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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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314 Responses to How to Make an Authentic Bolognese Sauce

  1. Maarten says:

    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!

  2. 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!!!

    • Happy the sauce was so amazingly successful with your Italian friends! That’s a rave review if I’ve ever read one.

      • 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 :)

  3. JJ says:

    when milk added, sort of separated and had a curdled appearance. tasted great but had a funny appearance.

  4. Tiffany rooprai says:

    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.

  5. I just want to say how delicious this recipe was! So much more taste dimensions with the beef mince remaining the star. #authentic #italian
    I have to post it onto my blog

  6. Len Miarecki says:

    Wonderful recipe , added a little nutmeg and it freezes well also

  7. Teresa says:

    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!

  8. 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 :)

  9. Lisa gall says:

    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.

  10. Usually the bolognese sauce doesn’t have garlic in it either. Also, I know the San Marzano tomatoes are supposed to be the best but I have found them too sweet…and they are quite expensive. Just my opinion.

  11. I think you can cook it for 2 hours and it will be fine. It is better the next day, though.

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