The Food Lab: Slow-Cooked Bolognese Sauce

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Ragù Bolognese is the undisputed king of meat sauces, and this is the best way to make it. [Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

If there's one thing I miss most about New York (aside from the pizza, that is), it's the cold, snowy winters. Not just because I love the cold and I love snow days (I do!), but more because those cold, frosty days make meaty, slow-cooked, rib-sticking winter dishes all the more delicious. And there's no dish meatier, more rib-sticking, or more satisfying to make than a big pot of ragù bolognese. It's an almost Pavlovian reaction for me: As soon as I see the first snowflakes of winter, my feet start working their way toward the butcher counter, my arms reach for my biggest Dutch oven, and my fingers make a beeline for that wooden spoon. (How to let all three do this at the same time is something that my brain has yet to work out.)

It's the kind of dish that I make in vast quantities, jar up, and ship off to family members. The kind of dish that I'll taste for seasoning, then taste again, then again, and perhaps one more time to be sure, and before I know it, I've eaten a couple servings of it straight out of the pot and ruined my appetite, only to discover that, nope, my appetite for Bolognese is still alive and kicking once it hits the dinner table.

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Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: When I say "ragù Bolognese," I'm talking true ragù, the slow-cooked meat sauce that is almost entirely composed of meat, with just a small amount of wine, stock, and tomato or dairy to bind it together. That "spaghetti Bolognese" you might get in Little Italy or a UK pub, made with ground beef simmered in marinara sauce, may be tasty, but it's an entirely different beast.*

* Of course, even saying "true ragù" is fighting words. Depending on whom you ask, whether it's a cook in Bologna or The Silver Spoon cookbook, recipes will vary widely, though all will agree that the sauce should be meat-forward, with only minor extra constituents to bolster—not distract or compete with—that meat.

My love of Bolognese all started back when I was a line cook at No. 9 Park, Barbara Lynch's flagship Northern Italian–inflected New American restaurant in Boston. One of my jobs every morning, all through the winter, was to pull out the giant rondeau that fit over four burners and make a batch of ragù Bolognese for the next night's service. (We always let it sit at least one night in the walk-in, for better flavor.) I'd carefully brown three different types of ground meat, while sautéing onions, carrots, celery, sage leaves, and chicken livers in a separate pan. I'd mix the two together, then simmer them all down with a mixture of veal and chicken stock, milk, wine, and just a touch of tomato.

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A few hours later, it would have reduced to a velvety-smooth sauce, so rich and hearty that only the fattest swaths of fresh pappardelle or tagliatelle could stand up to it.

Over the years, I've been tweaking and refining that recipe, testing out every variable I can think of to improve its flavor and texture (or, if you prefer, to align them a bit more with my own personal tastes). The result is that I've come up with a number of variations on the theme, including this No-Holds-Barred Lasagna Bolognese and another version that's going to appear in my cookbook, which comes out next year.

More recently, I got to thinking: I discovered that the oven is the best way to make a rich, full-flavored slow-cooked tomato sauce. What if I were to employ that same technique with my Bolognese?

What if, indeed. But let's start at the beginning.

Meet Your Meat

Like I said, Bolognese is a meat sauce, and, as a result, our choice of meats is one of the most important elements. At No. 9 Park, Lynch liked to use a combination of very coarsely ground veal, pork, and lamb. Why? Veal is rich in gelatin, but low in flavor. It gives the finished sauce a silky, smooth texture. Pork is high in fat, with a moderate amount of flavor. That fat emulsifies nicely into the finished sauce. Finally, lamb has a ton of flavor, but a rather coarse texture. By combining all three, you get a mixture that's flavorful, fatty, and silky—just like you would in, say, meatballs or meatloaf.

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But I always wondered: Since veal is pretty bland (not to mention expensive and difficult to find), is there a better way to get both gelatin and flavor into the mix? I knew that if I got rid of it, I'd have to find an alternative source of good gelatin. This was compounded by the fact that, while the original recipe uses gelatin-rich veal bone stock, I pretty much never have anything but chicken stock at home, and I'm not about to spend a day making a rich white veal stock for a recipe that already takes four hours on its own.

