Our Cincinnati chili recipe has a life of its own, with people all over North America sharing comments about how they make theirs–whether they are Queen City natives or have never set foot in a chili parlor before.
Cincinnati chili is one of my favorite comfort foods, and it’s easily veganized in this version with lentils and mushrooms standing in for the meat. It’s a reasonably healthful budget recipe with tons of leftovers. Serve it over spaghetti for a dinner that’ll stick to your ribs and leave you smiling. Now we’re talkin’!
What Makes Cincinnati Chili Special?
In a word, meat and spices. Traditional Cincinnati chili is made with lots of ground beef and has no beans in the chili, though they are occasionally served on top. As for the spices, they go beyond chili powder and cumin, including allspice, cinnamon, and cloves. The combination of spices reflects the Greek and Macedonian background of the owners running the working-class diners where this highly regional recipe originated in the 1920s.
This version stacks up admirably against its meaty predecessors. Cincinnati-based food historian Dan Woellert wrote a whole book called The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili that’ll give you the inside scoop if you really want to know more.
Making It Vegan
To replace the beef, a mix of minced mushrooms and hearty lentils provides substance and flavor. You’ll also want to make sure your obligatory splash of Worcestershire sauce is vegan—many brands contain anchovies.
For many, shredded cheese is an important topping (see more below). You can go cheeseless and this vegan chili will still be delicious, but if you go with plant-based cheddar, get the finest shreds you can for maximum authenticity. The thin strands of cheese melt yieldingly into the chili, mitigating the heavy-handedness of the spices. As far as vegan shreds go, I find Kroger’s Simple Truth Plant-Based Cheddar Style Shreds to be the closest thing.
Now all we need is to develop a vegan goetta recipe and we’ll have all our bases covered.
The “Ways” of Cincinnati Chili
If you walk into a chili parlor (as those in Cincinnati refer to independent restaurants that serve this chili), you’ll see combinations referred to as “ways.” Set toppings out when you serve your chili and, as Fleetwood Mac might say, you can go your own way.
- 2-Way: Chili + spaghetti
- 3-Way: Chili + spaghetti + finely shredded cheddar cheese
- 4-Way: Chili + spaghetti + diced onions + finely shredded cheddar cheese
- 5-Way: Chili + spaghetti + red kidney beans + diced onions + finely shredded cheddar cheese
Other Ideas for Serving Cincinnati Chili
Cincinnatians have major opinions about their chili, but they also often approve of getting creative. Besides, chili police only exist in internet comments.
- A Coney dog is chili over a hot dog with onions and cheese. Use your favorite plant-based hot dog and vegan cheddar shreds.
- Wrap it in a burrito, which is not unheard of, as Cincinnati’s famous Skyline Chili has “chilitos” on its menu at all times.
- Top a baked potato.
- Make Cincinnati chili cheese fries.
- Fill a chili-cheese omelet. Since eggs are not vegan, you can use a scramble-able egg replacer like Just Eggs.
Vegan Beans and Lentils Galore
Vegan Cincinnati Chili
Most mainstream Worcestershire sauces contain anchovies and are not vegan. Check the label to make sure it’s vegan. For an easy substitute, use soy sauce spiked with a little molasses.
Kidney beans are served on the chili as part of a 5-Way in Cincinnati, but I prefer to skip that topping, since the lentils in this chili contribute plenty of legume power on their own.
To use plant-based ground meat, such as Beyond Beef or Impossible Burger, omit the mushrooms and lentils. Use 24 ounces of plant-based meat crumbles, adding them in Step 2.
For the chili
16 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
5 cups water
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 large yellow onion, minced (about 3 cups)
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons vegan Worcestershire sauce (see recipe note)
1 1/2 cups brown or green lentils (preferably French green lentils du Puy; do not use red lentils)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 ounce chopped unsweetened chocolate, optional
Finely shredded plant-based cheddar
Minced yellow onion
Hot cooked spaghetti
Mince the mushrooms:
In two batches, pulse the mushrooms in a food processor until they are finely minced. Be mindful not to go too far, or they’ll turn to mush. Alternatively, you may grind the mushrooms in a food grinder or mince them by hand with a knife and cutting board. Set the mushrooms aside.
Cook the tomato paste:
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the tomato paste to the dry pot and cook, constantly scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, until the tomato smells rich and toasty, and you start to see browned, but not burned patches in the bottom of the pot. This should take 1 to 3 minutes.
Add the spices, lentils, and mushrooms:
Add the water, which will help keep the tomato paste from scorching. Stir well, scraping the bottom to free any stuck-on paste.
Add the tomato sauce, onion, garlic, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, cayenne pepper, salt, Worcestershire sauce, lentils, and minced mushrooms. Mix them together into a sludge.
Cook for at least 1 hour:
Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.
Reduce the heat and continue to gently simmer, uncovered, until the lentils are tender but not falling apart. How long this will take will depend on the type and age of the lentils you are using.
Stir the chili often. You want the volume to reduce, but add water if needed so the lentils can cook through. When the chili reaches its ideal consistency, there will be bubbles slowly gurgling up like lava, and a spoon will leave a trail when you drag it through the chili.
Once the lentils are cooked, you can keep the chili cooking on the lowest heat possible for another hour or so to help the flavors meld.
Add the vinegar and chocolate:
Add the vinegar and chocolate, if using. Let sit for 10 minutes, then taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
The chocolate is not a traditional ingredient, but in this vegan version I like the small amount of fat and earthiness it adds.
Pulse with an immersion blender:
To break up the lentils and get a more convincing Cincinnati chili texture, stick an immersion blender in the pot and pulse it a few times.
Serve as desired: over spaghetti, over a Coney dog, or in a bowl. Top with the combo of toppings that speaks to you.
Vegan Cincinnati chili will keep refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 1 year.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 2g||3%|
|Saturated Fat 1g||4%|
|Total Carbohydrate 28g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 7g||27%|
|Total Sugars 10g|
|Vitamin C 13mg||66%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|