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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334 Responses to How to Make an Authentic Bolognese Sauce

  1. Absolutely delicious!!….used bacon instead of pancetta…..diced and lightly browned then added soffitto till it was tender. Followed directions exactly after that!!!…In my part of the world we eat more southern style. I wanted to try something completely different. So glad I did!! I did use half ground beef half ground pork.

  2. Ok so my have been making this gravy for a few years now and everyone I make it for loves it. I even use it to make lasagna and it’s amazing.

    I do have a question, I’m going to make this for a work thing. But I don’t have time to make it the day of. Any sugtions on the best way to make it a day before and how to reheat it/ bring it back to life?

    • It’s absolutely not a problem to make this sauce in advance, in fact, it’s better to do so! Storing the sauce for a day or two allows flavors to develop even more. Once your sauce is done, refrigerate it in an airtight container. When ready to serve, pour the sauce back in a saucepan and reheat over low heat. As it’s cold out of the fridge, the sauce will be stiff, but it’ll loosen up again when warm. It’s as simple as that!

      • You can add some of the pasta water to it after you have cooked the pasta. Put the sauce in the pasta pan add the pasta then add a little of the saved water a little at a time until you get the right consistency. Don’t forget, when you had the Parmigiano that it will thicken up some.

  3. I am from Serbia and our ,,Bolognese” is onion, mixed pork and beef and watery tomato juice, prepared in one hour or less :O just terrible, the only sauce from Serbia I can eat is my mum’s!
    Luckily, as a big fan of Italian cuisine and a daughter of a great cook, I’ve come across recipes with milk and wine. Adding milk sounded absoulutely bizzare at first, but today I tried anyway. For the first time I got rich, creamy oatmeal texture, after two hours of cooking :D
    Next time I’ll add pancetta, carrots and celery and cook even longer on a lower temperature. Also, tagliatelle advice was great, since I’ve noticed that meat keeps falling off my spaghetti, and so is advice to use butter (olive oil seemed more logical to a non-Italian) and let meat get brown (I was simmering from the beginning, not sautéeing for like 10 minutes). Thank you, I’ve bookmarked this post :)
    PS: it may not be authentic, but I’ve noticed that adding a bit of finely shredded walnuts 10 minutes before finishing bolognese adds AWESOME taste! You could try it sometime :)

  4. I’ve tried many, this is the best. There are ‘Bolognese-smiles’ table wide from all the family and kids.

  5. Sooo happy i found this recipe! Thank you so much! My friends, husband and i absolutely love this receipe…. I’m a BIG bolognaise fan and this is one of the best i have ever had/made

  6. A great recipe. I pureed and food processed the onion, celery, and carrots and then added it to cook with the pancetta. My favorite recipe by far. Thank you!

  7. Did you leave the cover off for most of the cooking? That will help. Don’t worry as after it’s in the fridge it will thicken up a bit. Also, the pasta will soak up some of it. I rarely have that problem.
    I agree with the others about the fat. Unless it seems like a lot of fat I would just mix it in.

  8. I am at the 3 1/2 hour mark and my sauce is a bit watery, which I think is grease and oil. I’m not sure what to do?
    Also, going to eat it tomorrow night for dinner and made it in my le creuset. How do I put in fridge? Wait for it to cool in the le creuset and then transfer to another bowl for storing in fridge?

    • If the sauce feels watery, keep on simmering it, it’ll eventually evaporate, concentrating the flavor of the sauce. As for the fat, it will coagulate on top of the sauce when you refrigerate it, so you can easily scoop it off before reheating the sauce if you want (I use extra lean meat so I leave all the fat in as it mainly comes from the added oil, butter and cheese). I usually let the sauce cool right in the pot and once it’s at room temperature, I divide it into portions and refrigerate. If you think you’ll serve the whole pot of sauce and have space in the fridge, by all means, just let it cool then store it as is, straight in your Creuset! You’ll save on dish washing time too :)

  9. After every bolognese Ive ever tasted I’ve though there must be one out there that blows me away & this is the one I’ve been looking for. Followed the recipe “exactly” using pork & veal mince (70% pork 30% veal). I made sure I followed the soffrotto & mince browning procedure & even though it takes a bit of time & work I believe its worth the effort. Ended up with a meat sauce that was meaty, creamy & full of flavour. The friends I had over asked for the recipe it impressed that much. Will be the only way I make bolognese from now on. Thank you for this fantastic recipe :)

  10. I made it 2 times now, the first time with the beef stock and the second time without. The beef stock added a weird taste to it even after 4 hours of simmer. Should i try another brand or add more whine maybe?

