Bolognese sauce has sort of become the generic name for a meat and tomato sauce in North America. Tasting it in Italy reveals a surprisingly different experience: my first encounter with an authentic Bolognese sauce was in Modena, Italy. I was wandering about that friendly university town and was 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. 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). When he learned I’d arrived in the region just the day before, he warmly recommended that I have his Spaghetti Bolognese, the sauce made daily with fresh ingredients–nothing frozen in there, of course. He was proud that his sauce what the first true Bolognese sauce I would have–and the experience was indeed 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 modern Modena caffè.
Of course, there is no single recipe of authentic 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.
- 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.
Makes about 8 servings.
15 minPrep Time
4 hr, 30 Cook Time
4 hr, 45 Total Time
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.