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How to Make an Authentic Bolognese Sauce

UPDATE, Jan. 2013: Created a printable version of the recipe. Added metric measurements. Reworded some of the instructions to make the recipe even clearer. Hope you like it!

I’ll be flying to Rome at the end of the month and, to prepare for my trip, I’ve been reading guidebooks every night, sticking Post-It notes to each spot I want to visit and every restaurant I want to go to. I love, LOVE the planning phase of each new trip. I think I might have been a travel agent in another life.

The prospect of going back to Italy has also made me want to go crazy on cooking Italian food. You know – the fresh, simple, authentic flavors of Italy. The great thing about Italian food is that everybody loves it. It’s approachable but not simplistic. It’s easy to cook but so satisfying.

I’ve invited my parents to come over for dinner, and I know my Dad loves meat sauces. I have my shortcuts to making a great meat sauce (the one I always make as part of my very popular lasagna), but this time I decided to tackle a great classic: the Bolognese Sauce.

Bolognese sauce has sort of become the generic name for a meat and tomato sauce on this side of the ocean. Tasting it in Italy reveals a surprisingly different experience: my first encounter with an authentic Bolognese sauce was in Modena. E and I were wandering about this friendly university town, and were attracted by a cute caffè to grab a bite for lunch. The decor was all-white contemporary, music was loungy, comfortable couches littered the back of the restaurant and the place was filled with students hanging out or working on their computers. Turns out that the owner spoke French (he lived for many years in France), so he translated his very short daily menu (scribbled on a small piece of paper that waiters were carrying around) and, when he learned we’d arrived in the region just the day before, he proudly recommended his Spaghetti Bolognese, the sauce made daily with fresh ingredients – nothing frozen in there. I kind of think he was proud to be “our first” – and the experience was unforgettable. The taste was meaty but surprisingly delicate, aromatic, creamy and subtle. I’ve never tasted a pasta dish that married so well with plenty of freshly-grated parmigiano-reggiano.

The beautiful city of Modena in Emilia-Romagna, Italy.

My very first authentic spaghetti bolognese in a Modena caffè – love the idea of using a Chinese spoon for the grated cheese!

Of course, there is no single recipe of Bolognese Sauce, but the basic ingredients must be the same. It’s a serious thing too: in 1982, the Academia Italiana della Cucina officially registered the recipe with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce. The classic recipe must contain: onions, celery, carrots, pancetta, ground beef, tomatoes, milk and white wine.

Ingredient notes:

  • Onion, celery, carrots: Now is the time to use your knife skills. Dice everything evenly in small ¼-inch dices. The size uniformity of these ingredients will allow them to cook evenly and will produce a more enjoyable texture. By the way, this combination of ingredients, cooked in olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, is called a soffritto and is the base of many Italian dishes.
  • Tomatoes are not a main ingredient in the sauce – you add a bit of it for taste but it is a meat sauce, first and foremost.
  • Meats: Use lean ground meat (for a special treat, ask your butcher to chop the meats coarsely – 1/3 inch thick) and best-quality pancetta.
  • Milk: Yes, milk is the surprise ingredient responsible for producing a more orange than red sauce (it also makes the meat more tender). Do not use cream.
  • Broth: Although the registered 1982 recipe doesn’t include broth, most recipes I’ve encountered include some instead of water. It makes more sense to me taste-wise to choose beef over chicken broth.
  • Seasoning: This recipe (perhaps surprisingly) does not contain any aromatic herbs or spices. It is frowned upon to add bay leaves or red pepper flakes. The only flavoring in this recipe is sea salt and black pepper. It is highly recommended to use sea or kosher salt as it lends a more refined taste than regular table salt.
  • Pasta: This is a hearty sauce that should be eaten on pasta that can support its weight: it is often served with the wide and flat tagliatelle (fresh or dry).
  • Cheese: Please – please use only freshly grated authentic parmigiano-reggiano. It makes all the difference in the world.
  • Method: Finally, note that this sauce doesn’t like to be rushed. Some recipes with offer shortcuts but the only way to allow the flavors to develop fully and the sauce to become so rich is a very long simmering – and I mean, 4 hours long. The base of the recipe isn’t complicated or time-consuming to make and the rest is just passive time in the kitchen. You start a bit batch, stir in once in a while and enjoy for many meals to come.

Fresh pappardelle pasta.

My version of a delicious and authentic bolognese ragù (bolognese sauce).

Pappardelle Alla Bolognese.

