Last year, my seasonal craving for ragu Bolognese — the famous long-simmered meat sauce from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region — failed to move on once the weather warmed up. Instead, it mushroomed into an obsession.
Once we had everything chopped and ground and browned and simmering on the stove (for five to seven hours!) we rolled out and cut tagliatelle by hand — leaving the pasta machine in the cupboard, as Funke has evangelized.
That night, we sat with friends around the table to enjoy what we had wrought. The ragu was so spectacularly delicious — and so rich, no one could entertain the idea of seconds.
Before Extreme Bolognese weekend, when the ragu craving struck, I’d usually improvise one, or turn to Marcella Hazan’s famous version from “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” or one of Lidia Bastianich’s three iterations in “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine.”
Now a burning (nay, simmering!) question gripped me: What is the very best Bolognese recipe of them all? I would cook my way around in search of an answer.
What defines ragu Bolognese? That depends on whether you rely on history (Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 recipe), consult the Accademia Italiana della Cucina’s official 1982 recipe, or go by what Bologna’s famous cooking schools teach students — including Funke, who learned his ragu from Alessandra Spisni, maestra of La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese.
What the three definitions have in common is that ragu Bolognese is a simmered sauce made with ground meat, plus carrots, onion and celery (collectively known as soffritto) browned in fat, and usually broth or stock. Tomatoes were not originally included. In terms of meats, Artusi called for veal and a little pancetta, while the Accademia calls for beef and pancetta. Artusi did not specify a cooking time, but very long simmering is a requirement: The Accademia called for two hours after the meat browns; many other recipes call for three hours or more.
These days, most respected versions call for ground beef and often pork, plus pancetta. All begin with some combination of olive oil, butter and/or pancetta or other pork fat. All call for soffritto and tomato, and two or three of the following: wine, stock and milk.
I zeroed in on recipes. Hazan’s and Funke’s had to be included. I also wanted to try the two traditional recipes in Bastianich’s book. Thomas McNaughton’s recipe seemed worth a try: He’s the renowned chef of Flour + Water in San Francisco, profoundly inspired by time he spent in Bologna. And Domenica Marchetti’s recipe from The Washington Post beckoned seductively.
Over two months, I cooked each, eating and assessing half on the evening it was cooked, and freezing the other half.
Straight from the stove, I loved them all. The two richest — Funke’s and Marchetti’s — made the strongest impression. Marchetti’s was sumptuous, with deep flavor achieved by super-slow, long browning of the meat. I tasted it just before adding the unusual finish — cream and julienned mortadella — and swooned. I liked the flourishes, but ultimately found them gratuitous. McNaughton’s, which hasn’t gotten much buzz in recipe circles, was a sleeper hit — not striking, but classic-tasting and very good. Of the two Bastianich entries, we all preferred the one with wine, which was profoundly flavorful but not overly rich.
Hazan’s was familiar and delicious to us all, but the top choice only for my son’s girlfriend. It was the only ragu with just beef, and no pork or stock. It was the sole recipe in which the soffritto wasn’t finely chopped, so the vegetables didn’t melt into the sauce as they did with the others. It was also strikingly more tomatoey and carroty, brighter in flavor, but less deep.
I considered my three favorites: Marchetti’s, Bastianich’s and McNaughton’s. I couldn’t single out one as best; there was something I’d tweak in each. So I stepped back, put my notes in a spreadsheet (to the amusement of my cellmates — er, family), and created my own recipe.
Here’s what I’d learned:
- Ragu Bolognese is best eaten the day it is made. Despite what many cookbook authors say, it loses vivacity in the freezer.
- White wine is a must. Its pleasant acid lifts the ragu’s flavor, while red wine’s tannins weigh it down.
- I prefer milk simmered into the sauce to cream added at the end.
- Tomatoes (crushed, milled or pureed) in the proportion of about a cup to two pounds of ground meat, plus a little paste for additional umami, are ideal.
