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What Is Bolognese Sauce?
Bolognese is the international name for ragù alla Bolognese, a long-simmering Italian meat sauce traditionally used for lasagna and tagliatelle. The sauce starts with a base of soffritto—aromatic vegetables such as onion, carrot, and celery—cooked in olive oil until soft. Ground or diced meat, usually beef and pancetta, make up the body of the sauce, with wine, chicken stock, and tomato puree forming the braising liquid.
What Are the Origins of Bolognese?
The name Bolognese belies its origins: The sauce is from Bologna, in the north of Italy. Before machine-ground meat became widely available, Bolognese was made from small hand-cut pieces of beef or veal, and some purists still insist on chopping the meat by hand. The defining feature of an authentic Bolognese sauce, however, is a long, slow period of simmering over low heat.
What Pastas are Best to Pair With Bolognese?
In Italy, ragù alla Bolognese is usually served with wide, flat pastas such as lasagna, tagliatelle, and pappardelle. Outside of Italy, Bolognese sauce has been reinterpreted as spaghetti sauce with the addition of ground meat. This tomato-based sauce works well with a variety of pasta shapes, from the obvious spaghetti Bolognese to a weeknight sauce perfect for rigatoni, fettuccine, and penne.
6 Essential Bolognese Ingredients
Authentic Bolognese sauce includes:
- Soffritto: An Italian soffritto, similar to a Mexican sofrito or French mirepoix, is a base of aromatic vegetables used to flavor braised dishes. It's typically made up of onion, celery, and carrot, though some recipes add garlic cloves.
- Meat: Beef or veal is typically the main ingredient in a Bolognese sauce, whether ground or diced. Pork, in the form of pancetta, bacon, or even ground pork, adds fat and salt.
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes are a more modern addition to Bolognese. True Bolognese is not a tomato sauce with ground beef mixed in, but it benefits from some umami in the form of a little tomato paste or crushed tomatoes.
- Herbs and spices: Traditional Bolognese is flavored simply with salt, black pepper, and nutmeg, but many modern recipes call for the addition of bay leaf and oregano.
- Wine: Dry white wine is the classic choice for Bolognese, though some recipes use red wine. The wine both deglazes the soffritto and adds depth of flavor as part of the braising liquid.
- Dairy: Dairy, in the form of whole milk or a little heavy cream, is usually part of the Bolognese sauce mixture. The addition of milk is one of the most obvious differences between an Italian-style ragù alla Bolognese and an American or British interpretation of Bolognese sauce. Of course, you can also garnish your pasta with a little grated parmesan cheese.
Simple Bolognese Recipe
Prep Time20 min
Total Time3 hr 40 min
Cook Time3 hr 20 min
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound ground beef
- 3 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 3 ounces (½ can) tomato paste
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
- 1 cup whole milk
- Prepare the soffritto. In the bowl of a food processor, combine onion, carrot, and celery and pulse until finely chopped. (Alternatively, mince the soffritto by hand.)
- In a Dutch oven over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Once shimmering, add the soffritto. Sauté until very soft, about 5 minutes. Add ground beef (in roughly 1-inch pieces) and pancetta. Season with salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until pancetta is crispy and fat has rendered out, about 5 minutes.
- Add wine, tomato paste, black pepper, and nutmeg and continue cooking, using a wooden spoon to stir and break up clumps of ground beef, until the wine has almost evaporated, about 10 minutes.
- Add stock and milk and reduce to low heat. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender and sauce has a thick texture, about 3 hours. If the sauce dries out during cooking, add ½ cup water. (If you're making pasta to go with the Bolognese sauce, this can be pasta water.) Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Serve with about a pound of fresh pasta and grated parmesan cheese, or refrigerate in an airtight container up to 4 days.
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