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 is time-consuming but not really all that difficult: you begin, as with so many sauces, with a soffritto of finely chopped onion, celery, carrot (one each) and pancetta (a small piece, perhaps 100g) sautéed 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 ulitmate success of the dish.
Once your soffritto is done, add 1 kilo (2 lbs.) of chopped beef, or (my preference) a mixture of equal parts chopped beef and chopped pork, and allow the meat(s) to slowly insaporire (absorb the flavor of the soffritto) as you constantly stir 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 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.
Ragù alla bolognese 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!