There's something in the air, and I'm not sure what it is. Actually, I know precisely what it is. It's tiny particles of beef and pork. It's aromatic compounds leaping from the pot into the atmosphere and wafting around my house. It's terpenes and esters from simmering red wine, sulfides from onions and garlic, and falcarindiols from carrots wending their way toward my nose. It's the smell of ragù Bolognese cooking in my kitchen, and every year it marks the start of winter for me. A winter filled with an intensely meaty sauce with a velvety texture that coats my pasta and warms my soul.
I haven't actually kept track of what the trigger is that leads me to break out the Dutch oven and start grinding meat year after year—it could be the changing weather, the lack of fresh summer produce, or perhaps the displays of Christmas decorations that go up immediately after Halloween—but ragù Bolognese is the only dish I'll make year after year, like clockwork. Good thing I love the stuff.
My original recipe was based on a version that I learned from Barbara Lynch, back when I was a cook at No. 9 Park in Boston. It's complex, with four different types of meat (lamb, pork, veal, and chicken livers), which are sautéed with onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and sage, then simmered with stock, red wine, milk, and a touch of tomato for several hours, and finally finished with heavy cream, Parmesan cheese, and herbs. Over the years, my recipe has evolved as I've played around with it. The version in my book employs some pancetta for an extra boost of glutamic and inosinic acids, which provide a hit of savory depth. This low-temperature-oven version, meanwhile, amplifies the Maillard reaction and the savory, browned flavors that result.
This year, in the midst of some epic pressure cooker testing (stay tuned for the results), I decided to see if I could adapt the recipe to work in a pressure cooker, hopefully cutting down on cooking time while building flavor in the process.
It took a bit of tinkering, but it worked out extremely well in the end, producing a ragù Bolognese with incredible slow-cooked flavor, in about half the time of my other recipes.
Building a Flavor Base
The early steps of the process are similar to the current iteration of my standard Bolognese. I start by rendering small bits of pancetta. In my oven-based version, I'm careful not to brown the pancetta, as that helps maintain a velvety texture—the sauce builds up browned flavors as it roasts in the oven. In this version, the sauce doesn't get exposed to the same kind of dry heat, so I like to build in browned flavors from the start by letting the pancetta cook until it's quite crisp. The tenderizing effects of the pressure cooker will mitigate any undesirable texture this produces.
Next I add my aromatics: onions, carrots, celery, garlic, minced sage, and minced parsley. (I'll also add some minced fresh parsley and basil right at the end for a boost of bright flavor.) I cook them just until softened in the rendered pancetta fat before adding my finely chopped chicken livers.
I frequently get asked whether the chicken livers are really necessary, mostly by folks who hate liver. I'm not a liver lover myself, but I love what it does for the dish, adding a mineral flavor and really enhancing the meatiness of the beef. The livers aren't 100% necessary, but I encourage you to try them if you aren't afraid—even using half the amount called for will help.
After the livers have lost their dark red color, I add the rest of my meat. The lamb, pork, and veal combo that Barbara Lynch uses is great, particularly because the veal adds plenty of gelatin to keep things nice and velvety. The problem is that veal can be difficult to find, and expensive. I prefer to use a mix of equal parts lamb, beef, and pork, or even two parts beef to one part pork. We'll deal with the lack of gelatin later on.
At this stage, in my oven-based recipe, I simply cook the meats until they lose their raw color, but not until they start browning—again in the interest of keeping them tender as they cook. I tried using this method in the pressure cooker, and I ended up with far too much liquid (Bolognese soup, anyone?). Instead, for this pressure cooker version, I cook the meat until all of its liquid has evaporated and it starts to sizzle in its own fat. This takes about 20 to 30 minutes, but it's mostly unattended time, aside from the occasional stir. You'll know the meat is ready when the sound switches from the bubble of a simmer (think: witch's cauldron) to the sizzle of a fry (think: witch being lowered into a vat of hot oil).
Another reason you need to reduce that meat juice: You're going to be adding quite a bit more liquid. First I add two cups of dry red or white wine, then let it reduce completely before adding 14 ounces of crushed tomatoes (you can use a good brand of crushed tomatoes like Cento, Muir Glen, or Bianco DiNapoli, or you can start with whole peeled tomatoes and crush them by hand), a cup of chicken stock into which I've dissolved an ounce of powdered gelatin (that's four 0.25-ounce packets), and a cup of heavy cream. Though my other recipes start with milk and call for adding cream only at the end, with this pressure cooker version and the limitations it imposes on reducing—pressure cookers don't allow excess moisture to escape in the form of steam—starting with a more concentrated source of milk proteins and fat was the right call.
Next I snap on the lid, bring it to high pressure (between 12 and 15 psi is what you're looking for), and let it cook for half an hour.
