Ragu alla Bolognese
Everyone traveling to Bologna, Emilia Romagna, is bound to eat ragù Bolognese, ricetta tradizionale and/or ricetta antica. Served with fresh tagliatelle, particularly spinach tagliatelle, it is the precursor to meat sauce as we know it, and still the main Sunday staple at a Bolognese Sunday meal. The ricetta antica, an old recipe, has milk added while the sauce simmers, to give it additional richness and velvety texture. Today it is mostly the tradizionale, without milk, that is cooked in Bologna.
Pasta, preferably Gnocchi
As a topping for polenta or polenta pasticciata
To make risotto
To fill and sauce ravioli
Serves3 quarts of sauce from either formula, enough for 6 pounds of pasta
Make Ahead RecipeYes
OccasionBuffet, Casual Dinner Party, Family Get-together
Recipe CourseMain Course
Taste and TextureMeaty, Rich, Savory, Spiced, Winey
Type of DishPasta Sauce
- 2 pounds ground beef (15-percent fat content)
- 2 pounds ground pork (15-percent fat content)
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 6 ounces bacon or pancetta
- 5 fat garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium onions, minced in a food processor or finely chopped
- 2 large stalks celery, minced in a food processor or chopped
- 1 carrot, shredded
- ½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 6 tablespoons tomato paste
- 8 cups very hot milk
- Nutmeg for grating (to make ½ teaspoon, or more to taste)
- 2 cups or more hot turkey broth, hot Simple Vegetable Broth, or plain hot water or a combination of these
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups dry red wine
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 cups canned plum tomatoes and juices, passed through a food mill or crushed by hand
- 8 to 12 cups or more hot turkey broth, Simple Vegetable Broth, or plain hot water
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- A 10-to-12-inch heavy-bottomed saucepan, or Dutch oven with a 6-quart capacity
For both ragù bolognese: Preparing the meat and pestata
Put all 4 pounds of ground meat in a large mixing bowl. With your fingers, crumble and loosen it all up; then toss and crumble the beef and pork together. Pour over it the white wine, and work all the meat through your fingers again so it’s evenly moistened.
To make the pestata, cut the bacon or pancetta slices into 1-inch pieces and put them in the bowl of a food processor with the peeled garlic. Process them into a fine paste.
For both ragù bolognese: Cooking the sauce base
Pour the olive oil into the heavy saucepan, and scrape in all of the pestata. Set the pan over medium-high heat, and break up the pestata and stir it around the pan bottom to start rendering the fat. Cook for 3 minutes or more, stirring often, until the bacon and garlic are sizzling and aromatic and there’s a good deal of fat in the pan.
Stir the minced onions into the fat and cook for a couple of minutes, until sizzling and starting to sweat. Stir in the celery and carrot, and cook the vegetables until wilted and golden, stirring frequently and thoroughly over medium-high heat, about 5 minutes or more.
Turn the heat up a notch, push the vegetables off to the side, and plop all the meat into the pan; sprinkle the salt on. Give the meat on the pan bottom a few moments to brown, then stir, spread, and toss with a sturdy spoon, mixing the meat into the vegetables and making sure every bit of meat browns and begins releasing fat and juices. Soon the meat liquid will almost cover the meat itself. Cook at high heat, stirring often, until all that liquid has disappeared, even in the bottom of the pan. This will take 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the heat and the width of the pan. Stir occasionally, and as the liquid level diminishes, lower the heat too, so the meat doesn’t burn.
Heat up slowly the cooking liquids for either the ricetta antica (milk) or the ricetta tradizionale (broth), whichever version you are making. The procedures for the two are different, so I am giving them in separate sections.
Long-cooking bolognese ricetta antica with milk:
When all the meat liquid has been cooked off, drop the 6 tablespoons of tomato paste into a clear space on the pan bottom. Toast it for a minute in the hot spot, then stir to blend it with the meat and cook for another 2 or 3 minutes.
Pour in 2 cups of the hot milk and stir into the meat; add more milk if needed to bring the level just over the top of the meat. Grate the nutmeg right above the pan, dropping in at least ½ teaspoon, or more if you love it. Stir it in well; also, carefully clear the pan bottom of any caramelized bits, meat or vegetable, as milk will stick in these spots and scorch.
Bring the sauce liquid to an active simmer, cover the pan, and adjust the heat to maintain slow, steady cooking, with small bubbles perking all over the surface of the sauce.
From this point, the Bolognese should cook for 3 hours. Check the pot every 20 minutes, and add hot milk as needed to cover the meat. The liquid level should be reducing by 1½ to 2 cups between additions, so you’ll need to have warm broth or water ready to replenish the sauce after all the milk has been added.
If the sauce level is falling much faster, and it takes more than 2 cups to cover the meat, lower the heat to slow the evaporation. If the sauce level drops slowly or not at all, raise the heat and set the cover ajar to speed its concentration. Stir well at every addition (and in between), and make sure nothing’s sticking to the bottom.
For the final stage, see below.
Long-cooking bolognese ricetta tradizionale with wine, tomatoes, and broth
When all the meat liquid has been cooked off, pour in the 2 cups of red wine. Raise the heat if you’ve lowered it, and stir the meat as the wine comes to a boil. Cook until the wine has almost completely evaporated, about 5 minutes. Now drop the 2 tablespoons tomato paste into a clear space on the pan bottom. Toast a minute in the hot spot, then stir with the meat and let caramelize for 2 or 3 minutes.
Stire in the crushed tomatoes; slosh the tomato container out with a cup of hot broth and add. Bring the liquid to a boil, stirring the meat, and let the liquid almost boil off, 5 minutes more.
Pour in 2 cups of hot broth, stir well, and add more if needed to cover the meat. Bring it to an active simmer, cover the pan, and adjust the heat to maintain slow, steady cooking, with small bubbles perking all over the surface of the sauce.
From this point, the Bolognese should cook for 3 hours. Check the pot every 20 minutes, and add hot broth as needed to cover the meat. The liquid level should be reducing by 1½ to 2 cups between additions; if it’s falling much faster, and it takes more than 2 cups to cover the meat, lower the heat to slow the evaporation. If the sauce level drops slowly or not at all, raise the heat and set the cover ajar to speed its concentration. Stir well at every addition.
For both ragù bolognese: Finishing the sauce and final steps
During the final interval of cooking, you want to reduce the level of the liquid–once milk or broth, but now a highly developed sauce. At the end, the meat should no longer be covered but appear suspended in a thick, flowing medium. If the meat is still submerged in a lot of liquid, remove the cover completely to cook off moisture quickly.
A few minutes before the end of cooking, taste a bit of meat and sauce, and add salt if you want. Grind 1 teaspoon of black pepper right into the sauce, stir it in, and cook about 5 minutes before removing the pan from the heat.
If you’ll be using the sauce right away, spoon off the fat from the surface—or stir it in, as is done traditionally. Otherwise, let the sauce cool, then chill it thoroughly and lift off the solidified fat. Store the sauce for several days in the refrigerator, or freeze it (in measured amounts for different dishes) for use within a few months.
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