From Zero to Hero: Ragù Bolognese

A few days ago, I flagged quiche as perhaps the most abused French dish in North America. When it comes to Italian food, you could argue that pizza wears that crown. Certainly, there’s more bad pizza out there than almost any other food, full stop. But there’s also been a pizza renaissance, and it’s possible to get amazing ‘za almost anywhere.

Consider, then, ragù Bolognese. You’ve encountered interpretations of it in “spag bol.” Let me stipulate at the outset that nobody loves pasta with a richly tomatoey ground-beef sauce more than I do. We make a version with lots of rosemary and garlic, and it’s luscious on rigatoni, adorned with chili flakes and a generous shower of parm.

No-lognese.

But that sauce is not ragù Bolognese, and if you’re not acquainted with the real thing, then step this way… because you two really, really need to meet. Rent the wedding hall now, because you’re never going to want to be apart again.

Totally not Bolognese either, but you can get a decent Ragù Bolognese in Florence.

Where spag bol sauce is all about browned meat, sharp-elbowed tomato and highly vocal herbs, ragù Bolognese is about none of those things. It’s addition by subtraction: it’s about taking vegetables and meat, slowly cooking them down to concentrate their inherent flavours and gentling them into a coherent whole that undulates in the pot like neither solid nor liquid.

Bolognese also brings the funk. It needs either the fermented tang of cured meat – pancetta or prosciutto – or the deep, iron and earth murk of organ meats – chicken livers and turkey giblets being popular inclusions. Wine belongs there, too, bringing a subtle lift of acid and more fermented complexity. It could be white (more commonly) or red, depending on the version.

There is tomato, but it’s in the form of a judicious amount of tomato paste. It’s a supporting player rather than a primary component of the sauce. The veggies always include onion and celery, and usually a very small amount of garlic. Carrot is often in there, though some authorities think that makes for a distractingly sweet sauce. I almost always use it.

And yes, there’s lots of meat. It might be beef, pork, veal, or any combination of those. Or it might be game: venison and duck sometimes find their way in. The meat is often ground (or hand-chopped, old-school), but it’s sometimes just coarsely chopped and shreds itself in the cooking process.

But perhaps that’s getting away from ragù Bolognese strictly construed. The edges blur as Bolognese gives way to a broader set of ragùs from a wider geographical area. The best collection and discussion of ragù recipes I’ve found is in Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s original “The Splendid Table” cookbook.

The version we’ll make today is on the lighter side, which makes it appropriate for spring and as a component in this weekend’s mammoth lasagne. Its veal, pork and white wine profile will get along with the besciamella (béchamel) in a way that a darker version might not.

Ragù Bolognese

This makes about 2.5 litres/quarts of sauce, enough for many meals. If you’re going through the trouble to make this, it pays to make extra for the freezer.

  • 6 oz pancetta, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3 medium garlic cloves
  • 3 medium onions (600 grams)
  • 3 medium carrots (300 grams)
  • 4 celery ribs (300 grams)
  • 60 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 kg ground veal
  • 750 grams ground pork
  • 1 Tbsp kosher salt or more to taste
  • 200 ml dry vermouth
  • 175 ml light, unsalted poultry or veal stock
  • 60 ml double concentrated (doppio) tomato paste
  • 125 ml half-and-half, or half milk and half cream

We’ll start with the soffritto. Like the Spanish sofrito, this is a long-cooked amalgam of finely chopped vegetables: in this case, onion, carrot and celery. Since we’re cooking a large batch of this, it’s fine to chop the celery and carrots in a food processor. But please chop the onion by hand, so you don’t end up with a watery onion mush.

Next, mince a couple of cloves of garlic and cut some pancetta – which you’ve purchased as a block or slab – into 1/2 inch cubes. Grind those to a paste either through a meat grinder or in a small food processor. Our Breville Sous Chef food processor has a strong motor and both large and small bowls, and that came in handy here.

Heat some olive oil over medium-low heat, and gently, gently sweat your veggies down until they slump into a jammy mass. This will take an hour of occasional stirring at a minimum. You want to avoid browning (through high heat) and caramelizing (through over-extended cooking), or else the ragu will skew too sweet.

Separately, fry your garlic-pancetta paste until it’s lightly browned and nubbly. Introduce the soffritto and meat paste to one another in a large dutch oven. In the meantime, you’ll have procured ground veal and pork in a 3:2 ratio. I had veal shoulder stew meat and a chunk of pork shoulder in the freezer, so I ground my own. Whatever way you go, please get good, organic, humanely raised meat. You’re concentrating the flavours, remember, and not smothering the meat with tomatoes, so there’s nowhere to hide if you’re working with commodity, feedlot meat.

Still working over medium heat, mix the ground meat into the soffritto and pancetta blend and add salt, judiciously… start with half of the amount of salt called for in the recipe (remembering that the pancetta is very salty). Stir frequently, cooking it until the meat loses its raw hue. Again, avoid browning things.

Once the meat is cooked, make a well in the centre and add a few generous glugs of white wine. I keep some dry vermouth in the kitchen for these moments; I like the subtle richness this brings over the dry astringency of plain white wine. Once that’s simmering, add your tomato paste and mix the contents of the pot together. Reduce it to a simmer.

Stir the pot every 10 minutes or so. As the ragù gets a bit dry and ceases to jiggle as you agitate it, add a bit of light, unsalted chicken or veal stock (oddly, I had duck stock in the freezer, and that worked nicely) to bring it back to a semi-solid state. You want enough liquid to stew the meat.

There are many recipes out there that will tell you, romantically, that the ragù should cook for 6 or 8 hours. You can go that route if you like. For reasons of flavour and pragmatism, I suggest cooking this for an hour, and no more than 90 minutes. This will keep the flavours on the lighter, brighter side, while still ensuring that you have a rich and silky sauce. When the meat is tender, add the half-and-half or cream and milk, cook for 10 minutes longer, and adjust the seasoning. Basta! You’re done!

Note that I switched from the wide skillet that I used to cook the soffrito to a deep dutch oven… the latter helps control evaporation and ensure that the meat remains in contact with the wine, stock and juices.

As with any stewed or braised meat, ragù is better after it sits for a bit. That said, do use it or freeze it within 24 hours. After that, the flavour quickly becomes muted. Serve this over egg pasta like tagliatelle or pappardelle (garganelli, below, is not “correct,” but it’s what we had on hand), or layer it in a lasagne.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Classic! looks absolutely fantastic and very authentic, wow!

    1. Barry says:

      Thanks so much!

  2. Laura Gates says:

    Yum! Hungry now

    1. Barry says:

      Wish we could share it with you!

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