This authentic Bolognese Sauce is meat-centric and completely different from the bright red, tomato-based North American version of the sauce: it’s creamy, aromatic, and surprisingly delicate in flavor.
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Bolognese sauce has long been the generic name for a meat and tomato pasta sauce in North America. Tasting Bolognese sauce in Italy reveals a surprisingly different experience: my first encounter with an authentic Bolognese sauce was in Modena, Italy. I was walking around that friendly university town and was attracted by a cute café to grab a bite for lunch. It was a trendy spot: the decor was all white, the music was loungy, and comfy couches littered the back of the restaurant. The place was filled with students hanging out or working on their computers. The friendly owner described his very short daily menu, but after learning we’d arrived in the region just the day before, he warmly recommended that we taste his Pappardelle Bolognese. His slow-simmered sauce was made daily, using only fresh ingredients, of course. He was so proud to know his sauce would the first true Bolognese sauce we’d ever tasted—and the experience revealed itself to be unforgettable indeed. The Bolognese sauce was meaty but surprisingly delicate in flavor, aromatic, and creamy. I’d never tasted a pasta dish that married so well with a shower of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The first Ragù Bolognese I tasted in Modena, Italy.
I enjoyed several other bowls of that magnificent yet simple dish over the course of my trip and came back home determined to recreate the delightful Bolognese Sauce I’d had in Italy, or Ragù Bolognese as it is called in its country of origin.
I knew that Italians take their culinary heritage seriously, but it turns out Italians really aren’t messing around when it comes to Bolognese: in 1982, the Academia Italiana della Cucina officially registered the recipe with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce. The registered recipe states that Bolognese sauce must contain onions, celery, carrots, pancetta, ground beef, tomatoes, milk, and white wine.
Of course, there is no single recipe for Italian Bolognese sauce; the ratios vary, but the basic ingredients remain the same. After extensive research and countless tests, I came up with what I think is the closest to the sauce I tasted in and around Bologna.
I published the first version of this post in 2010 and made *so many* batches of Bolognese sauce since then! I keep updating this post when I come up with new tips or techniques to help you make the very best authentic Bolognese sauce possible.
My recipe currently features the tips I’ve gathered after eight years of passionate Bolognese sauce-making, as well as the method to make Bolognese sauce using a slow cooker.
I’ll first break down the recipe into detailed steps with helpful pictures, but you can also skip it all and jump to a printable version of the recipe at the bottom of the post.
Got any questions? Browse the comments below, or add one of your own!
Onion, celery, carrots—a.k.a. soffritto
The combination of diced onion, celery, and carrots cooked in olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper is called a soffritto in Italian cuisine. It is the base of many Italian dishes, including Bolognese sauce. This is the step that will require the most hands-on work, and knife skills matter! You need to dice everything evenly into small ¼-inch (0.5-cm) pieces. Take a few minutes to really apply yourself because the uniformity of the soffrito means the ingredients will cook evenly and produce a more enjoyable texture.
You may be surprised to learn that tomatoes are NOT the main ingredient in Italian Bolognese sauce. Authentic Italian Bolognese is very different from the bright red, tomato-based sauce most of us grew up eating. It is, rather, a meat-centric, rich, creamy sauce. Italian Bolognese sauce contains a small quantity (relative to volume) of tomatoes for taste, but it remains a meat sauce, first and foremost. You can use either diced tomatoes or crushed tomatoes. No need to buy fancy San Marzano tomatoes, although if you have those on hand, feel free to use them in this sauce. If the canned tomatoes you have on hand are whole, simply puree them using a hand mixer, blender, or food processor.
Use lean ground meat. I like to use a combination of half beef and half veal, but you can use one or the other or both.
You need diced pancetta for this recipe. You’ll usually find pre-packaged, thinly sliced pancetta in grocery stores, but that won’t work in Bolognese sauce because you’re looking for not only the added flavor but texture too. Some brands sell diced pancetta, but if you can’t find it, ask for it at the deli counter, or buy it from a specialty store. I promise pancetta is worth seeking out!
Everyone’s surprised when I mention that my Bolognese sauce contains milk. Indeed, most of us aren’t used to adding milk to meat sauces, yet in Bolognese, it is the surprise, miraculous ingredient that gives rich body to the sauce and makes the meat so tender. It also produces a sauce that is more orange than red. Use whole milk (3.25% m.f.) or partly skimmed milk (2% m.f.). You can use either regular or lactose-free milk. I’ve never tried using vegan milk (soy, rice, or nut), but if you do, make sure to pick one that can sustain boiling for an extended period. Most plant milk will curdle and produce an unappealing look and texture upon boiling. Do not use cream.
The registered 1982 recipe doesn’t include broth, but most recipes I’ve encountered add water to the sauce to allow for the long simmering process. Using beef stock is a substitute I quickly adopted because it adds a bit of depth to the sauce. You can use vegetable broth or water instead.
This recipe (perhaps surprisingly) does not contain any aromatic herbs or spices. It is frowned upon to add bay leaves or red pepper flakes to Italian Bolognese sauce. The only flavorings in this recipe are sea salt and black pepper. I highly recommend using sea salt or kosher salt because it seasons with better flavor and more subtlety than regular table salt.
