Authentic Ragu alla Bolognese: Spaghetti Bolognese, only better!
My mother taught me how to cook … that’s how every cook’s story usually begins, and in my case it may also well be true. I certainly recall my mother trying to teach me the basics and insisting that I cooked every now and then. But while my mother may have taught me to cook, it was my father who taught me how to love to cook!
I remember so fondly those weekend evenings as a kid when my dad was on kitchen duty and spent hours meticulously cooking up one of his classic favorites or improvising something entirely new and exciting out of thin air all, probably, while enjoying a glass of red wine or a proper drink. It was fascinating and magical to watch, and the results were spectacular!
He claims I have long since surpassed him in skill, creativity and technique, but the truth is I wouldn’t be writing this today if it wasn’t for my father’s joy of and enthusiasm for cooking that has since rubbed onto me.
One of my dad’s classics, and an absolute favorite of mine growing up, was his spaghetti bolognese – or spaghetti with meat sauce as we (and the Americans) like to call it. I was a spectacularly lucky and spoiled kid when I got to eat heaps and heaps of this rich, delicious sauce on top a small mountain of spaghetti. I’d eat it all up hungrily ’till I was almost physically ill, and my dad would tell me off, all while probably loving every minute of it. I mean, why else would he try so hard to make it better and tastier every time and add little new twists from time to time in an effort to improve what was already perfect?
My dad’s bolognese is one of my earliest food memories, one of my all time favorite dishes and a dish that I have strived for many years to copy and perfect. For one reason or another, the relatively simple dish ignited a desire and purpose in me. A year-long desire to figure out the history, origin and perfect recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese… Or, should I say, Ragù alla Bolognese?
See, as delicious as the dish was, what neither my dad nor young Johan knew at the time was that my dad got it all wrong with this iconic dish: The sauce, the pasta, the pre-grated Parmesan we used to eat on top… Everything! Even the name was wrong! Spaghetti Bolognese. Bolognese or other meat sauce for that matter, would NEVER be served with spaghetti. It’s something the Brits invented and is punishable by DEATH in Italy (or so I hear!). Bolognese, because it’s a thick, creamy meat-based sauce should be served instead with a wider noodle such as tagliatelle which better allows the sauce to stick. Hence, the dish, if cooked correctly that is, should really be known as tagliatelle al Bolognese, or simply by it’s original and traditional name Ragù alla Bolognese (Ragout from Bologna)
That’s right, the Italians have different noodles for different sauces and they’re nothing if not traditional, so they get very passionate on this particular subject. They would probably have had my poor dad hung for what he did! But I still love him and his dish, so this post’s for you dad!
Authentic Ragù alla Bolognese
Ragù alla Bolognese, or simply ragù, is a rather simple slow-cooked stew consisting of meat, aromatic vegetables, herbs and dairy. That’s about as far as everybody can agree. Which vegetables to be added has been the source of some controversy, as has the meat: does one use pork, beef or lamb? Horse, I hear, was a popular choice in European supermarkets not too long ago. But one thing that really gets people fired up is the topic of tomatoes: how much should be added, if any at all? No, I’m not kidding, the original ragù apparently did not contain tomatoes, and traditionalist Italians can be a pretty loud and vocal bunch.
My ragù uses a bit of tomato, but not as much as you’d think. It also uses beef, and pork, and a couple of debatable ingredients. I still maintain that it’s a proper and largely authentic Ragù alla Bolognese, though because it stays true to tradition all while spicing it up a little, and let’s face it, there are a lot of supposedly authentic recipes for Ragú alla Bolognese:
A proper Ragù alla Bolognese is not only a work of art, it’s a food science, a labor of love and a religion. There are probably as many recipes for ragù out there as there are Italian mamas (and foodbloggers!), and years have been spent of people’s lives trying to perfect their recipes for ragu. I should know, I’ve been there.
“Hello, my name is Johan, I’m a food blogger and I’ve spent the last decade of my life trying to perfect Ragù alla Bolognese!”
In Search of Perfection: Just what is perfection?
There are a lot of opinions as to what constitutes the perfect Ragù alla Bolognese. One of the things I have actually tried in my own search for ragú perfection has been to copy star chef Heston Blumenthal’s now famous (and infamous) perfect bolognese recipe.
Doing so has been a lot of fun, a great challenge, and an exceedily rewarding finish… And it’s something that I thoroughly recommend for anyone who has an entire day to spend on a cooking project, doesn’t give two shits about washing a metric ton of pots and pans, and has a small fortune of available funds to spend on ingredients… No, really, I do, and I want to take that culinary journey again myself some time, and blog about it, but that’s an entirely different post! For the purpose of THIS post, perfection means something else entirely: speed, simplicity, quality ingredients and focus on a few simple techniques and hints that will elevate your Bolognese from a weeknight meal to a feast suitable for a weekend night.
