Authentic Bolognese Sauce
If you served me meat sauce as a child, my reaction would be a bit dramatic. I would probably cry real tears because meat sauce had bad memories for me and was known as babysitter sauce. The only meat sauce ever served to me was by three babysitters on three separate unhappy occasions. I admit to you that I was known to cry when the food got messed up and the recipes altered.
But no one outside of babysitters ever served a meat sauce. It wasn’t done, because bolognese is far from baby sitter meat sauce.
All grown-up I cook what I love and several years ago I led a cooking group on-line called Cooking Italy. We cooked from this marvelous cookbook, the Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking. World Cookbook legend, Marcella Hazan, wrote a cookbook that remains beloved to this day. I wrote about her here and I was able to connect with her before she passed away.
On that day six years ago, we virtually visited Bologna, capital of the northern region of Italy, Emilia-Romanga. I only started making bolognese then, and I became obsessed and curious about the variety of recipes I have found. Since that time, I had had the pleasure of eating bolognese in Italy, and I still come back to Marcella Hazan’s bolognese sauce as the standard.
You have all seen, and probably eaten, a typical meat sauce with spaghetti. Chunks of ground beef, tomato, onion, and who knows what thrown together with some tomatoes for maybe an hour. You can even buy it in a jar.
And, if I’m sounding like an Italian foodie snob, please understand my very peculiar family who lived by food rules. Every Italian family has them, in America and especially in Italy. It’s the only “honor” my family exercised with full commitment. Any “sin” could be confessed and forgiven…except food sins, which and still are unforgivable.
One of our strictest rules was that no one in the family would make a meat sauce or eat a sauce from a jar anywhere, not even to be polite. It would be unthinkable, because it was viewed as the sign of not being Italian.
It would be like eating wonder bread in a french bakery. If a meat sauce would have been served at a large family gathering, it would look something like this. My Aunt Rita would start whispering, “what is this, who made this.” My mother would lean in and smell it, and ask where it came from. My grandmother would just make a terrible gesture and say, “americano.” She was born in America, but she would do that.
Here today with a new set of eyes and a better culinary understanding of Italian food, I am presenting to you the quintessential Italian meat sauce of the world, authentic Bolognese, and one I am very proud to serve. It will bring you closer to Italian cuisine, where I still believe the other kind of meat sauce brings you further away.
I had to reset my thinking. I used to think of meat sauce as a tomato sauce with big chunks of meat and onion. While that might be true here in America, the Bolognese meat sauce is completely different.
Bolognese Sauce is a meat sauce with tomato, not a tomato sauce with meat.
Tomato sauce and meat sauce are distinctly different. When I want a tomato sauce, I want a fresh tasting, bright burst of flavor that is cooked for a very short time. The ragú (as the Bolognese call it) is a sultry, savory sauce sweetened by the soffritto of onions, celery and carrots and cooked forever, a minimum of three hours once the last ingredient has been added.
Aside from using bolognese for a typical wide handmade pasta such as tagliatelle or papparadelle, you can top polenta, crepes or even rice with this delicious ragû. Since this is time consuming, but not difficult, make a double or even triple batch and freeze it. You will regret it if you don’t.
It is perfectly served with tagliatelle pasta, or a wider pappardelle. See This Pasta Post for Details and the tool that will give you the perfect width noodle of your choice, called the pasta bike.
The Process for Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Sauce
The soffritto is prepared mostly in butter with a little vegetable oil and this is already a departure from southern Italian cooking that does not use butter. Ground chuck is then added into this vegetable mix, followed by milk until it evaporates, followed by white wine until it evaporates.
Soffritto means sub-cooked or under fried, because of the small amount of oil used often with butter to cook vegetables as the base of the dish. Onions, carrots and celery, also known as the “trinity” is the medley used in northern Italian cooking.
The idea is to slowly soften the onion without browning, and then add in the carrots and celery and allow them to absorb the onion flavor which will be mild and sweet, not harsh. Marcella uses a larger portion of celery and carrots than I’ve seen in many other recipes and I agree with her. I now find myself using a soffritto for so many dishes.
Surprisingly, Marcella leaves out pancetta, frequently seen in other recipes, but the large addition of vegetables and a lower ratio of tomatoes makes her bolognese work. Marcella adds the milk to the meat before the wine, and uses white wine, not red wine that I’ve seen in many other recipes. In my pork centric bolognese, I add the pancetta back in and use that recipe for Italian sloppy Joe’s.
The hardest part of the cooking process for authentic bolognese is waiting patiently between steps, as the vegetables soften, the meat cooks, and the milk and wine completely evaporate. This is NOT a throw it all into a crock pot and go to work dish. Having said that, you could prepare the sauce and once the last ingredient has been added, move it to a crock pot and cook on low for the day.
As far as pasta goes, you can enjoy this with a store bought pappardelle, or you can choose to make this pasta with tips on pasta machines.
It came as a shocking surprise that the method I came up with on my own, is the same as Marcella’s outside of her longer kneading period and my insistence on resting the dough. So I’m going to give you my pasta recipe and you can certainly use hers, as I do recommend this book to get every detail.
Now that I understand the genius of Bolognese sauce, I will no longer cry at the table. How about you? Was there a food in childhood that would just set you off?
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- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 tablespoons butter plus 2 T for tossing pasta
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1⅓ cup chopped celery
- 1½ cup chopped carrot
- 1½ pounds ground beef chuck mixed with salt and pepper before cooking
- (meat should not be too lean, ask for neck portion of chuck)
- black pepper, freshly ground
- 2 cups whole milk
- whole nutmeg, ¼ t
- 2 cup dry white wine
- 3 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes with juice, chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 pounds pasta
- freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese at the table
- On medium heat, add oil, butter, onion, until translucent.
- Add celery, carrots, cook 2 minutes, stirring, not browning. Add meat, break up with fork, and when no pink color is showing, add milk.
- Turn down heat to simmer, stirring frequently until milk has evaporated. Add nutmeg. Add wine, stirring thoroughly. Once wine has completely evaporated, add tomatoes, and simmer on very very low stirring every now and again. If sauce dries out, add ½ cup water a time. Cook for a minimum of 3 hours. I think 4-6 hours is better.
- Taste and season with salt, pepper.