When you release the pressure and pop the lid open, you should first be met with an incredible aroma. You'll find that the sauce is quite thick near the bottom of the pot, with liquid bubbling away at the top; as you stir, it should all loosen up and start to come together. Once the lid is off, it'll take another 30 to 45 minutes to reduce, during which time you may see a slick of red fat starting to form on the surface. Don't worry—it'll all get emulsified into the sauce as you continue to reduce and stir. (Nobody ever said ragù Bolognese was health food.)
As it starts to achieve its final form, now is the time for last-minute additions. I throw in a big, healthy shaving of finely grated Parmesan cheese, which not only adds flavor but also aids in emulsifying the sauce. A handful of finely minced fresh parsley and basil also hit the pot, along with a final glug of fresh heavy cream and a dash of fish sauce, to boost the savoriness of the dish.
This stuff is so damn good, sometimes I get distracted from cooking the pasta as I hover over the pot with a spoon, tasting sample after sample. To get the seasoning right, of course.
How to Properly Sauce Pasta
No matter how carefully you construct a sauce, it's all for naught if you a) don't use the right pasta, b) don't cook the pasta correctly, and, most importantly, c) don't combine the two together the right way.
Selecting the right pasta is the easy part. For a hearty sauce like Bolognese, you want either wide, long, flat pasta (such as tagliatelle or pappardelle), or short tubular pasta with plenty of ridges to catch sauce (such as rigatoni, rotini, or penne rigate). If you plan on using long, flat pasta, this is one occasion when it's worth it to spring for the fancy stuff.
Fresh pasta has a rougher surface that makes it better for sauce to cling to. Similarly, high-end brands of imported or domestic dried pasta will be shaped with brass extruders, as opposed to the modern Teflon-coated extruders used by inexpensive pasta brands. Brass extruders are slower and more difficult to work with, but they produce pasta with a rougher surface, again, better for grabbing that sauce. Look for dried pasta with a cloudy, crackly-looking surface as opposed to smooth.
Fresh pasta should also be cooked like your Italian grandmother told you to: with plenty of water, so it has room to move about. It'll need just a minute or two in boiling water before it's ready to toss with the sauce. For dried pasta, you don't need as much water—just enough to cover it by an inch or so is plenty and will give you superior saucing results. I cook my dried pasta until it's almost tender all the way through, with a slight chalky core remaining—it'll finish cooking through in the sauce.
In either case, ignore the advice to make the pasta water taste "as salty as the sea." As Daniel has demonstrated, seawater is far too salty for pasta. About one tablespoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt (or one and a half teaspoons of table salt) per liter is what you should aim for.
Once your pasta is cooked comes the critical moment: adjusting consistency. I find it easiest to sauce my pasta in a wide skillet or in a slope-sided sauteuse rather than in a large Dutch oven or stockpot. Ladle in as much sauce as you'll need for the pasta you're cooking (usually a little less than you think you need), and make sure it's piping hot as your pasta finishes. Drain the pasta, reserving some of its starchy cooking water, and immediately transfer it to the pan with the sauce and start tossing and stirring.
Now look closely at the texture of your sauce and the way it's adhering to the pasta. Do you see any droplets of oil in the pan? Is the sauce sticking to the pasta, or is it sliding off? The sauce in the photo above has been over-reduced—see how the pasta is almost completely bare, and how stray bits of meat are sitting on the metal of the pan with practically no liquid pooled around them? That's where that pasta water you reserved comes in.
By adding some of that starchy liquid to the pan and vigorously boiling/stirring it, you help the sauce emulsify and turn creamy, so it clings to the pasta better.
That's the texture you're going for—creamy and saucy. (It is, after all, called a "sauce" and not a "stray bits of meat that are moist, but not quite pasta-coating in texture" for a reason.)
The final key to perfectly textured pasta at the table? Don't wait to eat it!
From the moment the pasta hits the hot water, you've pushed the plunger on a countdown timer, and you and your guests had better be ready to eat when the pasta is ready to be eaten. See, as hot pasta sits in hot sauce, there are a couple of things going on. First, you're losing moisture content, both from water being absorbed into the pasta and from water evaporating into the atmosphere (steam looks great coming off of food, but it's not doing that food any favors). Second, the sauce is cooling down, and the cooler the sauce gets, the thicker it'll get. Let that pasta and sauce sit too long, and you'll be able to pick it up in one giant clump.
Two things can help here. First, you can warm up your plates by sticking them in a low-temperature oven for a few minutes. The hot plates will keep the pasta and sauce hot. Second, instruct your guests to be rude. Tell them not to sit there watching the food get cold because they don't want to be the first ones to help themselves, or because they're waiting for everyone to pour their wine. Eat the darn pasta—you spent long enough perfecting that sauce!
Well, truth be told, you didn't actually spend that long on the sauce, thanks to Mr. Pressure over there, but your guests don't need to know that, do they?
This should be the only thing going through their heads right now (or should I say mouths?).