Sexy Chili? Meet The Cincinatti 3-Way.

photo copyright Gregor Torrence 2009
Ahoy Foodies!

We had a cold snap recently, which is odd for August. While the rain was gushing down the window panes and the day turned from summer to blustery October in an instant, I started thinking about comfort food. So I turned to Mr. Tofu and asked him with a wicked smile if he would like a 3, 4 or even 5-way.

He was quite startled, until I explained to him that I was talkin’ chili. He had no idea what Cincinnati chili was. Since he wasn’t fortunate enough to be born in the Midwest, I explained Cincinnati chili’s wonderfulness:

It starts with thick, beef chili that is flavored with the BEST CHILI POWDER IN THE UNIVERSE, Gebhardt’s, plus unusual spices like cinnamon, unsweetened cocoa powder, and allspice. The resulting flavor is like tasting the best of Texas, Mykonos, and Coney Island all in one glorious, complex bite. The chili itself is nummy, but what really makes it fun is the “ways” it’s served. It’s always ladled over spaghetti, which makes it “one-way”. Put grated cheddar on the top and it’s a “two-way”. Onions on top of that and you’ve got a “three-way” (ooh-la-la). Oyster crackers over everything and it’s a “four-way”. Add beans and you’ve arrived at a “five-way”.

Aye, there’s the rub. Cincinnati chili doesn’t normally have beans in it, unless they are added as one of the garnishes. So when I made Cincinnati chili for Mr. Tofu, I cooked the beans in the base chili. Then I set aside some of that and simmered it in a separate pan. I added ground beef (or ground buffalo if I am feeling wild) to my portion. The two simmered at the same time and everybody was cozy, comfy, and happy, Mr. Tofu with his five-way, and me with my six-way, technically. Heck, you could add sour cream, avocado, Asian chili oil (I highly recommend this), or sardines to the top if you wanted to. If you come up with a recipe for Cincinnati chili 10-way, leave me a comment and tell me how you did it!

5 or 6-Way “Cincinnati” Chili
Serves 2 vegetarians and 4 omnivores

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped (2 1/4 cups), divided
3 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1 to 2 tablespoons chili powder (Gebhardt’s is best)
1 tablespoon ground cumin (is your cumin fresh? If you’ve had it forever, get a fresh batch)
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
2 14.5-ounce cans fire roasted tomatoes in puree (I use Muir Glen brand)
1 15-ounce can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 15-ounce can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup water
8 ounces ground beef
8 ounces spaghetti, cooked according to packet instructions
1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese
2 cups oyster crackers

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium high heat. Add the 1 1/2 cups of the onions and sauté until tender, 5 minutes. Add the garlic, chili powder, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, and cocoa powder and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Turn off the heat and add the tomatoes, beans, and water; stir to combine.

For the vegetarian, transfer 2 heaping cups of the chili to a small sauce pan. Bring to a simmer and cover.

Bring the chili in the large pot to simmer and cover. In a small non-stick pan over medium high heat, brown the ground beef, breaking it up with a spatula as it cooks. Drain meat (if necessary) and add it to the large pot.

Gently simmer both chilis, stirring occasionally, until the flavors have melded, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide pasta among 6 bowls. Top two of the bowls with vegetarian chili and the remaining bowls with beef chili. Top with chili, cheese, remaining onions, and oyster crackers.

13 Responses to Sexy Chili? Meet The Cincinatti 3-Way.

  1. Maggie August 18, 2009 at 4:58 PM #

    My folks grew up in Cleveland, so this is pretty similar to our family recipe. I love to add sliced green olives on top, too. Always impressed by your two-different-meals-at-once methods.

  2. danazia August 18, 2009 at 7:47 PM #

    Wow, 10 ways! I think you had me there! I love chili and have never had it Cincinnati way, that is for sure. (I don’t think I have even typed the word before, what a strange word!) My veggie daughter LOVES chili and I am going to try this recipe as soon as we get another cold spell. I have also heard that Gebhardts is the VERY best powdered chili, so I’ve got to try it. Where do you get it in Portland? Thanks for the great post, as usual.

  3. Ivy August 18, 2009 at 9:32 PM #

    You can find Gebhardt’s online and at the Safeway in the Pearl District. Not sure about any of the other locations. Be warned…it’s more expensive than your everyday chili powder. But VERY worth it.

  4. Sarah, Seattle August 19, 2009 at 4:52 PM #

    I grew up in Michigan but never tried Cincinnati chili. I guess it didn’t cross state lines or my dad’s hyper-limited taste buds kept it off our dining table (probably the latter). Thanks for the recipes—will definitely give it a whirl.

  5. Michael Natkin August 23, 2009 at 6:18 AM #

    I grew up in Louisville and was always kinda fascinated with the Cincy chili thing, and the “ways”. Never knew about the Gebhardt’s chili powder though, gotta try and find that up here in Seattle. I admire your determination to make great food for both you and Mr. T.

  6. Zupan's August 24, 2009 at 4:49 AM #

    We’ll take that chili anyway you dish it, as long as it ends up in front of our seat at the dinner table! 3-4-5-6-7-way. The more the merrier in this hearty method of eating our way into fall.

  7. Louisa September 3, 2009 at 4:58 PM #

    I too grew up in Louisville, which is down the street from Cinci. I wouldn’t have chili any other way! Must have noodles!!!!! When I don’t make it myself, Skyline Chili usually does the trick – that’s right, fast food chili.

  8. Annalisa January 7, 2010 at 11:51 PM #

    I grew up in San Diego, CA but I have heard of Cincinatti Chili but have never eaten/made it. Sounds yummy with the spaghetti! Two of my favs in one. My family only uses Gebhardt’s chili powder! I was so suprised but delighted to see that other people love it too! Dang, I need to make some chili for sure, this time, your way.

  9. Ivy January 9, 2010 at 12:12 AM #

    Heh Louisa
    We must trek up to Skyline sometime. I’ve heard tell, but have never gone. It’s so mysterious to me…

  10. Ivy January 9, 2010 at 12:13 AM #


    Gebhardt’s all the way! A Texan friend of mine told me about it. It’s pricey, but oh so worth it, yes?

  11. Kay Sunshine January 20, 2010 at 11:54 PM #

    I’m a Cincinnati native, and I love our chili. It’s different in the city than it is even in the rest of the Midwest- seems everyone is trying to change it in tiny ways. It’s certainly fantastic… also, try it over a hotdog/brat/any type of link on a bun with cheese on top. Cincinnati Coneys are the best.

  12. Ivy January 21, 2010 at 12:01 AM #

    Hi Kay

    Thanks for the comment! Especially since you’re a native, you’re very kind not to get fired up at my tiny changes. I’m not a native, but there’s a great place called the Chili Bowl in Milwaukee that serves Cinci chili that I adore. Good stuff!

  13. GMC Cincinnati April 2, 2012 at 6:00 PM #

    Since I am a native of Cincinnati, this post makes me very hungry. I think it’s great to modify the chili too according your taste; little tweaks makes it perfect.

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