This is a hearty sauce that should be combined with pasta that can support its weight. In Italy, it is often served with pappardelle pasta—I especially like the super-wide kind I used in the pictures. You can also serve the sauce with tagliatelle, linguine, or spaghetti. Always make sure to mix the hot sauce with the hot pasta before you divide it between serving bowls—as opposed to dividing the pasta and then ladling some sauce over the pasta. This allows the sauce to coat the pasta and absorb into it, which makes for a much more enjoyable and delicious experience.
Use only freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. The sharp, salty flavor of the Italian cheese has no substitute and is a perfect match to the meaty sauce—unsurprisingly so since both Bolognese sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano come from the same Italian province, Emilia-Romagna.
Stovetop Cooking Method
This sauce doesn’t like to be rushed. The only way for the sauce to become so rich in texture and flavor is a slow, long-simmering—and I mean a two- to a three-hour simmer. You first need to cook the soffritto and then brown the meat, both of which will require about 20 minutes of active time. The rest of the cooking process is hands-off, safe from a quick stir every half hour or so. If you’re gonna make authentic Italian Bolognese sauce, it’s worth making it right.
Slow Cooker Method
Over the years, I’ve so often been asked whether this sauce can be made in the slow-cooker that I decided to test it to come up with a method to do so. My recipe now includes slow cooker instructions: you’ll find them in the printable recipe at the bottom of the post. Note that you’ll still need to go through the soffritto and meat-browning process first, but using the slow-cooker to finish the sauce means the simmering process is totally hands-off.
I hope you fall in love with this Italian Bolognese sauce as hard as my family has. It’s an evergreen classic at my house, and it has been my son’s favorite dish ever since he’s been able to hold a spoon. If so, please tell me about it in the comment section below. It’s always a pleasure for me to read you!
Makes 12 servings.
In a stockpot set over medium heat, add the butter and the oil and stir until the butter is melted. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and half of the salt (½ tsp/2 ml) and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft.
Add the diced pancetta and cook for a further 10 minutes, until the pancetta is golden and crisp.
Add a third of the ground meat, stirring and breaking lumps with a wooden spoon between each addition. Adding the meat gradually allows the excess water and liquid to evaporate, which is key for the meat to caramelize properly. Once the meat is cooked, add a third more of the meat, stirring and breaking lumps as you go. Repeat with the remaining meat. When the meat is cooked and no lumps remain, set a timer to 10 minutes and keep cooking the meat, stirring from time to time. You want the meat to caramelize and even become crispy in spots. Golden bits of meat will stick to the bottom of the pot, which you will deglaze with white wine later. Watch over the pan at all times as you don’t want the meat to burn.
Add the white wine into the pot. With the wooden spoon, scrape all the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. 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 to 3 minutes). Be careful not to let the meat stick to the pot again—lower the heat if necessary.
Add the milk, tomatoes, beef broth, remaining salt (½ tsp/2 ml) and a generous grinding of black pepper. Bring to a boil and then lower to the lowest heat setting.
Half-cover and simmer gently for 2.5 to 3 hours, setting yourself a timer to give the sauce a stir every half hour. Start monitoring the texture of the sauce after 2 hours: the sauce is ready when it’s thick like oatmeal. It should look rich and creamy, and no liquid should separate from the sauce when you push the sauce to one side. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.
If making the sauce in a slow-cooker, you need to decrease the quantity of some of the liquids used in the recipe:
1 cup (250 ml) whole (3.25%) or partly skimmed (2%) milk
1 can (14 oz/398 g) diced tomatoes, or crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup (125 ml) beef broth
You also need to add the following ingredient: 1/4 cup (60 ml) tomato paste. Tomato paste is required in the slow cooker method to help add body to the sauce, which won’t benefit from the same simmering and thickening process as the stovetop method.
All the remaining ingredients stay the same.
Cook the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, pancetta, and ground meat following the instructions provided above. Deglaze the pan using the white wine, as instructed, then transfer the mixture to the bowl of a slow cooker. Stir in the milk, tomatoes, beef broth, tomato paste, and some ground black pepper. (Do not add more salt at this point; wait until the end of the cooking process to taste and adjust seasoning if needed.) Cover and cook on the LOW setting for about 6 hours. If the sauce still seems soupy and runny after that period of time, keep cooking for about 2 hours, or remove the lid and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until you reach the desired consistency. If the sauce seems a bit dry, you can stir in a bit of beef broth to make it right. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning if needed.
Reheat the sauce, if needed. Add 1 generous tablespoon (15 ml) of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano per serving straight into the sauce, stirring to melt and incorporate the cheese. For example, if reheating enough sauce to serve 4 people, add 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup/60 ml) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to the sauce. This addition will boost the flavor of the sauce and produce an incredibly creamy result.
Cook the pasta of your choice according to the manufacturer’s instructions, then drain thoroughly and return to the pot. Add the sauce and stir, until tongs, to evenly distribute the sauce and coat the pasta with it. Divide between warm bowls. Garnish with fresh basil leaves, if desired, and more Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste.
Let the sauce cool completely to room temperature. Divide the Bolognese Sauce into portions and store in airtight containers or glass jars. Refrigerate for up to a week, or freeze for up to three months.
Tell me how you liked it! Leave a comment or take a picture and tag it with @foodnouveau on Instagram.
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