This relatively down to earth version of Ragù alla Bolognese can be made over the course of a lazy Saturday afternoon with maybe a total of one hour of active cooking time. It dirties up exactly one pot, one pan, a cutting board, a knife and a wooden spoon or spatula. Yet thanks to some quality ingredients and a few measly little tips and tricks, it’ll taste like you spent an eternity slaving over pots and pans – and who’s to say you have to tell people that you didn’t. I mean, if they don’t ask? I won’t tell if you don’t tell!
Easy tips for a better bolognese
Right, let’s get down to business, shall we? Looking for a few easy tips for making a better Bolognese? Well, look no further. Before I post my own recipe for a perfectly simple and authentic Ragù alla Bolognese, here are a few tips for Bolognese perfection:
Some vegetables are meant for browning, some vegetables are meant for sweating: As you will soon see in the recipe below, we’ll use two different cooking techniques for the aromatic vegetables for our Ragù alla Bolognese. Some will be sweated over low heat to bring sweetness and depth, while others will be caramelized over high heat to provide color and other flavors by way of a little something called the Maillard reaction that we touched upon in a previous post. It’s an extra little step, but one that’s well worth it.
A happy cow is a tasty cow, especially when well browned: Promise me this. For your next Bolognese go out and get yourself a nice, fresh pound of the best, ground, organic free range beef you can get your hands on. Promise me you’ll pay that extra buck for the good stuff. And I, in return, promise you you won’t regret it. I’m not saying you have to become a born again health advocate or animal activist, I’m just saying it’s a much better choice. It’s not only good for you because the cow will have been spared a bunch of growth hormones and other scary shit, it also tastes better because the cow will have had a longer, happier more active life. Better taste = more flavor = better choice. If you get some nice, flavorful beef and brown it thoroughly during cooking, you can even get away with using less beef and still achieve a deep rich, meaty flavor and you won’t need to spike the sauce with large amounts of beef stock as you normally would. Really, try it, please.
A dry, oaked, white wine is the perfect wine for Bolognese: A Bolognese traditionally needs a good shot of wine. But white wine, really? Yes, really! Three Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal uses white wine in his Bolognese and if it’s good enough for Heston, it’s good enough for me! Seriously, though, a good, subtly oaked, white wine adds depth, sweetness, flavor and that inexplainable “winey-ness” to the sauce. Without the tannins, heavy oak and spice that its red cousins sometimes bring to the party. Try it, at least once. Oh, and yes, if you get a nice, full-flavored, oaked bottle of white wine, you can drink it with your Bolognese. In fact, if you haven’t tried it, you should! Go on, I dare you!
Heavy cream, it’s not a crime: A proper Ragù alla Bolognese calls for a bit of dairy. As you’ll soon see below, I like my bit of dairy to be a bit of heavy cream. It just makes sense. The dairy is added because the milk proteins bring their own funky flavors to the party, so technically we could just add skimmed milk. Fat, on the other hand, is a great provider and carrier of flavor, so adding something that actually has some fat in it is a pretty smart move. I know, heavy cream does sound scary and fatty, but it’s really not that bad! In this recipe, we’re using a total of 150 milliliters of cream for at pot that will feed at least four hungry people, that’s like… No cream at all per person. Go on, spoil yourself. And ladies, repeat after me: “A little cream does not make my ass look big, it makes my ass look sexy!” – good, moving on then!
Tomatoes, please, but sparingly: As I mentioned earlier, the topic of tomatoes in Bolognese is a subject of heated debate. Some flat out reject the addition of tomato, some allow for a little tomato paste to be added, some will allow for fresh or canned tomatoes as well, but in limited quantities. Everyone agrees that by the moment you’re adding meat to your tomato sauce rather than the other way around, you’re no longer making Bolognese. I use tomatoes in my bolognese. A teaspoon of concentrate and a 400 gram can of tomatoes, very well drained. A total of about 200 grams, that’s it. Oh, and I since I use very little, I use the good stuff, as should you.
Italian MSG and a few other secret weapons: Alright, I said I was going to make an authentic bolognese. And I will, more or less. If you want to go really authentic, skip this paragraph or pretend you didn’t read it. But here are a few things that I like to call necessary evils. They’re not entirely authentic but neither are they entirely unauthentic, and they do add that last bit of oomph and depth to the final product:
- Fish sauce: Anchovies are commonly referred to as Italian MSG because they, when used sparingly, transfer an extra umami-like depth to the dish – without making it at all fishy, by the way. A single anchovy fillet in a pot of bolognese would make a world of difference in terms of depth and flavor. If you’re fresh out of anchovies, don’t like anchovies, or wouldn’t know what to do with the rest of the jar, try a few shakes of fish sauce, it has much the same effect.