    The second time it was delicious!

  11. Have made your recipe at least 10 times – never change a THING! Altho I’m German/Norwegian I won the Italian Cookoff at my Condo against the other 17 Italian Owners!!! They never stop asking me HOW I did it SO authentically!!! Absolutely PERFECT recipe and description!! Many THANKS!!!

      • Hey Marie – it IS a Rave Review because it IS a Rave Recipe!! I cook it on and Induction Surface so I’m really able to control the simmering temp – and – with the cover half-off I simmer it for at least 12 Hours!!!! I really think that the Longer Simmering Process is THE Trick!!! Thanks again!!!! Larry

        • Yes, the long simmering process is indeed at the core of this sauce’s deliciousness! Thanks again for taking the time to leave a note, your enthusiasm is infectious :)

  12. Being an Italian food enthusiast, I absolutely love this recipe. It is the best tasting bolognese sauce recipe I have ever discovered – hands down! I have referred to it at least a dozen times. I always have a bottle of red on hand (to drink only, use a dry white for the sauce), some music in the background and I enjoy every single step of the way.

    Some advice…this step is the cornerstone in my opinion (quote):
    “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….You want your meat to caramelize and even become crispy in spots…You want golden bits of meat to stick to the bottom of your pan, which will be deglazed later. ”

    Re-read above if you didn’t get it the first time. Then after it is caramelized then deglaze with a dry white wine (dry white wine … not sweet).

    Make sure you reduce it right down until there is caramelization (see picture in the recipe above).

    For best results, cook it for eating the next day.

    • I know you might not like this but instead of using a dry white wine I opted for Sweet Marsala wine (I have made it with the dry also) and it turned out really, really good. I use this recipe for a base, a place to work from to make a good, solid Bolognese. You can add or not add what you personally like. Some people add Thyme, I don’t. I like to add fresh parsley because I like green colors. I Use Marsala and other use white. The key is the process in which you treat the meat, veggies, and simmer the sauce. If you follow the steps properly it’s hard to screw it up.

  13. Excellent recipe! I have made it four times now and always use grass fed ground beef and grain fed pork in equal amounts and I think it makes a difference as I don’t see Italy filled with mass produced beef and I know their pork tastes better due to the feed. Yours is one recipe I do not alter, it is so darn good.

  14. This is the closest recipe to my great-grandma Nonna’s sauce. I think the secret is cooking the meat until it caramelizes. Thank you for that tip! It is my husband’s most favorite dinner, so I make it often and have never felt the need to make major alterations (sometimes I’ve used red wine instead of white if red was open, and I’ve tried a sprig of thyme on occasion). I’ve made this for company and everyone loves it. Thank you for sharing it!

  15. i loved this recipe. your right totally worth the time it takes and actually tasted better after sitting in the fridge and reheating with butter the next day. thank you for the excellent recipe and tutorial. Perfect fix for missing Italy after our week trip :)

  16. I love this sauce!! I used the San Marzano tomatoes and still added a pinch or two of brown sugar in the end. It’s hard to find these tomatoes here. Traveled about 2 hours away and found them in a very small Italian deli . Thank you for this recipe!!

    • I’m impressed that you traveled so far to find San Marzano tomatoes! They really do taste much better than regular canned tomatoes. If you can’t find San Marzano close to home, canned *italian* tomatoes will do. But you can also order San Marzano tomatoes online! You’ll find them on Amazon.com, for example.

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