It’s almost the winter solstice, and comfort food is called for. There’s no better time for low and slow – something that’ll make the shack smell wonderful all day, and seriously hit the spot at dinner. Pasta alla Bolognese is the ticket – There’s history behind this dish, and also some important caveats about doing it right – if you’re going to call it pasta alla Bolognese, that is.
Bologna is up in the middle of the cuff of the Italian boot, anchoring the Emilia-Romagna region. It’s an ancient Etruscan city that’s changed hands a few times – both Celts and Romans made it theirs for a while. Bologna is gorgeous and well preserved, famous for architecture and the oldest university in the world, the Università di Bologna, established in 1088 AD. It’s a city of music and culture and food, including the deservedly famous ragù that carries its name.
And what a ragù it is, which leads to our first caveat – what we’re making here is not just Bolognese, it’s Ragù alla Bolognese, or if you wish, sauce in the Bolognese style. It is one of the legendary Italian ragùs, as anointed by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina – well, by the Bologna chapter thereof, anyway… The etymology of ragù is French, from ragout, meaning pretty much any sauce where proteins and vegetables are stewed. Meat sauces in Emilia-Romagna definitely predated whatever French influence might have taken place, and it wasn’t until the early 19th century that recipes for ragù appeared that more or less mirror the modern day versions.
As with all great dishes, there really isn’t one classic ragù alla Bolognese, because everyone’s Momma makes the best. Naturally, other regions of Italy take umbrage to claims that ragù alla Bolognese is better than what they make. This battle is nowhere more pronounced than between Bologna and Naples, where the equally delightful ragù alla Napolitana hails from. That said, (at least in this country), if you google ‘ragù alla,’ the overwhelming result will be Bolognese, with a smattering of Napolitana and maybe a Genovese or two, (and by all means, you should explore them all.)
Like ‘salsa,’ ragù is a broad word – it too means sauce in essence, but it also speaks to the way a ragù is made. In northern Italy, the meat is usually ground or finely minced, with sautéed vegetables in a meat stock that gradually reduces over the low and slow cook. The protein might by beef, poultry, lamb, or wild game, and often includes offal. And here’s Caveat Number Two, in a proper ragù alla Bolognese, the tomato content is quite a bit less than you likely think it is – it really is a meat sauce.
In the south, where the Napolitana style reigns, the proteins are cut larger – beef, pork, or sausage, cooked low and slow in veggies and plenty of tomato. The meat is often removed and served separately, while the ragù goes over fresh pasta.
Caveat Number Three – Despite what that google search may show you, there is absolutely no such thing as ‘authentic spaghetti Bolognese’ – In Bologna, you will never, ever see that. What you will find is ragù over fresh tagliatelle, a long pasta a bit wider and thicker than fettuccine – It’s great to make at home too.
If you’re not up for that, there is a wealth of good fresh pasta out there these days – and if that doesn’t work, then a short, ridged dry variety, like rigatoni, penne rigate, or conchiglie (aka shells), will work great too. The diff between spaghetti and tagliatelle may seem nitpicky, but it ain’t – it’s truly seminal to the overall flavor and texture of the finished dish.
So, what meat to use? Start with beef for your first run. If you have a butcher, (and you probably do, even if it’s your local grocery store – just ask them), or the capability to grind your own, you can do up something special, which needn’t be fancy by the way – chuck is prefect for this dish. If not, fear not – fresh 80%-20% ground beef will do fine. Don’t go any leaner than that, as a fundamental sweetness of the ragù depends on the fat content.
Ragù is a study in low and slow – sautéing, sweating, and braising all play a part. The intention is to get as much as possible out of the ingredients and into an integrated sauce. As such, you don’t need to add any kind of stock when you make this – it’ll make its own for as long as it’s needed, and in the end run, much of the extra liquid will be absorbed. When you plan on making this dish, pencil in a good 5+ hours for the process, (and all day is better yet).
Don’t fret if you gotta go do an errand or two though – any good Bolognese Mamma will tell you it’s fine to shut things off for a bit, go do your thing, and kick it back in gear a bit later – so long as it gets the overall cooking time it needs.
What to cook your ragù in? In Emilia-Romagna, many a Nonna would tell you that earthenware is the only thing that’ll do. Not everyone has the wherewithal for stovetop clay cookery, (though if you do, you most certainly should). If you don’t, then choose a heavy vessel that retains heat well – a cast iron Dutch oven or deep skillet is perfect.
As for wine, you’ve really gotta have it in this dish. Tradition holds with the ubiquitous ‘dry white,’ but you really can use what you have and like – really – you’re going to make this yours, and you get to choose.