- Star anise: Star anise has a wonderful and magic ability to make meaty stews taste more, well, meaty. One of the best cooking tips I ever received was to add a single star anise pod to my stews while simmering. Try it next time, it makes a world of difference! But use it sparingly, though, while one pod transfers no noticeable anise flavor, it’s easy to go overboard and you really don’t want your stews tasting like licorice. Well, not this stew anyway.
- Garlic: One decidedly unauthentic ingredient in Bolognese is garlic, but I just love garlic, man, so I can’t help but add it! Bolognese is one dish, though, that I don’t want to have an overpowering garlic kick, so I use only a single clove and rather than mash it or chop it, I just give it a whack with the palm of my hand to break it open, then add it whole. I like to think it makes a difference.
- Hot sauce: If garlic was debatable, hot sauce is just plain wrong! Which is why we’re certainly not telling the Italians about this little addition! I add hot sauce more out of tradition than anything else, I’m sure, but I still feel it makes a difference. I use it sparingly, just a few shakes for an entire pot. I don’t want to taste the heat, I just want it to round off the flavors and give it’s own little edge to the dish. You can totally leave it out, but I like the extra little… Uhh… BAM!
Right, got all of that? Good! Let’s cook!
- One large shallot, finely diced
- One large carrot, finely diced
- 1-2 stalks of celery, finely diced
- Two medium to large onions cut into slivers
- One clove of garlic, roughly crushed (optional)
- 100 grams of Pancetta, finely chopped
- One pound of organic, free-range ground beef 8-15% fat content
- One 400 gram can of quality chopped, organic tomatoes, thoroughly drained (reserve the water that runs off, we might need it)
- One tablespoon of quality organic tomato paste
- 200 milliliters of dry, white wine
- 150 milliliters of heavy cream
- Two tablespoons of sherry vinegar
- One teaspoon of fish sauce
- A few dashes of hot sauce
- A splash of concentrated quality beef stock
- One bay leaf
- One star anise
- One tablespoon of dried basil
- One tablespoon of dried thyme
- One teaspoon of dried oregano
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Put a dutch oven or other heavy cast iron pot over low heat, add oil and Pancetta and gently warm through
- Add shallot, carrot, celery, garlic and a dash of salt. Cook over low heat stirring ever so often for about half an hour until soft and incredibly fragrant. Vegetables should sweat gently and not splatter or hiss. If you hear hissing, you're doing it wrong!
- When the aromatic veggies have been sweating for about half an hour, heat a cast iron pan with a tablespoon of oil over medium heat on another burner.
- When pan is hot, add the slivered onions along with a heavy pinch of salt and cook over medium heat stirring every now and then.
- At this point, remove beef from the refrigerator, unwrap and sprinkle generously with salt.
- Continue cooking onions until they're a well caramelized, dark brown, sticky mess. Probably about 15-20 minutes depending on your stove. Add the two tablespoons of sherry vinegar, stir briefly and dump the onions into the pot of still sweating vegetables, stir thoroughly to combine, and continue sweating everything together.
- Return cast iron pan to the burner, add a little more oil and raise heat to medium-high.
- When pan has come up to temperature, dump in the ground beef and just leave it there to brown. Do not move it around, break it up or any other such nonsense, that will only lower the heat of the pan. Leave it alone for a good few minutes.
- When meat has thoroughly browned on one side, carefully flip it over using a spoon or spatula, once again trying your best not to move it around too much or break it up. Leave to brown for another few minutes, THEN you can start breaking it up and getting it evenly brown all over, this might take another few minutes.
- Next, add the browned beef to the pot of sweating veggies, return the pan to the burner and dump in about half of the white wine. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a spatula or wooden spoon to get all the nice, caramelized bits of onion and beef loose. This is called deglazing and is a key trick for extra flavor.
- Once all brown bits have been loosened, dump what remains of the wine along with the pan scrapings into the pot of Bolognese to be and get rid of the pan.
- Raise heat under Bolognese pot to medium, add basil, oregano, thyme and quite a few generous grinds of black pepper. Stir and bring to a simmer.
- Once pot is simmering, add tomato paste, chopped tomatoes, cream, fish sauce, hot sauce, concentrated beef stock, remaining wine, bay leaf and star anise.
- Stir to combine, cover pot with a lid and simmer over low heat for at least an hour.
- After an hour is up, remove lid, stir again and simmer uncovered for at least another hour.
- If too much moisture evaporates during the final stage of cooking, you can replace it with either the liquid drained from the tomatoes or a little more white wine.
