers and Louisiana-style hot sauce. These condiments are essential, though there is some debate as to whether the crackers belong on top of your way or as something to be snacked on separately. I leave you to decide this fine point. We have heard rumors of an apocryphal “six-way” offered by Dixie Chili that adds minced garlic, but we at the Joy of Cooking cannot approve of this so-called sixth way. What’s to stop someone else from insisting on the existence of a seventh way? Where does it end?

For a Super Bowl-friendly snack, slap together some Cincinnati-style Cheese Coneys. You will need toasted buns, plenty of chili, shredded cheddar cheese, minced onion, yellow mustard, and hot pepper sauce (for approximate amounts and assembly, see the image above). Though the mustard and onion are optional, I wholeheartedly recommend you try one with everything at least once. Serve assembled on a huge platter or let people make them from bowls of each ingredient. If you split and griddle the dogs (my favorite, untraditional tweak), keep them warm in the oven with toasted buns (covered). It is, however, much easier to boil the dogs and hold them in warm water if you’re cooking for a real crowd.


Cincinnati Chili Cockaigne
serves 6 over pasta, or more than 24 coneys (allow 2 per person)

Bring to a boil in a large pot:
     4 cups water
     2 pounds ground beef chuck
     Stir until separated, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Add:
     2 medium onions, finely chopped
     5 to 6 garlic cloves, crushed
     One 15-ounce can tomato sauce
     2 tablespoons cider vinegar
     1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Stir in:
     10 whole black peppercorns, ground
     8 whole allspice berries, ground
     8 whole cloves, ground
     1 large bay leaf
     2 teaspoons salt
     2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
     1½ teaspoons ground red pepper
     1 teaspoon ground cumin
     ½ ounce unsweetened chocolate, grated
Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 2½ hours. Cool, uncovered, and refrigerate overnight. Before serving, skim off all or most of the fat and discard. Discard the bay leaf. Reheat the chili.

For a 2-Way, serve over:
     Cooked spaghetti

For a 3-Way, top with:
     Cheddar, grated

For a 4-Way, sprinkle on top of the cheese:
     Chopped onions

For a 5-Way, top all with:
     Cooked red kidney beans

Traditional sides include:
     Oyster crackers
     Louisiana-style Hot Sauce

For a Cheese Coney, place in a saucepan and simmer in water to cover for 5 minutes; or grill and broil until well seared, about 3 minutes each side; or slice lengthwise almost all the way through, open up to flatten, and cook in a teaspoon or two of butter in a skillet until browned, about 4 minutes each side:
     hot dogs or frankfurters
Meanwhile, toast:
     hot dog buns, split
If desired, season the buns with:
     (yellow mustard)
     (minced onion)
Place a hot dog in each bun and cover each with:
     2 tablespoons chili
     Shredded Cheddar cheese to taste
Season with:
     (Louisiana-style Hot Sauce)


Jill's picture

I just made this recipe. It was way too spicy to consume. i 4x it. So I have a giant pot of inedible slop. I had made this dish years ago and knew something was wrong. I went to another site and realized that YOU have a typo. Red pepper should be 1/2 tsp, not 11/2 tsp. I have company coming and nothing to feed them, not to mention the expense of 8 lbs of hamburger, etc. Thanks
john's picture

I'm so sorry to hear that our recipe disappointed you Jill. The amount listed here is not a typo, and this recipe first appeared in the book 20 years ago. The recipe was concocted by my father Ethan (a Cincinnatian) for a blind-tasted chili cook-off (he won). I have personally made it half a dozen times. It is not intended to be "spicy," and we have never thought of the result as such. What kind of ground pepper were you using? We definitely take your criticism seriously, and would like to clear up whatever happened.

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