Ragù Bolognese

Authentic Bolognese Sauce

Makes about 8 servings

2 tbsp [30 ml] olive oil
¼ cup [60 ml] butter

1 large yellow onion, finely and evenly diced
4 small (or 2 very large) carrots finely diced
4 stalks celery heart (or 2 large celery stalks) finely diced
4 garlic cloves, very finely diced
4.5 oz [125 g] diced pancetta (¼-inch cubes)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

2.2 lb [1 kg] lean ground meat (blend of veal, pork and beef – or just beef)
1 cup [250 ml] dry white wine (like a Chardonnay)
2 cups [500 ml] milk
1 28-oz [828 ml] can whole San Marzano tomatoes, diced (both the liquid and the tomatoes)
1 cup [250 ml] beef stock

To serve
A few knobs of butter
Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
Fresh or dry tagliatelle, pappardelle, spaghetti, rigatonifarfalle or even gnocchi, cooked in salted boiling water according to the manufacturer’s instructions

Heat the butter and the oil together in a large saucepan over medium heat. When the butter is melted and the saucepan is hot, add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and a good pinch of salt (about ½ tsp [2.5 ml]) and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the diced pancetta and cook for a further 10 minutes, until vegetables are softened and pancetta is golden.

Finely dice the onion, carrot and celery to make a basic soffritto – and to end up with a better sauce texture too.

Increase the heat to high and add the meat a third at a time, stirring and breaking lumps with a spoon between each addition. Adding the meat gradually allows its liquid to evaporate – which is key if you want to brown your meat and not boil it. After the last addition, when no pink can be spotted in the meat and no lumps remain, set a timer to 15 minutes. You want your meat to caramelize and even become crispy in spots. More liquids will evaporate and flavors will concentrate. You want golden bits of meat to stick to the bottom of your pan, which will be deglazed later. Watch over your pan as you don’t want the meat to burn. When you see some serious caramelization action happening, lower heat to medium to reach the end of the 15-minute sautéing time (on my stove, that’s after 8-9 minutes).

Left: sauteed vegetables and pancetta; Right: caramelized bottom of pan before deglazing with white wine.

Over medium heat, pour the white wine into the sauce pan. With a wooden spoon, scrape all the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Push the meat all around to make sure you scrape it all off. By the time you’re finished, the wine will be evaporated (2-3 minutes). Be careful not to let the meat stick again (lower the heat if necessary).

Add milk, diced tomatoes and their liquid, beef stock, 1 tsp [5 ml] salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Bring to a boil and then lower to the lowest heat and let simmer very slowly, half-covered, for 4 hours. Stir once in a while. If your sauce starts sticking before the end of your cooking time, lower the heat (if possible) and/or add a bit of stock or water. In the end, the sauce should be thick, more oil- than water-based and thick like oatmeal. Adjust the seasoning one last time – don’t be afraid of adding more salt (tasting each time you add some), it is this recipe’s key seasoning.

Simmer the bolognese sauce very slowly, half-covered, for 4 hours on the lowest heat possible.

To serve: Reheat the sauce. Mix in a knob or two of butter and about two generous tablespoons [30 ml] of freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano per serving – these last additions will produce an incredibly creamy flavor. Cook the pasta, drain it thoroughly and return to the pot. Spoon some sauce, just enough to coat the pasta. Serve in bowls with a few leaves of basil sprinkled on top and more freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, to taste.

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291 Responses to How to Make an Authentic Bolognese Sauce

  1. Tamarack says:

    Just how much butter and parm reg do you add for serving? 1-2 knobs per serving would be 8-16 for the whole pot, and 16T cheese. Is that right?

    • You got the maths right! You can of course skip the addition of butter and additional cheese, but it does make a delicious difference. Bolognese is definitely a rich sauce and you should enjoy it for what it is. You can always eat salad tomorrow!

      • Tamarack says:

        Oh, I don’t want to skip it. Believe me. I just didn’t want to add too much and spoil the recipe. I am making this for my Christmas dinner so I’ll be serving the whole recipe, actually a double recipe. The 2nd batch is cooking now. It was actually my husband’s idea to serve it for Christmas and I’m thrilled to have a make ahead meal. BTW, this is the most precise and helpful recipe I’ve ever come across. Plus it’s so delicious and just plain fun to cook.

  2. […] it with a fantastic bolognese sauce and pasta.  you can find the recipe she worked off of – here. for dessert – a dreamy red velvet cake with heavenly goat cheese frosting.  seriously […]

  3. Elle says:

    Made this tonight with organic bison meat and garlic- It’s heaven. This is a fantastic recipe.

  4. Tiffany rooprai says:

    This is a wonderful recipe! I never follow recipes exactly, and as much as I wanted to be faithful, I forgot that I was out of San Marzano canned tomatoes. I substituted San Marzano brand tubed tomato paste for the tomatoes and upped the wine and milk by a quarter cup. I was trying to replicate a bolognese we just had in Florence and this, my husband declared, was better! Thank you! Your blog recipes are now my years goal!

  5. Fiona says:

    so unbelievably amazing! now the entire house spells like yumminess!

  6. Also don’t usually comment but had to this time. I have made this bolognese twice and the family loves it…I now have no reason to search any longer for a better sauce! THANK YOU!

  7. […] bolognese sauces and wrote extensively about the dish. I found this post along with one over at Food Nouveau particularly fascinating. I love that there can be so many variations between dishes in the region […]

  8. Irene says:

    I have been looking for this recipe for years. I always remember my grandmother making this type of sauce for her ravioles. I always referred to her recipe as brown sauce, not red. thanks, dying to try it. Could she possibly put in dried mushrooms and used some of the broth from soaking?

