Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili

Whether they are from Queen City or have never been to a chili shop, folks from all across North America have left comments about how they prepare their version of our Cincinnati chili, which has become an obsession.

One of my favorite comfort foods is Cincinnati chili, which can be easily made vegan by substituting the beef with lentils and mushrooms. This inexpensive, somewhat wholesome meal makes a ton of leftovers. For a supper that will stick to your ribs and make you smile, serve it over spaghetti. We’re talking now!

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 Vegetarian AND 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). Vegans can go cheeseless and this 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 Cincinnati Chili Served over a Platter of Pasta and Topped with Cheese and Onions

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 (6ounce) can tomato paste
  • 5 cups water
  • 1 (8ounce) 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

For serving

  • Oyster crackers
  • Finely shredded plant-based cheddar
  • Minced yellow onion
  • Hot cooked spaghetti


What is Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili?

Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili is a meatless version of the classic Cincinnati-style chili, which is characterized by its unique blend of spices and served over spaghetti. This vegetarian version replaces the ground meat with plant-based alternatives while retaining the distinctive flavors of traditional Cincinnati chili.

How do I make Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili?

To make Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili, start by sautéing onions, bell peppers, and garlic in a large pot until softened. Then, add vegetarian ground meat substitute (such as textured vegetable protein or plant-based crumbles) and cook until browned. Next, add tomato sauce, vegetable broth, and a blend of spices, including chili powder, cinnamon, cocoa powder, cumin, allspice, and cloves. Simmer the chili for about 30-45 minutes to allow the flavors to meld together. Serve the chili over cooked spaghetti and top with traditional Cincinnati-style toppings such as shredded cheese, chopped onions, and kidney beans.

What ingredients are needed for Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili?

The main ingredients for Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili include:

    • Vegetarian ground meat substitute (such as textured vegetable protein or plant-based crumbles)
    • Onion
    • Bell pepper
    • Garlic
    • Tomato sauce
    • Vegetable broth
    • Chili powder
    • Cinnamon
    • Cocoa powder
    • Cumin
    • Allspice
    • Cloves
    • Salt and pepper Optional toppings and accompaniments include cooked spaghetti, shredded cheese, chopped onions, kidney beans, oyster crackers, and hot sauce.

Can I customize Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili?

Yes, Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili is highly customizable based on personal preferences and dietary restrictions. You can adjust the level of spiciness by increasing or decreasing the amount of chili powder and other spices. Additionally, you can add extra vegetables such as diced tomatoes, corn, or mushrooms to enhance the flavor and texture of the chili. Feel free to experiment with different types of vegetarian ground meat substitutes or even incorporate beans like kidney beans or black beans for added protein and fiber.

Is Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili suitable for meal prep?

Yes, Vegetarian Cincinnati Chili is suitable for meal prep and can be made ahead of time. Once cooked, allow the chili to cool completely before transferring it to an airtight container. Store the chili in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days or freeze it for longer storage. When ready to eat, reheat the chili on the stovetop or in the microwave until heated through, and serve it with your favorite toppings and accompaniments.



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