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.

My recipe is based on two references: Josée Di Stasio, an Italian-Canadian celebrity cook and TV host in Quebec, and Jacob Kenedy, chef and co-author of The Geometry of Pasta.

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.

Download this recipe in PDF format - Food Nouveau

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255 Responses to How to Make an Authentic Bolognese Sauce

  1. 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.

  2. Liz says:

    Made this last night, definitely worth the patience! Recipe is a keeper, and any time I crave a nice hearty bolognese in the future, don’t doubt I’ll be using this recipe. Thanks!

  3. Jen says:

    Hello, this is probably a stupid question, but can I make this in advance? How many days can I keep it in the fridge for? And can it be frozen?

    P.s. love this sauce!

    • You can and should make the sauce in advance! It gets even better the next day. You can keep it in the fridge for about three days, or freeze it in portions for a few months.

  4. idahogem1 says:

    Sooo excited to try this tomorrow. :)

  5. elle says:

    I cannot praise this recipe enough. I have tried countless “authentic” bolognese recipes. This is absolutely second to none. Following each step and each ingredient as it is written without substitutes or additions truly is the key to the most delicious authentic bolognese you will ever put in your mouth. The longer you take to thoroughly follow each step the better it tastes. It’s not a fast dish to prepare by any means, but it is the fastest to be eaten bar none. Take your time and trust this recipe word for word. You will be extremely proud of the end result.

  6. bethbilous says:

    Does it really matter that much if red or white wine is used? Which is better?

  7. Adam says:

    Very nice, easy-to follow and very authentic formula! I can’t buy veal here in Japan, but I know that many folks from Bologna, etc, would notice the lack of chicken liver in this particular formulation, so I added it. My guests were jumping up and down with joy. Thank you for this delightful sauce recipe!

  8. Mark S. says:

    Missing one essential ingredient, 1/2 finely chopped anchovy melted into oil prior to meat. Elevates dish.

  9. Francesca says:

    I love this recipe. Making it for the second time for company. Is the secret to thickening the sauce adding tomato paste?
    Because I had trouble thickening the sauce the first time I made it. It was so great though!
    I’m serving a salad, do I need to serve a vegetable on the side of the pasta too?
    Would love feedback!
    Thank you!

    • The secret to a thick, rich sauce is to cook it for a very long time over low heat so the excess liquids slowly evaporate. If you’re patient enough, you won’t need tomato paste to make the sauce thicker.

      • TTT says:

        I am on my fourth batch of making this incredible sauce. I followed the directions to a tee each time. The last two times the sauce did not thicken as I would have liked even though it cooked slowly for 4-5 hours. It’s a little watery and oily. I’ve seen other recipes that don’t call for butter. Wondering if that is causing it. Any idea is welcome.

  10. marino says:

    Hi,i never heard of garlic on the ragu bolognese….the old bolognese way of doing it is also adding some chicken liver to it..and no milk..

  11. Bruno says:

    Amazingly authentic and delicious! Great detailed receipe. Thank you

  12. splayds says:

    Superb,was demolished before I had a chance to grate the parmesano lol!!

  13. I’ve made this many times, perfecting the perfect beef, pork, bacon…etc. thank you so much for the detailed recipe! We love it! I use organic beef and Italian sweet pork sausage and a natural bacon and it is so good. Better than any fine restaurant we’ve tried!

  14. Chris Long says:

    It is simmering right now , looks and smells great. Only problem I had was browning the meats after sweating the vegetables. They did not want to brown, so I browned them separately.

    • Jilla says:

      I brown the soffrito first…that is the celery, onion and carrot mix…then I put in the ground meat.
      I find it I use a pastry cutter…that thing with the wires…it really helps to break up the meat. The browning does take awhile but you want the flavors of the soffrito mixed in with the meat.

  15. S says:

    no garlic and no tomatoes !

  16. Cathey M says:

    Thank You, this was an incredible meal. Rich and packed with flavor. I used 1# ea. BPV and I did add 2 T paste with 1 cup stock half way through. It was creamy and had all the flavors packed in to it.

  17. aristess says:

    This recipe is something I cook about once every 2-3 weeks. I follow it it closely (with or without the odd change of ingredient if I have run out) and I simply adore the delicious flavours! Thank you for sharing a wonderful recipe, it has become a delicious pleasure of mine to indulge cooking and eating.

  18. Dutch-Student says:

    This was by far the BEST bolognese recipe I ever laid my hands on. Everyone loved it and cleared their plates in a record time. Whilst I couldn’t simmer the sauce for the full 4 hours due to time constraints, it ended up delicious.

  19. Wookchikk says:

    My man hates tomato sauce so carbonara, pesto and alfredo have been it. I’ve made this twice, though, now and we both gobble it down! Tried both beef/pork and beef/veal and I prefer the pork. Steelar recipe! Thank you

  20. Al Bern says:

    delicious, many thanks and best wishes, making it for the second time now, looking forward to get even better result.

  21. Yasmin says:

    I’m making this for the second time today. Great recipe, much appreciated! Thank you for sharing.

  22. Evelyn says:

    I have my first try simmering right now. My house smells so good! I will be serving this to friends this evening, it’s sure to be a hit.

  23. Jill Crane says:

    I always follow Marcella Hazen’s recipe. The only differences are…she says traditional Ragu’ never has garlic in it and she adds the milk first and lets it cook down, then she adds the wine and lets it cook down, then she adds the tomatoes. I plan to try your recipe but I would really like to know if the secret recipe in Bologna has garlic. My daughter has lived in Italy for 23 years and she makes it with garlic and without milk. It still tastes great. It is the fact that it is a meat sauce and not a tomato sauce that makes it great. I have only found one restaurant in America where it is close to the real Bolognese Ragu’. Now I am hungry for it!

  24. WJB says:

    Simply amazing. I’ve lived all over the world, cooked all over the world, and simple is usually best. Please, make this AS IS once, then see what you’d like to add, or not. (After five or six tries, I just follow the recipe as written – maybe a little less salt.) Also, I made a wonderful old Italian nonna cry when she ate this today. I win the internet!

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