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I tried following the exact same recipe, but replacing the veal with ground beef and using 100% chicken stock. The flavor was indeed improved, but the sauce lacked a bit of its classic silkiness. The solution? Just add that gelatin on its own:

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Six full packets of gelatin, bloomed in thin store-bought chicken stock, brought enough body to the mix that, texture-wise, it was an improvement over even a veal stock–fortified version, while the ground beef improved the flavor. Pancetta, an ingredient common in many ragù recipes out there, also improved the sauce.

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What advantages does pancetta offer over plain old ground pork? Well, aside from the subtle spicing that accompanies it, cured meat products are a much more concentrated source of glutamic and inosinic acids. Glutamic acid—available in stable, solid, commercial form as MSG powder—is the organic compound, found in cured meats, cheeses, seafood, and the like, that's largely responsible for making things taste umami (a.k.a. savory), while inosinic acid acts as a sort of backup singer, increasing glutamic acid's effects.

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I tried incorporating the pancetta in various ways, including grinding it in a meat grinder, finely chopping it in a food processor, and adding simple dice. The third method is the easiest, and that diced pancetta melts away into the sauce as it cooks anyway.

In the original No. 9 Park recipe, the meat is cooked in a separate pan from the vegetables before both are combined. This kind of compartmentalized cooking is pretty common in the restaurant kitchen, as cooking like with like—meat with meat and veg with veg—gives you a bit more immediate control over exactly how much those ingredients are cooked, particularly when you're working in large batches.

Generally, I'm not a fan of retaining unnecessary restaurant techniques for home use, but in this case, it works well, especially since I like to make my ragù in large batches.

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While my meats are cooking on the stovetop, I sauté diced onions, carrots, and celery in a combination of rendered pancetta fat and butter, along with some minced garlic, parsley, and sage. As soon as the vegetables are tender, I add it all to the pot of cooked ground meat.

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De-Livering Liver

This takes us to what many folks who have tried Barbara Lynch's recipe would consider the key element. The, er...Barbara Lynch-pin, if you will (sorry): chicken livers. It's an ingredient that Pellegrino Artusi recommended in his 1891 cookbook Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, which includes one of the first printed recipes for ragù Bolognese—though chicken livers don't make it into many more modern recipes.

Either way, one thing is undeniable: Liver adds flavor and depth to the finished sauce, and does so in a way that sits in the background. Nobody who tastes the sauce would ever suspect that there are livers in it—unless they happen to bite into a chunk of one, that is.

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In the restaurant, I'd carefully clean and trim the veins and connective tissue from each liver before finely chopping them all by hand. These days, I find it way easier to just leave them as they are and blend them into a smooth purée using an immersion blender. Not only does it save me from having to painstakingly clean the livers, it also gets rid of those unpleasantly liver-y chunks of liver in the finished dish.

Liquid Refreshment

Now we get to the actual heart of the simmering step, and it's quite possibly the most contentious element in any recipe for ragù Bolognese: the liquid. Do we use wine? If so, white or red? What about milk? Does it really keep the meat tender? Okay, how about tomatoes? Do they have any place in a ragù?

I can't answer any of these questions in a valid way from an epistemological perspective, but I can tell you what I've found produces the best results, based on years of testing, reading, tasting, and researching.

First off: the wine.

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Here's the real shocker: It makes almost no difference whether you use red or white. Just as many casual drinkers** can't tell white wine from red when blindfolded, so long as you're starting with something that's dry and relatively oak-free, the starting color of the wine has very little impact on the final flavor of the dish after a long cook in a pot of sauce. Even more surprisingly, it actually doesn't make much difference in color, either.

** Or even experts, as some not-particularly-scientific studies have shown.

Whether you go with red or white, wine is an essential element in the flavor, adding just the touch of brightness and acidity needed to balance out the heaviness of the meat.