- Long, slow browning adds valuable depth. I preferred Marchetti’s simple approach to Bastianich’s, which required close attention for 45 minutes.
- Butter tastes more at home than olive oil for starting the soffritto. Homemade beef broth (which Marchetti calls for) makes excellent ragu, but I didn’t find enough difference between it and good-quality purchased chicken stock.
- A couple nonuniversal touches add something worthwhile: garlic (which I found only in the Bastianich recipe, and which would no doubt be ridiculed in Bologna) and nutmeg.
Expecting a revolt when I told my family another ragu would soon come their way, I got cheers.
Lips smacking, forks twirling, grated Parmesan fluttering, they gave the new recipe their unanimous approval.
Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.
- 4 ounces pancetta, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 3 large garlic cloves
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1 medium yellow onion (8 to 9 ounces), very finely chopped
- 1 medium carrot (4 to 5 ounces), very finely chopped
- 1 large or 2 smaller celery stalks with tender leaves, if any (about 3 ounces), very finely chopped
- 1 pound ground beef (80/20, ideally grass-fed)
- 1 pound ground pork (ideally pasture-raised)
- 3 cups chicken broth or beef stock
- 1 cup dry white wine, such as pinot grigio
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 pinch grated nutmeg
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup tomato puree (such as Pomi brand) or canned whole San Marzano tomatoes and juices, passed through a food mill or pureed in a food processor or blender
- Freshly ground black pepper
In a mini food processor, combine the pancetta and garlic, pulse a few times to break up the pieces, then process until it becomes a smooth paste.
Scrape the paste into a large, wide Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, along with 2 tablespoons of the butter. Melt them together over medium heat, spreading the paste around with a wooden spoon so the pancetta fat begins to render. Cook until the fat is mostly rendered, about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the onion, carrot and celery — the soffritto — and cook slowly over medium-low heat, stirring frequently enough so the soffritto doesn’t brown — until the onion is soft, translucent and pale gold, about 15 minutes.
Add the ground beef and pork to the pot, increase the heat to medium, and break up the meat with a wooden spoon as much as possible. Once the meat starts to faintly sizzle, reduce the heat to medium-low. Let the meat brown slowly, stirring occasionally and continuing to break up any remaining clumps, for about 1 hour, until evenly browned and burnished.
When the meat is nearly done browning, in a medium saucepan over high heat, heat the broth until simmering; cover and keep hot over low heat until ready to use.
Increase the heat under the browned meat to medium-high and stir in the wine, scraping up any browned bits or deposits on the bottom of the pan. Cook and stir until the wine is mostly soaked in and evaporated, about 3 minutes. Stir in the salt and nutmeg, reduce the heat to medium-low and add the milk, cooking and stirring until it is barely visible, about 3 minutes.
Measure 2 cups of the hot broth and dissolve the tomato paste in it. Stir the broth with paste into the meat sauce, then stir in the tomato puree. (Keep the unused broth handy in the pot in case you need to reheat it and add more to the sauce later.) Partially cover the pot and let the sauce simmer slowly and gently, stirring occasionally, until it is thick and all the components begin to melt together, about 2 hours.
Stir the sauce — if it looks at all dry, reheat the remaining broth, ladle in a little more, about 1/2 cup, and stir. Continue to simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally and adding a little more broth or water as needed to keep the sauce sumptuously saucy, until the vegetables have completely melted into the sauce, about 1 hour.
Cut the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter into a few pieces and stir them into the sauce; add about 20 grinds of black pepper and stir that in, too. Taste, and season with more salt and/or pepper, if desired.
(Based on 12 servings; about 1/2 cup of sauce)
Calories: 336; Total Fat: 25 g; Saturated Fat: 11 g; Cholesterol: 77 mg; Sodium: 593 mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 4 g; Protein: 16 g.
Recipe from Leslie Brenner, former Dallas Morning News restaurant critic and former food editor of the Los Angeles Times. Brenner is the founder of Cooks Without Borders.
Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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