Ragù alla Bolognese: The Start of a Quest

by Karen on Friday, April 15, 2011

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I feel like for a classic such as ragù alla bolognese (bolognese sauce) this post should start with an inspired story of my first authentic plate of bolognese. Bolognese, as the name suggests, originates from Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, a northern region of Italy that is home to rich soulful Italian foods like hearty ragus, egg pastas and salumi. Interestingly, this story actually begins at a Japanese-Italian spaghetti house in LA with a plate of spaghetti bolognese that was so good it started my quest for perfecting this sauce (a strange sounding fusion cuisine but it works!) Before, bolognese was just a thick meaty and heavily tomato-ed sauce that was quite pedestrian to me. Now that my bolognese horizons have been expanded, I'm obsessed.

Bolognese is a classic of the Emilia-Romagna region and like with any classic, every cook has their cardinal rules on how to make and how NOT to make it. For instance, some say that bolognese should never be made with spaghetti. But as my first bolognese-love-experience demonstrated, that's not imperative. Traditionally, ragù alla bolognese is made with tagliatelle, a flat ribbon-like pasta. Some also say there should be very little tomato in the sauce, while others say there should be mostly tomatoes. Although rules abound there are a couple that are pretty universal: 1) the sauce should have more than one kind of meat and 2) there needs to be tomatoes involved. Despite all the variations on ragù alla bolognese, almost all good recipes will require a long cooking time. I don't think there is such a thing as a quick bolognese sauce. At its core, bolognese has concentrated and deeply developed flavors that can't be replicated through rushed or simplified processes. But I guarantee the results make it worthwhile.

I adapted a recipe from Mark Peel's cookbook New Classic Family Dinners that called for a mixture of shredded beef and pancetta and is a more complicated recipe than other ones I found. Admittedly there are a lot of steps, but each one really adds another layer of subtle complexity to the sauce. The good news is you can make a large batch of this and freeze it for up to a month. I added this sauce to an egg pappardelle, which for this type of bolognese I think was perfect. However, I am curious how this lovely ragù would turn out using ground meat, which is the type of Japanese-Italian bolognese I had and loved.  While the tender toothsome hunks of meat made this pasta very special, I think using ground meat would certainly make it easier to prepare.  Hmmm… something to consider for my next bolognese adventure!

Makes 3 cups


– 3 lbs of beef chuck or brisket or any tougher cuts, cut roughly into 2 inch pieces
– 1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
– 1 large carrot, coarsely chopped
– 2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
– 2 cups of red wine
1 1/2 tsps of cracked black pepper

– 5 pounds of tomatoes
– 4 garlic cloves, minced
– 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
– 3 ounces of pancetta, diced finely
– 2 cups of chicken stock
– 1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced*
– 2 large celery stalks, finely diced*
– 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced*
– 1 6-ounce can of tomato paste, dissolved in 1/2 cup of water
– extra-virgin olive oil
– canola or vegetable oil
–  kosher or sea salt
– freshly ground black pepper
*Don't be lazy with your finely diced carrot, celery and onions– they should be teeeensy.  It's a good opportunity to sharpen up on those knife skills!

Toss the meat with the coarsely chopped onions, celery, carrot, 2 cups of red wine, and ground black pepper in a large bowl.  Cover and place it in the refrigerator to marinate for 12-24 hours.

The next day, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Cut the tomatoes along their equator and toss in a couple glugs of extra virgin olive oil, 4 minced garlic cloves, 1 tsp of salt and 1/4 tsp of ground black pepper.  Place on a baking sheet, cut side down and roast for about 45 minutes to 1 hour until the tomatoes are soft and blister.

Remove the meat from the marinade and keep the vegetables and wine mixture on the side (you'll use this in a bit).  Pat the meat dry and season with some salt.  Heat a couple tablespoons of canola or vegetable oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium high heat.  When oil is hot and working in batches, sear the meat on all sides, until browned, about 5 minutes.  Make sure you don't crowd the pot with meat.

When meat has been seared, reduce heat to medium and add pancetta, stir a couple of minutes until some of the fat is rendered and add your vegetables and wine from the marinade and stir scrapping up the bits and pieces on the bottom of the pot.  Simmer until mixture is reduced by half, about 5-10 minutes.  Then scrape rest of the meat and chicken stock into the pot.  Add the roasted tomatoes with their juices and return mixture to a simmer.  Reduce to low, cover and simmer or about 2 hours, stirring occasionally.  The meat should be fork tender but not falling apart.

Using tongs, remove the meat from the stew and shred with fork but not too finely as this mixture will go back into the sauce and break apart even further.  At this point you can place the mixture into the refrigerator (refrigerating the meat separately) and lift off the fat from the stew when you're ready to prepare the bolognese.  Pour the contents of the mixture through a food mill or a fine mesh sieve.  Return to the pot and stir the meat back in.

