Ragù aka bolognese sauce
A well-made ragù (aka bolognese sauce) is probably my favourite thing to eat in the world. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it’s not something which is widely available outside the region of Emilia-Romagna. Luckily, it’s one of my specialities. Over the years, through learning from my aunt and nonna, asking people what their nonna did, reading, doing a lot of eating, and experimenting, I’ve come up with a recipe and fool-proof technique that gives results just like those in Bologna.
Recently, I cooked this dish for some friends (all Italian). It went down so well that they ended up doing la scarpetta (mopping up any remaining sauce with a piece of bread) even with the pan that I had cooked it in. This is one of the best compliments you can receive with your cooking. Someone asked me if I had ever shared the recipe online and I realized that I hadn’t. So here goes. I am about to divulge my recipe and more importantly my techinique for making the perfect ragù. I’ve written the recipe below, but I will go through each stage giving hints and tips. Are you ready?
You start off this recipe by finding the heaviest saucepan you have. You are going to cook the ragù for a long time so a good iron saucepan will help it to cook slowly and not burn. Place the pan over medium heat, and when it’s hot add chopped pancetta. Make sure that the pancetta is unsmoked (dolce). Cook it gently on its own—do not add any oil—until it turns pastel pink. This will allow all the fat to come out of it which will form a very tasty coating to the next ingredient, the odori.
Odori is the Italian word for what in France is called mirepoix: a mix of carrot, onion, and celery, that act as the flavour base to a sauce. It’s important to chop them as finely as possible, otherwise you are going to end up with large chunks of carrot in your sauce rather than having them amalgamated with the meat. One small onion, one medium carrot, and one stick of celery are enough.
Butter not oil
Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to the pan but then a chunk of butter. Butter is used widely in traditional northern-Italian cooking and gives it a distinctive flavour not achieved with olive oil. The olive oil is added just to stop the butter burning. When the butter has melted, add the odori and cook gently until the onion takes on a translucent, pearly colour. Don’t rush it. It will take about eight to ten minutes.
Where’s the meat?
Turn up the heat and add minced beef. This should be of the best quality you can find and not lean (angus beef works very well). Add salt at the same time. The quantity of salt in the recipe may seem a lot but it’s necessary for this amount of meat. I was once told by a french chef that for every kilo of meat you should add 18g of salt. This rule of thumb works well and means that you don’t have to adjust the salt at the end of the cooking and that all the ingredients are evenly salted. Cook the meat with the odori, until it just begins to brown, being careful not to let the odori brown. Again, this will take about ten minutes.
At this stage you add wine. People are divided as to whether this should be red or white. I add white since that’s what my nonna did but red works well too. I usually do it by eye, but the other day, I measured the amount I was putting in and it came out at 126ml! So, I guess 125ml is the right amount. As you add the wine there will be a whooshing noise and steam will rise melodramatically from the pan. Well, this is Italian cuisine so there has to be a little showmanship. At this stage turn the heat down to medium again and add the tomatoes.
This may sound like sacrilege but it’s OK to use tinned tomatoes. Ragù is more a winter dish than a summer one and even in Italy tomatoes are out of season in the winter. In the past, people made vast amounts of bottled passata in the autumn to last them through the winter, and it’s this that they would have used for their ragù. I like to use high-quality tomato pulp. Don’t be tempted to add sugar. Many people use sugar when cooking with tomatoes to cut the acidity. As we shall see later, the Bolognese people invented another way to deal with this. And it’s one that makes this ragù one of the best.
Once the tomatoes are added, the ragù is pretty much finished. Only that it isn’t, since it now needs to cook. Slowly. And I mean slowly. From this point on the ragù needs to cook for about two hours. It’s the only way to get the right flavour and consistency to the dish. In the past, I’ve had bolognese sauces cooked in about half an hour in which the meat is still hard.
After two hours, the meat will be soft and I mean melt-in-the-mouth soft, which is one of the best things about this dish, believe me. Turn the heat right down, cover the pot and leave it. Check it every thirty minutes or so to see that it’s not burning and add a small amount of beef stock if it seems too dry. But remember ragù is a relatively dry sauce and the meat should not be swimming in liquid.
Now comes the controversial part. Poor Mary Berry, the British Bake-off Queen, was recently slated for adding a ‘strange’ ingredient to her ragù. But what people critcizing her didn’t realize was that she was adding a highly traditional ingredient: milk or cream. Fifteen minutes before the end of the cooking, you should add a small amount of whole milk to the pan, stir it through and let it continue cooking. This is to take the acidity off the tomatoes and to give the sauce the right consistency. This is traditional. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the official recipe for ragù lodged at the Academy of Italian Food.
If you are going to serve the ragù with tagliatelle the milk is enough. However, if the ragù is destined to be eaten with dried pasta or made into a lasagna then you should add a small amount of single cream at the end too.
How to serve it
I’m not going to get all preachy with you and say that ragù should not be served with spaghetti, but in Italy it never is. Traditionally, it’s served with tagliatelle (preferably homemade) or baked into a lasagna, or even eaten with polenta. But never, I repeat never with spaghetti. However, it does work very well with other types of dried pasta such as conchiglie and rigatoni both of which have holes into which the ragù can enter. I serve mine with my own handmade tagliatelle which is the perfect marriage.
So, that’s answered the question as to how I make my ragù. Follow the above steps using the quantities of ingredients below (very important to get the right consistency) and you can’t go wrong. Once you’ve got to the stage where the tomatoes are added, you could, if you want, transfer the whole to a slow cooker. Because remember, you have to cook it slowly. Did I say that?
150g sweet pancetta
2 tablespoons olive oil
45g (3 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
400g minced beef
7 g (1 1/2 teaspoons) salt
125 ml (1/2 cup) dry white wine
400g (14 ounces) pulped tomatoes
125ml (1/2 cup) whole milk
salt to taste
4 tablespoons single cream (optional)
- Heat a heavy saucepan over a medium flame and then add the pancetta. Cook until it turns light pink, about two minutes.
- Add the olive oil and butter. Stir until the butter has melted.
- Add the onion, carrot, and celery. Cook gently until the onion is translucent, about ten minutes.
- Add the beef and salt. Turn up the heat and cook until the meat is lightly browned.
- Add the wine and the tomatoes. Bring to the boil and then cover the pan and turn the heat right down.
- Cook for one hour and forty-five minutes, adding a small amount of beef stock occasionally if the sauce gets too dry.
- Add the milk, stir through, and cook for a further fifteen minutes. Check seasoning and add salt if necessary.
- Serve with fresh tagliatelle. If you are making lasagna add single cream too.
Have you ever eaten ragù in Bologna? How do you make yours? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.