Why It Works
- Slow-roasting the sauce in the oven saves stirring time and keeps everything tender, while still yielding well-developed, browned flavors.
- A combination of beef, lamb, pork, pancetta, and chicken livers add flavor and richness, and gelatin creates a silky sauce with body.
- Finishing with heavy cream and Parmesan emulsifies the sauce.
- Fish sauce added at the end enhances the sauce's umami notes.
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 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 or more satisfying 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 work 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.)
Ragù Bolognese is the kind of dish I make in vast quantities, jar up, and ship off to family members. It's the kind of dish 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 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.
Let's get one thing straight right away: When I say "ragù Bolognese," I'm talking true ragù.* This slow-cooked meat sauce is almost entirely composed of meat, with just a small amount of wine, stock, tomato, and dairy to bind it together. That "spaghetti Bolognese" you 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" are fighting words. Depending on whom you ask, whether it's a cook in Bologna or The Silver Spoon cookbook, recipes vary widely. But all agree the sauce should be meat-forward, with minor extra ingredients to enhance—not 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 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.
A few hours later, it would reduce 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 tweaked and refined that Bolognese recipe, testing out every variable I can think of to improve its flavor and texture and align them a bit more with my own personal tastes. I've come up with a number of variations on the theme, including this No-Holds-Barred Lasagna Bolognese.
Recently I discovered 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 recipe?
What's the Best Type of Meat for Ragù Bolognese?
Bolognese is a meat sauce and the choice of meats is one of the most important elements. At No. 9 Park, Lynch used a combination of 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 want in meatballs or meatloaf.
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 if I got rid of it, I'd have to find an alternative source of 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 veal stock for a recipe that takes four hours on its own.
I tried following the exact same recipe, but replacing veal with ground beef and using 100% chicken stock. It was more flavorful, but the sauce lacked its classic silkiness. The solution? Just add that gelatin on its own.
Six full packets of gelatin, bloomed in thin store-bought chicken stock, brought enough body that it was an improvement over a veal stock–fortified version. Ground beef improved the flavor, and pancetta, an ingredient common in many ragù recipes, brought even more flavor.
What advantages does pancetta offer over plain old ground pork? Cured meat products are a more concentrated source of glutamic and inosinic acids. Glutamic acid—available in commercial form as MSG powder—is the organic compound found in cured meats, cheeses, and seafood, that's largely responsible for making things taste umami (a.k.a. savory), while inosinic acid acts as a backup singer, increasing glutamic acid's effects.
I tried incorporating pancetta in various ways: grinding it, finely chopping it in a food processor, and adding a simple dice. The third method is the easiest, and melts into the sauce as it cooks.
In the original No. 9 Park recipe, the meat is cooked in a separate pan from the vegetables. This kind of compartmentalized cooking is pretty common in a restaurant kitchen, as cooking like with like—meat with meat and veg with veg—gives you immediate control over how much those ingredients are cooked when working in large batches.
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.
How to Use Liver in Ragù Bolognese
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. Chicken livers don't make it into many modern recipes.
Liver adds flavor and depth to the sauce 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.
In the restaurant, I'd carefully clean and trim the veins and connective tissue from each liver before finely chopping them all by hand. Now I find it easier to blend them into a smooth purée using an immersion blender.
What's the Best Liquid for Ragù Bolognese?
Now we get to the most contentious element in any ragù Bolognese recipe: the liquid. Do we use wine? White or red? What about milk? Does it really keep the meat tender? What about tomatoes?
I can't answer any of these questions in a valid way, 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.
It makes almost no difference whether you use red or white. So long as you're starting with something dry and relatively oak-free, the color of the wine has little impact on the final flavor or appearance of the finished sauce.
Whether you go with red or white, wine is an essential element, adding a touch of brightness and acidity to balance the heaviness of the meat.
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 prefer to use canned peeled whole tomatoes, preferably high-quality ones, like imported Italian D.O.P. San Marzanos.
The gelatin-enriched stock makes up the bulk of the liquid. As that stock reduces, it becomes 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 dairy has. Many sources claim that adding milk to the pot at the beginning of the cooking process helps 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."
If you read it closely, 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 ordinary experimenting. I cooked up a few batches of ragù using different ratios of liquids, from 100% milk to 100% stock. Turns out, the liquid you cook the meat in has absolutely no bearing on how tender the result. Meat cooked in stock is indistinguishable from meat cooked in milk.
That said, adding milk to the cooking liquid and letting it reduce does have an effect on the finished flavor of the ragù, 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 to Get Tender and Flavorful Meat
And now we get to the most crucial phase of the process: the long cook. Browning meat adds flavor, but can toughen it. How do we get great browned flavor without reducing the tender meat to dry rubble?
The whole reason I was extra excited for Bolognese season to start this year was because of a new red sauce technique I developed simmering it in the oven instead of the stovetop.
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 the technique should provide plenty of flavor through the browning of stray proteins and sugars stuck to the inside edges of the pot, along with whatever small bits of meat are exposed on the surface of the simmering sauce, while keeping the vast majority of the meat submerged and tender.
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.
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 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.