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Tomatoes are the other acidic element in the mix. The Silver Spoon's classic recipe calls for no other liquid than some tomato paste and water or stock to thin it out. I vastly prefer to use canned peeled whole tomatoes (preferably high-quality ones, like imported Italian D.O.P. San Marzanos). Starting with whole tomatoes gives you better flavor and more control over how concentrated they are in the finished dish. It's kind of like the difference between fresh-squeezed orange juice and orange juice concentrate. You'd only ever select the latter for convenience.

Given that the sauce is going to be simmering for hours, whole tomatoes (which I purée in the can) give better flavor.

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Next, I add the gelatin-enriched stock, which makes up the bulk of the liquid. As that stock reduces, it becomes more and more intense in both flavor and texture.

And now to the most controversial element: dairy.

Okay, so it's not that controversial. Almost all modern recipes for ragù Bolognese call for dairy in one form or another, whether it's milk or cream. What is controversial is exactly what effect that dairy has. Many sources claim that adding milk to the pot at the beginning of the cooking process will help keep the meat tender, though very few offer an explanation as to why.

The closest I could find to an explanation was this bit from Cook's Illustrated:

Why does milk make meat tender? Browning adds flavor, but it also causes the protein molecules in ground meat to denature. As the proteins unwind, they link up to create a tighter network and squeeze out some of the water in the meat. Long simmering allows some of that liquid to be reabsorbed. But if you skip the browning and cook the meat in milk (or any other liquid) at the outset, you limit the temperature of the meat to about 212 degrees. As a result, meat cooked in milk does not dry out and toughen but remains tender.

There are some big science-y-sounding words in there, but if you read it closely, it doesn't actually make much sense. You'll realize that, at best, the section should probably be retitled "Why does meat cooked in any liquid stay more tender than meat that you brown?"

I prefer to get my science the old-fashioned way: through some ordinary experimenting. I cooked up a few batches of ragù using different ratios of liquids, from 100% milk to 100% stock. Afterward, I drained the solids out and tasted them two ways: first, rinsed in stock to get rid of any excess milk stuck to the surface, and second, rinsed in milk to get rid of any excess stock stuck to the surface. Turns out that the liquid you cook the meat in has absolutely no bearing on how tender the result is. Meat cooked 100% in stock is indistinguishable from that cooked 100% in milk, provided that its surrounding environment at the time of tasting is the same.

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That said, adding milk to the cooking liquid and letting it reduce does have an effect on the finished flavor of the ragù (if you don't drain and rinse the meat, that is), giving it a more rounded profile and silkier texture. Perhaps it's the silkiness of the liquid in your mouth that tricks some people into believing that the meat itself is more tender?

Either way, it's clear that adding milk is a good thing.

How Now, Browned Cow?

And now we get to the most crucial phase of the process: the long cook. If you take a quick look back at that passage from Cook's Illustrated, it does make one good point: Browning meat toughens it far more than simply simmering it. But we also know that browning adds flavor, right?

In fact, some well-respected ragù recipes, like the version that Mario Batali makes on The Chew, call for browning the ground meats until very brown. In that version, he cooks the meat until it's what he calls "beyond brown." I've made that recipe (or variations close to it) a number of times, and have even eaten what can be presumed to be the same sauce at two of his restaurants. It's absolutely packed with flavor, but I simply can't get over the dried nubs you end up with when you brown ground meat past the last inch of its life.

Surely there had to be a way to get great browned flavor without reducing the tender meat to dry rubble?

In point of fact, the whole reason I was extra excited for Bolognese season to start this year was because of this slow-cooked tomato sauce technique I developed a few months back.

The concept is simple: Rather than simmering tomato sauce in a pot on the stovetop, just transfer the whole thing to the oven. Not only does the oven deliver more even heat and better reduction with less mess, it also creates delicious caramelized bits of tomato on the surface of the sauce and around the edges of the pot, which you can stir back into the finished sauce for richer, deeper, more complex flavor.