  9. wtfb says:

    I followed your instructions to the letter and I am now prancing around the house singing “This is the best bolognese I have ever made!”
    (And I’ve made a lot in my time)

    Well done. This recipe is definitely a keeper!

  10. Humberto says:

    Hello there,

    i don’t usually leave comments but after trying this recipe I’m speechless. WOW!! thats all i can think of after every bite. this must be the best recipe i’ve ever come across. thank you for sharing.

  11. Lilian says:

    This sauce sounds like a really good classic bolognese but I was wondering why there are no herbs added? Is it ok if I were to add 1/2 tsp dried thyme and 1/2 tsp dried oregano to it? Would the addition of nutmeg affect the flavor? Thanks if u can reply ASAP as I plan to make this for a family gathering. Otherwise the recipe sounds wonderful and I’d much prefer white wine compared to red wine.

    • It says in the description that addings herbs is frowned upon, and isn’t officially classed as bolognese at that point.

    • Jill says:

      NO to the herbs but nutmeg is always added when you put in the meat to brown.

    • Teresa R says:

      It’s explained right in the post:

      “Seasoning: This recipe (perhaps surprisingly) does not contain any aromatic herbs or spices. It is frowned upon to add bay leaves or red pepper flakes. The only flavoring in this recipe is sea salt and black pepper. It is highly recommended to use sea or kosher salt as it lends a more refined taste than regular table salt.”

      It’s your sauce; you can add what you want to it, but honestly it does not need it and if you do, it won’t be authentic anymore.

  12. susan chapman says:

    Grated nutmeg finish with butter.

    • dj says:

      This isn’t correct.

      This recipe is perfect as is and honestly there’s no need to add nutmeg. I’ve made it already and will make it again, and in no way shape or form did I alter the recipe one bit. I know that many bolognese recipes may include nutmeg, but honestly, this recipe doesn’t need it. There’s no game-y-ness here and there’s a reason the author left this out.

  13. Kristy says:

    I’ve made this recipe probably 5 or 6 times now and absolutely love it! I have also doubled it and froze it in meal sized portion and it tastes just as amazing!

  14. Nikki says:

    Do you add meat to sauted vegetables, or cook the meet seperately? Will the vegetables not burn while caramelizing with meat?
    Thanks

  15. Kathleen murray says:

    Best explained recipe I have ever read. The result was superb

  16. patmay1122 says:

    Hi: can the meat and veggies be browned and then put all in the crockpot to simmer?

    • I never tried to make the sauce in a crockpot. I’m not sure that it would work because the liquids need to evaporate, and a crockpot prevents that to happen. Maybe you could crack the lid open for a portion of the cooking time. If you ever try it, come back and let me know if the recipe worked!

  17. Kathy says:

    Wonderful!!! Takes me back to Florence!

  18. karena says:

    Great, multi-dimensional flavor. But it’s a little heavy on the salt, despite my use of unsalted butter.

  19. NikkiCollins says:

    I’ve made this twice and both times, there was too much liquid after adding the meat for it to brown properly. And both times, the sauce tasted wonderful at the end, so I cannot imagine how good it would taste when this taste component was incorporated properly! I suspect i am adding too much onion/carrot/celery/garlic and that is why it is not dry enough – but who knows. I sneak some red pepper in, as well. Lovely recipe – my 2nd generation Italian friends give it a huge thumbs up – so they do not care if it is not “traditional’ nor do I. Thank you!

  20. brittany says:

    The first time I’ve ever tried authentic italian sauce was when my italian roommates mom would drop by to visit and spend the whole day making her own sauce. Immediately I fell in love! My snobby roommate just would not share the recipe so after months of looking for a sauce similar to her mother’s I found it. Bolognese! Your ingredients is how I can somewhat remember her making it. Cannot wait to try it when I move into my new apartment at school next week! Thank you so much!!!

  21. Jade Weldon says:

    We absolutely LOVE this recipe. After coming back from Bologna we had the holiday blues, and i’m so glad I found this recipe. This is my 7th time making it now. We have a portion every week, it freezes so well. :) Thank you for sharing..

  22. Laura says:

    This recipe is amazing. After making it several times, I decided to put it to the ultimate challenge and make it for my 100% Italian father(who is a chef) and 100% Italian step-mother…both born and raised New Yorker’s and die hard foodies who have eaten in ALL the best Italian restaurants in NYC. While my dad was too proud to admit it full on, my step-mother declared this “the best bolognese she has ever had.” Which means…better then his:) Score! This is a huge compliment, to you and me, so thank you! BTW, I have found that the caramelizing technique here for the veggies and meat works great as a base for a shorter cooking, week-night “wing it” ragu with whatever I have on hand. Making one now! But for the real deal, when time and ingredients permit, your exact recipe is a sure fire way to impress. Awesome.

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