Bolognese Sauce

Ragù alla bolognese (Bolognese Sauce)

In Emilia-Romagna, pasta, sauces by Frank18 Comments

One of the most famous sauces in all of Italian cookery, ragù alla bolognese—known in English as Bolognese Sauce—is one of those archetypical sauces simmering for hours and hours on the back of the stove that so many people associate with Italian cooking. It is the northern equivalent of that other famous ragù from Naples that became the ‘Sunday sauce‘ of Italian-Americans.

The recipe for Bolognese Sauce is time-consuming but not really all that difficult, requiring patience as you add ingredients by turns, beginning with a classic flavor base, or soffritto, with each turn lending another layer of flavor, followed by long, gentle simmer. The resulting elixir, I’m sure you will agree once you try it, is worth all the time and effort you put it.

Ingredients

For the soffritto:

  • 1 large sweet yellow onion
  • 1-2 medium carrots
  • 1-2 stalks of celery
  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) pancetta
  • 2 Tbs. butter mixed with 2 Tbs. oil

followed by:

  • 1 kilo (2 lbs.) ground beef, or a mixture of equal parts ground beef and pork
  • 100 ml (1/2 cup) milk
  • 100 ml (1/2 cup) red or white wine
  • 540g (14 oz) puréed tomatoes

Directions

You begin, as with so many sauces, with a soffritto: Finely chop the onion, celery, carrot and pancetta together (you can use of food processor if you like but use the pulse function and make sure not to go too fine). Sauté these chopped ingredients very gently in olive oil and butter until soft and sweet. Take your time as this step as developing the full flavor of the soffritto is critically important to the ultimate success of the dish.

Once your soffritto is done, add the ground meat(s) and allow them to slowly insaporire (absorb the flavor of the soffritto). Stir constantly so that the meat(s) and the soffritto are throughly mixed and the chopped meat does not clump together.

As soon as the meat loses its raw color—it should not caramelize at all—add a bit of milk and allow it to evaporate. Then add a splash of wine (some recipes call for white, others for red—personally I prefer white) and allow it to evaporate as well.

Then add tomato purée (many recipes call for tomato paste diluted in water or broth), mix well and allow the sauce to simmer, partially covered, over very gently heat (a small bubble should appear at the surface of the sauce every so often) for at least 2 hours. I actually find that 2 hours is not nearly enough to fully develop flavor: 4 or even 6 hours is more like it. But other than giving the sauce a stir every once and a while, you can more or less forget about the sauce and go about your business. And you can turn the heat off and resume simmering at any time. Personally, I find that the sauce is best when made the evening before you want to use it—something about the overnight ‘rest’ that really gives a ragù (like a lot of slow simmered dishes) incredible depth of flavor.

Notes

The best cooking vessel by far for a ragù is a terracotta pot. But if you don’t have one, then an enameled cast iron Dutch oven will do quite well. Although I don’t own one, I have to imagine that this sauce was just made for a slow-cooker or crock pot. Whichever pot you use, it should preferably be rather taller than it is wide, to avoid excess evaporation during the long simmering. If need be, you can always add a bit or water or light broth to thin out the sauce if it reduces too much.

The recipe above is my personal favorite version (not my invention, but my personal choice among the various authentic recipes I’ve studied). The ‘official’ version—to the extent there is one—would probably be the one registered with the Accademia della Cucina Italiana in 1982 by the Bolognese delegation of the Academy and featured in the Cucina del Bel Paese. It includes the same soffritto as indicated above, and uses only chopped beef (no pork), red wine (not white) and tomato paste (not puréed tomatoes). The use of milk or cream is optional.

Some recipes call for finishing off the sauce with an enrichment of milk or cream, but I find that this tends to mask the meaty flavor that I personally think is the ‘essence’ of this sauce. Other recipes will have you add some reconstituted dried mushrooms or chopped chicken liver—either of which would make an appealing occasional variant but not one that I would recommend as standard practice. Some recipes call for a ladleful of stock or broth to simmer along with the tomatoes, which I like (so long as it is not too strong, or it will unbalance the flavors). And some recipes call for a bit of nutmeg.