Back at No. 9 Park, we'd throw the sauce into the walk-in refrigerator to cool it down, letting that fat solidify so we could 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. This can be done immediately with liquid fat, or the solid fat at the top can be removed after a night in the refrigerator.
Make Ragù Bolognese Even More Flavorful
There's already parsley in the cooked the vegetables, but fresh parsley thrown in after cooking adds another dimension of herbal flavor. (Fresh sage added at this stage is overpowering.) Grated Parmesan also increases the sauce's umami, while helping to bind it.
I like to finish my sauce with a glug of heavy cream. It makes the sauce richer and helps emulsify it, allowing that extra cup of fat you retained to integrate harmoniously.
Finally, we get to the secret ingredient. If you are from Bologna, now is a good time to avert your eyes: fish sauce. Yes, fish sauce. I'm talking the salty Southeast Asian condiment made from fermented anchovies.
From a flavor perspective, it makes sense. Fish sauce is loaded with those glutamates and inosinates we talked about earlier. It brings an unparalleled meatiness to your finished sauce, and 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. And if we look to ancient Roman history, we find that fish sauce is similar to garum, the condiment of choice back then, made from—you guessed it—fermented anchovies.
So what do you do with a sauce like this? If you want to make some friends and loved ones very happy, 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, work well, too.
Dressing Pasta in Ragù Bolognese
Cook pasta in some well-salted water (and, whatever anyone tells you, do not make that water 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.
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.
1 quart (1L) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
1 to 1 1/2 ounces powdered gelatin (4 to 6 packets; 30 to 45g), such as Knox (see note)
1 (28-ounce; 800g) can peeled whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/2 pound (225g) finely minced chicken livers
1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound (450g) ground beef chuck (about 20% fat)
1 pound (450g) ground pork shoulder (about 20% fat)
1 pound (450g) ground lamb shoulder (about 20% fat)
1/2 tsp kosher salt (or to taste), divided
1/2 tsp, ground black pepper (or to taste), divided
4 tablespoons (60g) unsalted butter
1/2 pound (225g) finely diced pancetta
1 large onion, finely minced (about 8 ounces; 225g)
2 carrots, finely chopped (about 8 ounces; 225g)
4 ribs celery, finely chopped (about 8 ounces; 225g)
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup (about 25g) minced fresh sage leaves
1/2 cup (about 50g) minced fresh parsley leaves, divided
2 cups (475 ml) dry white or red wine
1 cup (235 ml) whole milk
2 whole bay leaves
1 cup (235 ml) heavy cream
3 ounces (85g) finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons (30 ml) Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce, such as Red Boat
2 pounds dried or fresh pasta, preferably pappardelle, tagliatelle, or penne
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 300°F (150°C). Place stock in a medium bowl or 1-quart liquid measure and sprinkle with gelatin. Set aside. Purée tomatoes in the can using an immersion blender or transfer to the bowl of a countertop blender and purée until smooth. Transfer chicken livers to a cup that just fits head of immersion blender and purée until smooth.
Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat until shimmering. Add ground beef, pork, and lamb, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring and breaking up with a wooden spoon or potato masher until no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in puréed chicken livers.
Meanwhile, heat butter and pancetta in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook, stirring frequently, until fat has mostly rendered but butter and pancetta have not yet started to brown, about 8 minutes. Add onion, carrots, celery, garlic, sage, and half of parsley and cook, stirring and tossing, until vegetables are completely softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add cooked vegetables to meat mixture.
Return Dutch oven to high heat and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has evaporated from the pan, about 10 minutes longer.
Add wine and cook, stirring, until mostly evaporated. Add reserved stock, tomatoes, milk, and bay leaves. Season gently with salt and pepper.
Bring sauce to a simmer, then transfer to oven, uncovered. Cook, stirring and scraping down sides of pot occasionally, until liquid has almost completely reduced and sauce is rich and thick underneath a heavy layer of fat, 3 to 4 hours. If sauce still looks liquid or fat has not separated and formed a thick layer after 4 hours, transfer to stovetop and finish cooking at a brisk simmer, stirring frequently.
Carefully skim off most of the fat, leaving behind about 1 cup total. (For more precise measurement, skim completely, then add back 1 cup of fat.) Alternatively, let the sauce cool at this point and store in the fridge overnight to let the fat solidify and flavors meld. Then remove the solid fat, reserving a cup to add back in when the sauce is warmed.
Stir in heavy cream, parmesan, fish sauce, and remaining parsley. Bring to a boil on stovetop, stirring constantly to emulsify. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bolognese can be cooled and stored in sealed containers in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or frozen for later use.
To Serve: Heat sauce in a large pot until just simmering. Set aside. Cook pasta in a large pot of well-salted water until just barely al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot and add just enough sauce to coat, along with some of the cooking liquid. Cook over high heat, tossing and stirring gently, until sauce is thick and pasta is coated, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve immediately, passing parmesan at the table.
If you are using a homemade chicken stock with enough gelatin that it gels into a solid mass when refrigerated, you'll need to use only four packets of gelatin instead of six. To dissolve the gelatin, heat the chicken stock just enough that it liquefies, then whisk the gelatin into the stock and let it rest until completely bloomed.