Many recipes call for imported Italian plum tomatoes – That might be the thing to do in the middle of winter, but if you’ve got access to fresh Roma’s then use those – I don’t care where they’re from or what they’re named, fresh beats canned, every time. If you do have to go canned, check out our post on who’s better and who’s best.
When it comes to seasoning, those Bolognese Nonnas often use nothing but salt and pepper, depending on fresh ingredients to carry the day. That’s totally cool, and delicious, but if you like an herbaceous note or two in there as I do, add one. Caveat Number Four is this – do not leave the nutmeg out, and if you can, get a fresh whole one and grate a little into the dish – it’s key to the signature flavor of true ragù alla Bolognese.
Final note – the process outlined below is important. This can perhaps be best summed up in a question from my friend, Russ Robinson, who wrote in response to an image of this sauce cooking, ‘I am a huge fan of scratch Bolognese. A few times I’ve ended up with bitter red sauce. I can throw sugar at it. but I’m thinking some step was missed in the process early. Ideas?’ I told him that I knew exactly why, and that all would be revealed herein – as it shall be. Take note that there’s nothing really exotic in here – the real magic is in the technique.
This recipe will make plenty for 2-4 folks, with leftovers likely, because it’s even better the next day.
Urban’s Ragù alla Bolognese
1 1/2 Pounds ground Beef, (you certainly can go with beef & pork if you like)
4-6 fresh Roma Tomatoes
1 small yellow Onion
2-3 stalks fresh Celery
2-3 fresh Carrots
2-3 cloves fresh Garlic
1 Cup Whole Milk (or cream, if you’re feeling frisky)
1 Cup Wine (drier is better, but really – use what you like)
2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
Whole Nutmeg (ground is OK)
Sea Salt (or kosher)
1 Tablespoon Oregano
1 Pound good Pasta
Parmigiano-Regiano or Pecorino Romano Cheese
It’s a good idea to use a bunch of bowls and cups to arrange your ingredients.
Trim, peel and dice about 1 1/2 cups of onion.
Trim and dice about 3/4 cup each of celery and carrot. If you have celery leaves, separate and mince or chiffonade cut those.
Trim, peel and mince garlic.
Rough chop tomatoes, then process in a bowl with a stick blender to a sauce – A blender is fine for this too.
Portion milk and wine, (separately)
Set up your full mise en place right beside your stove.
In a heavy stock pot over medium heat, add the oil and 2 tablespoons of butter – allow to melt and heat through.
Add the carrot and sweat for about 2-3 minutes, stirring steadily.
Bring heat up to medium high and add onion and celery – sauté until the onion starts to become translucent but not browned, about 2-3 minutes – stir steadily to thoroughly coat the veggies in the fat.
Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smells dissipates, about 1-2 minutes.
Add the wine and stir the veggies until the raw alcohol smells dissipates, about 2 minutes.
Transfer everything from the pot to a bowl.
Add the meat to the stock pot – season with a generous three finger pinch of salt and a few twists of pepper.
Mix the seasoning in while working the meat to break it down into smaller pieces – The salt helps extract liquid from the meat, making that more available to the sauce, so don’t skip this step.
When the meat is starting to brown and has lost most of its raw red color, add the milk and turn the heat down to medium low.
Simmer the meat and milk, stirring gently, until all the milk has been absorbed by the meat, about 4-6 minutes, but really, as long as it takes – This step is critical to get real Bolognese and to avoid what happened to Russ – allowing the meat to cook with and fully absorb the milk prevents the acidic wine and tomato from creating a bitter sauce. There’s a subtle softness and sweetness to Bolognese done right that can be achieved no other way.
Add a grating of fresh nutmeg, about a 1/4 teaspoon, and stir to incorporate – The smells you get at this point are pretty heavenly.
Add the veggies and oil/butter blend back into the meat and stir to incorporate.
Add the tomatoes, celery leaf, and oregano. And stir well to fully incorporate all your ingredients.
Turn your heat down to low, and cook uncovered for at least 4 hours, and longer is not only fine, it’s better.
What you want is an occasional lazy bubble forming in the sauce – no hotter. This is genuine low and slow, and why we want that heavy, heat-holding pot to cook it in.
What you’re after in your final product is a sauce where the fat is visibly starting to separate out, as you see in the image below.
If your sauce dries out while cooking, add about a half cup of water and stir that in as needed – but make sure that your finished products conforms to the sentence above.
Taste and adjust seasoning.
Boil and drain your pasta, leaving a tablespoon of water in the pot.
Return half the pasta to the pot with the burner off.
Add a tablespoon of butter to the pasta and toss to coat.
Add about 2 cups of sauce to the pasta, and toss to incorporate.
Serve with freshly shaved Parm or romano and crusty bread on the side, (to sop the sauce up with), and a nice glass of Italian red.