The amount of tomato you should add to the meat base seems to vary from recipe to recipe. Some call for adding a whole large can for a very tomato-y end product. Personally, however, I find that just enough tomato to tinge the sauce a bit red (say half a large can or a small can) is quite enough. This is a meat sauce, after all, not a meat-flavored tomato sauce. If using canned whole tomatoes, pass them through a food mill to ensure a smooth consistency.

The meat(s) you use for the sauce should not be too lean. The beef cut known as ‘chuck’ in North America is probably your best choice and shoulder your best choice for the pork if you’re using it. Lean meats do not stand up to slow simmering and generally lack taste. And you need to fat to add a certain unctuousness to the sauce. Some recipes will call for veal, and I also like to include veal sometimes—it gives the sauce a slightly ‘lighter’ flavor.

Please avoid the many inauthentic variations of Bolognese Sauce you can find floating around the internet: some call for oregano (why do some people think every Italian dish needs oregano in it!?!?) or hot peppers, neither of which are at all characteristic of this sauce or the cooking of Bologna more generally. Ditto for bell peppers, fresh mushrooms, cooked ham, garlic, basil, thyme or any of the other myriad superfluous ingredients that detract rather than add to the result.

Bolognese Sauce has many uses: it is essential for making ‘Northern style’ lasagne or pasta al forno, and it is wonderful simply served with tagliatelle or tortellini. One thing that you will never see, however, in Italian cooking: is ragù alla bolognese on top of spaghetti. It’s a combination to avoid, not only because it is inauthentic, but it just doesn’t ‘work’. The spaghetti does not ‘hold’ a chunky sauce like this very well, so you wind up with lots of sauce at the bottom of your bowl instead of in your mouth!

Ragù alla bolognese (Bolognese Sauce)

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours

Total Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: One large batch of sauce

Ragù alla bolognese (Bolognese Sauce)

Ingredients

    For the soffritto:
  • 1 large sweet yellow onion
  • 1-2 medium carrots
  • 1-2 stalks of celery
  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) pancetta
  • 2 Tbs. butter mixed with 2 Tbs. oil
  • followed by:
  • 1 kilo (2 lbs.) ground beef, or a mixture of equal parts ground beef and pork
  • 100 ml (1/2 cup) milk
  • 100 ml (1/2 cup) red or white wine
  • 540g (14 oz) puréed tomatoes

Directions

  1. Finely chop the onion, celery, carrot and pancetta together (you can use of food processor if you like but use the pulse function and make sure not to go too fine). Sauté these chopped ingredients very gently in olive oil and butter until soft and sweet. Take your time as this step as developing the full flavor of the soffritto is critically important to the ultimate success of the dish.
  2. Once your soffritto is done, add the ground meat(s) and allow them to slowly insaporire (absorb the flavor of the soffritto). Stir constantly so that the meat(s) and the soffritto are throughly mixed and the chopped meat does not clump together.
  3. As soon as the meat loses its raw color—it should not caramelize at all—add a bit of milk and allow it to evaporate. Then add a splash of wine (some recipes call for white, others for red—personally I prefer white) and allow it to evaporate as well.
  4. Then add tomato purée (many recipes call for tomato paste diluted in water or broth), mix well and allow the sauce to simmer, partially covered, over very gently heat (a small bubble should appear at the surface of the sauce every so often) for at least 2 hours. I actually find that 2 hours is not nearly enough to fully develop flavor: 4 or even 6 hours is more like it.
http://memoriediangelina.com/2009/12/13/ragu-alla-bolognese/

Comments

  1. Pingback: Gnocchi alla romana (Roman Semolina Gnocchi) | Memorie di Angelina

  2. Hallelujah! Finally a Bolognese recipe without garlic because as I was taught in Naples this dish just won’t taste right with it, simple as that. Another pointer was to salt the meat before you brown it, otherwise it ends up tasting “dead”. I suppose that part is achieved here by adding pancetta to the soffritto, one trick they didn’t mention. Next time I’ll try with my homemade salt pork. I think it also needs black pepper, but no other spices

    Now if you want to make your Bolognese taste like every Italian dish you can think of all rolled into one then you can add all that other stuff, but letting the flavor of a few basic ingredients shine through is a much better idea. Italians eat a lot of pasta, if they put all the same ingredients in every sauce then every meal would taste pretty much the same, which would have gotten very old a long time ago, that’s why they don’t do it.