In a pan, heat a couple tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over medium heat and add the finely diced carrots, celery and onions in along with 1/2 tsp of salt and 1/4 tsp of ground black pepper.  Cook until tender and onions are translucent, about 5 minutes and then add in the 4 cloves of thinly sliced garlic.  Stir in the sauce with meat and the tomato paste.  Simmer for about 30 minutes to an hour until everything is nice and thick, stirring in between occasionally.  If the sauce becomes to thick you can add a little bit of water to loosen it up again.  Taste the sauce and add more salt or pepper as needed.

Toss with your favorite noodle.  I've used an egg pappardelle here but if you use spaghetti I won't tell!

(Images of Bologna from here and here)



Belinda @zomppa April 15, 2011 at 8:30 am

Great, now all I want is to move to Italy and eat this. Thanks a lot. =P

Karen April 16, 2011 at 3:34 pm

That’s the point– and you’re most welcome 🙂

mlleparadis April 15, 2011 at 10:12 am

YUM! Serious comfort food! OK my interest is piqued: Japanese-Italian in L.A.? Who, what, where?

Karen April 16, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Yes very interesting and popular in the States! Spoon House in Gardena (suburb of LA with large Japanese population)

deana@lostpastremembered April 15, 2011 at 1:32 pm

I am 1/4 Italian and that quarter is from, yes, you guessed it… Bologna! The sauce looks perfect. There is actually a definitive recipe that the patriarchs of the city voted on… I made it and was not impressed…so much for listening to the elders (although milk in tomato sauce is interesting). Half the fun is in the mix… and to be inspired by Japanese Bolognese… well that’s just perfect. Gorgeous photos, as always!

Karen April 16, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Ah nice then you’re an expert! I saw that recipe too but was weary of trying it… I dunno just didn’t look that great to me– but maybe ingredients sourced in Italy would be very different. Glad I got your feedback on it.

Valerie April 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm

I’m not saying this because I love you… You are the best food photographer that ever existed. I don’t know how to choose a favorite of this batch but I guess it has to be the pasta noodles. Or the mirepoix. Or the tomatoes… Anyway, lovely post, can’t wait til you get to go explore Italy. Food truly equals love there, and I know you’re Mexican at heart but I can see you coming back Italian! One of my favorite posts! Makes me wanna do some more LA food huntin’ with you!

Karen April 16, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Thanks Val– haha I think you’re correct about coming back as Italian…

Stacy G April 15, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I second what Val says. Amazing food photog. This looks so yummy.

Karen April 16, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Thanks Stacy!

Lana April 16, 2011 at 4:53 pm

I have never made Bolognese, but I consider it on of the most comforting foods, especially paired with tagliatelle (my favorite, along with pappardelle:)
It seems like a process, something that would warm up a long, winter night and fill the house with wonderful smells.
As I don’t have a family recipe for it, I am going to put yours in my folder (I am sure that this beautiful weather will take a break one of these days and let some rain into our lives – not that I am complaining:)
As for photos, you know that I think the world of you as a photographer:)

justcooknyc April 24, 2011 at 6:09 pm

this looks awesome, but i’m more jealous that you’ve been to Bologna

Karen April 27, 2011 at 12:58 pm

O I didn’t go to Bologna– just sharing pics but I wish I had! 🙂

Lynne May 4, 2011 at 8:44 am

this looks SO delicious and I want to eat it NOW! I know what I’m making for dinner!!

Travis May 8, 2012 at 3:33 am

I found this recepie while looking for bolognese made with shredded beef and found it to be a very good recepie. It took me three days to make it but it was definitely worth it. I must say that I did use *gasp* spaghetti but it was good none the less. Thank you for sharing, it will be my recepie of choice from now on. There was one thing I found odd where you said to put it through a metal sieve then stir the meat back in to the pot. I didn’t know what to do with what was left in the sieve and it seemed a waste to throw it out so I just put it back in 🙂 Next time I will remove the skins from the tomatoes after they blister.

Karen May 12, 2012 at 9:51 pm

It does take forever, but glad you thought it paid off as I did.

Lisa July 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Thanks so much for this recipe. I, too, have been tinkering for a while with different variations of bolognese. Though I’ve decided that milk, anchovy paste, and a little nutmeg are indispensable (for my taste, anyway), I’ve never been 100 percent pleased with the results–either in texture or flavor. Your version has inspired me to try it with something besides ground beef, which I’ve never really felt held up well through the hours-long cooking required for a good sauce. Also, your multi-phase method looks like it would be great for flavor development. Thanks again!! 🙂

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