- Important note: Do not add too much liquid! Final texture should be thick and creamy. Add just enough to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning.
- How will you know when burning is about to occur? Stir regularly when simmering uncovered, if at any point things feel like they're about to stick, add a bit of liquid then stir again.
- When you can't stand to simmer things any longer, remove the bay leaf and the star anise, give your bolognese a taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
- If flavor is too rich, add a dash or two of sherry vinegar. If it is, on the other hand, too acidic, add a bit of sugar or some (Heinz) tomato ketchup.
- Remove from heat and serve over freshly cooked pasta with a generous grating of quality Parmesan cheese.
And there you have it, folks, (almost) authentic Ragù alla Bolognese made relatively easy in a relatively short time. Quite honestly, given the time an energy I have poured into Bolognese over the years, I was actually surprised by how great and flavorful this version was. No doubt versions from the likes of Heston Blumenthal that have about a thousand steps and simmers for about a day will be a lot more complex and flavorful, but for something that’s whipped together in an afternoon with relative ease, I was very, very pleased with this version. I hope you’ll give it a try and enjoy!
Bonus info: How to pick and cook the perfect pasta!
When selecting a pasta for Ragù alla Bolognese, first and foremost go by shape. Pick a wide and thin variety that will help the sauce really stick to the pasta. Tagliatelle is the traditional choice, but fettucini and pappardelle are also very acceptable. If you prefer shorter pasta, tube shapes such as rigatoni or penne are good choices as well.
Do not naturally assume that fresh pasta is better than dried pasta. We’ve been over this before in previous posts, but again: fresh is not always better! There are a lot of really poor fresh pastas out there, and some really good dried ones. Aim for something that looks genuinely Italian and appealing, both in packaging and in texture. Quality pasta should look a little rough around the edges and not overly smooth. You can generally assume that an expensive pasta is a better pasta, but there is such a thing as brand value even in the pasta world, if it’s covered with stickers and logos claiming it Italy’s finest, you can generally assume that it’s not!
I personally usually go for pasta with egg in it, I like the extra creaminess and texture that it adds to the pasta and to the final dish. Aim for about 20% egg content if you can. I also look for the words bronze-cut somewhere on the packaging because bronze-cut pasta, while more expensive to produce, has much better texture than other pastas which helps the sauce stick better and create an even better final product. I don’t eat a lot of pasta, really, so I don’t mind paying extra for a superior product.
Final piece of advice: If you’re hell bent on getting good pasta, but at a total loss, go to a specialty store. They’ll hook you up!
Cooking pasta perfectly every time
Got your pasta? Good! Now then, here’s how to cook it! You’d think I wouldn’t have to write this, but I’ve seen some pretty interesting attempts of cooking pasta over the years, and a lot of people have actually asked me how to properly cook pasta, so there you go. Here’s how the Italians do it:
Grab the needed amount of pasta. I’d suggest somewhere in the general area of 100 grams per diner. If you’re not using an entire package, weigh it to make sure how much you’ve got.
Then grab a large pot, probably larger than you think you need, and add one liter of cold water per 100 grams of pasta. Yes, that is indeed a lot of water, but we want the pasta to be able to move around freely instead of clumping together during cooking.
To the water, add 7 grams of salt per liter of water. And yes, that’s a lot of salt, but pasta – like bread – needs salt, and lots of it. Don’t worry, only a fraction of the salt in the water actually gets absorbed by the pasta. Pastawater should taste like seawater.
Resist the urge to add oil to the cooking water and rather just bring it to a rolling boil. Once a rolling boil has been achieved, dump in pasta, stir immediately to prevent sticking and let the pot come back to a boil. Cook the pasta for, oh, umm…
I’d love to give you a time here, but it really depends on the pasta, the humidity, the phase of the moon, all sorts of things… As a general rule, I’d say 2-3 minutes for fresh pasta, and anywhere from 7 to 12 minutes for dried pasta. Check the package for a general guideline and use your teeth to test the pasta once you get close to the numbers on the package. Once the pasta gives way easily to your teeth but still have the faintest bite left to it, it’s done.
And by done I mean ready to serve! At this point your sauce should be standing by ready to go. Better to have your sauce waiting on your pasta than your pasta waiting on your sauce. Drain pasta, do not rinse, transfer to plates and dress with sauce, cheese or whatever else you’re using, then serve immediately!
And that’s all there is to it, folks. It may seem complicated with all this info in one go, but go on, go back, have a look at it again and you’ll see that it’s really not that difficult to make an almost authentic Ragù alla Bolognese at home. You will, however, be happy that you did…
Now, to go on and make it complicated… But that, as they say, is another post…