  3. Pingback: "Io teng' no segreto, You now che o' ragù lo puoi fare con la salsa bbq?" .... La cucina Italo-Americana | ieri & oggi in cucina

  4. Fantastic recipe! I was never a huge fan of Bolognese until I visited Bologna. When I got home, I had to have more. I threw in a rind of Parmesan because I had some rinds left from the copious amounts of cheese I bought.

  5. A bit of a late-coming post, but I wanted to share…
    After years of experimenting with different recipes for ragu alla bolognese I finally decided to go for the traditional recipe (the above recipe,sanity-checked against a few other Italian culinary sites – not too difficult to read recipes when you have a not-too-bad Italian culinary vocabulary and speak another Latin-originate language) and I must say that I was extremely satisfied with the result…of course as most cooks I introduced my own heresies but I think that bay leaf and a finely chopped red pimento will not make me an outcast…
    A few details I have noted however: smoked bacon is a a bit of brutal substitute for pancetta – lacks the mellowness (I prefer to omit it if I can’t get proper pancetta) and ground pork in addition to beef and/or veal is mandatory in my books. Ground veal alone can work (with a proper amount of fat content) but pure beef renders a boiled meat flavour – yuck.

    Thank you Frank for showing me the way…

    My 0.02 €

    Susan

    1. Author

      Never too late, Susan! I love getting comments on my older posts—it means they’re still being read, which is what I very much want.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Susan. I fully agree with the observation about smoked bacon, the smokiness would totally overwhelm the other flavors.

  6. Love this recipe. Was very easy and simple. The only addition I made was to add sliced garlic in with the soffritto. Delicious.

  7. Hi there, great recipe but I have a few questions, I want to make beef stock from scratch, what recipe should I follow to make the stock? Should I mix some of the broth with the tomato paste or just stir in the paste as it is? Is it worth adding chicken livers, I don’t like liver but I’ve heard lots of people said you can hardly notice it and it tastes better, is this true to you? My final question is if I make the ragu then leave the sauce for 6 hours without the heat on the cooker will it still have the same depth of flavour then if I was to leave the cooker on simmer for 6 hours when I come back to heat it again? Thank you :))

    1. Andrew, I have a broth recipe on this site if you want to check it out:

      http://memoriediangelina.com/2009/11/25/how-to-make-broth

      Or just enter “how to make broth” in the search bar.

      I don’t use the liver myself, although it is a common addition to ragù alla bolognese, so I can’t really comment. It may well be that, like cooking with anchovies, the flavor subsides and you’re left only with a subtle ‘something’ that you can’t identify. If you have an aversion to liver, however, I don’t see the need for it. The ‘official’ versions do not include it.

      Ditto for cooking for 12 hours. I haven’t gone beyond 6 hours myself, although I do notice that the flavor deepens as you cook the sauce longer. There there’s a point of diminishing returns, I’m not sure as I’ve never reached it. Whether it’s worth the extra time is another matter. A six hour ragù is full of flavor, as good as any I’ve tried.

  8. Living in Emilia-Romagna at the moment, I asked the locals in Modena for the original Bolognese recipe. The first reaction was to correct me, most firmly, on the use of the term bolognese. It is called ragu lol Then I was told to simply cook the meat with some tomato paste. No addition of milk or wine. No beef, just minced veal and pork. Personally I prefer you recipe and that is also the one I have always cooked, i.e. with wine and milk. I have drastically reduced the amount of tomatoes I used to use and that does it make the sauce much richer. It goes to show that even in the birthplace of ragu bolognese, everyone has a different version!

  9. @lostpastremembered: Hard to tell what might have happened. The taste should only get better the longer you cook it. A guess: what cut of meat did you use? It may have been a cut that was too lean and so would not stand up to a long cooking period. Chuck–and not too lean–is probably the best cut for the job.

  10. Frank, I made the 6 hour ragu once and although it smelled divine, it tasted like dog food… all the flavor had left the meat. Any suggestions?

    Your lasagna looks like heaven!!!!

  11. Thanks, friends! Glad you like the recipe.

    @Tien, do try the recipe but I can't take credit for the recipe–I'm just reporting on THE recipe for the sauce as handed down by centuries of tradition. No creativity on my part here…

  12. We were in the north of Italy a couple of years ago and once we were offered ragú with our pasta at a restaurant… we had to ask what that was, we only knew it as bolognese… But now we're wiser 😉

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