What if I were to do the exact same thing to my Bolognese? In theory, at least, the technique should be able to provide plenty of that browned flavor through the browning of stray proteins and sugars stuck to the inside edges of the pot, along with whatever small bits of meat were exposed on the surface of the simmering sauce, all while keeping the vast majority of the meat submerged and therefore tender.

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Don't you just love it when your theories end up panning out in real life? By cooking down the sauce in the oven and scraping around the edges as it cooked, I ended up with a finished sauce that was packed with browned-meat flavor, but still silky and tender.

By the way, this is what your sauce should look like when it's done. It'll start out watery and milky-looking, and as it slowly cooks down over the course of a few hours, that liquid will eventually reduce so much that it simply can't emulsify anymore with the released fat from the meat. When that fat forms a thick layer on top of ultra-thick sauce, you're ready to continue.

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Back at No. 9 Park, we'd throw the sauce into the walk-in refrigerator as it was to cool it down, letting that fat solidify so we could then remove it and stir back in a measured amount when reheating each individual order. At home, I skim off and discard all but about one cup from the finished sauce—just enough to make it rich and flavorful, but not greasy-tasting.

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Things are looking good, but we're not quite finished yet.

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We've already added some parsley into the mix while we cooked the vegetables, but some fresh parsley thrown in after cooking adds another dimension of herbal flavor. (Fresh sage added at this stage ends up being overpowering.) A good amount of grated Parmesan also increases the meatiness of the sauce, while helping to bind it.

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For some further binding power, I like to finish my sauce with a glug of fresh heavy cream. It not only makes the sauce, well, creamier, but also helps to emulsify it, allowing that extra cup of fat you retained to integrate harmoniously.

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Check out that gorgeous sheen and luster!

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Finally, we get to the last, secret ingredient. If you are from Bologna, now would be a good time to avert your eyes: fish sauce. Yes, fish sauce. I'm talking the salty Southeast Asian condiment made from fermented anchovies.

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Hear me out. First off, from a pure flavor perspective, it just makes sense. Fish sauce is absolutely loaded with those glutamates and inosinates we talked about earlier. It brings an unparalleled meatiness to your finished sauce, and no, it will not make it taste like fish. Moreover, in Italian cooking, it's not really that far out of place. There are plenty of Italian dishes that call for enhancing meat with a bit of glutamate-rich seafood. Fermented anchovies are widely used in Southern Italian cooking, for instance. Not only that, but if we look to ancient Roman history, we find that fish sauce is not dissimilar to garum, the condiment of choice back then, made from—you guessed it—fermented anchovies.

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Still can't wrap your head around it? That's okay. Just ask someone to tip a couple tablespoons into the pot while you aren't looking. Your mouth will thank you, I promise.

So what do you do with a sauce like this? I mean, you'll be tempted to hover over the pot and finish it off all by yourself, with nothing but a spoon and maybe a glass of leftover white wine to keep you company. But if you want to make some friends and loved ones very happy, you'll serve it up with the best fresh pasta you can make or buy, preferably a wide, thick shape, like pappardelle. (Here's a trick: Buy fresh lasagna noodles and cut them into one-inch ribbons by hand.) Ridged dry pasta, like penne rigate or rigatoni, will do as well.

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Cook that pasta in some well-salted water (and, whatever anyone tells you, do not make that water actually as salty as the sea if you want your pasta edible—the sea is much saltier than folks think it is), then drain it, reserving some of the starchy liquid. Return it to the pot, add most of your sauce, thin it out with the pasta-cooking liquid, and cook at a hard simmer for about 30 seconds, until the sauce gets a nice pasta-coating texture.

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An Italian might tell me that I've put too much sauce on this pasta, and they're probably right, but I just can't help myself: It's that damn good.

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This is the kind of sauce that not only delivers on the promise of deliciousness while you're eating it, but also makes your entire house smell wonderful for the four to five hours it takes to cook, and for days after you're done. It's totally intoxicating and addictive.

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Actually, if you've got any comments or questions to post on this recipe, please forgive me if I don't answer right away, as I've gone out to buy some ingredients to make another batch. I'm totally serious. Writing this has made me hungry.