Arguably nothing epitomizes Italian cuisine more than ragù alla Bolognese. That’s right, mind the spelling… if you are reading “Bolognaise” on a menu, you are not getting the real deal! Renowned worldwide as the premier pasta sauce, even more than pesto or Alfredo sauce, the ragù is the bar against which every true Italian cook has to measure herself.
The term ragù originates from the French ragout, which is used to describe stewed preparations of chopped meat, fish or vegetables, that are cooked in a sauce (typically tomato) for a long period of time, usually a few hours, over very low heat.
A proper ragù preparation requires at least 3 hours and a very slow cooking (i.e. low heat), to get to the right density and flavor. The more it cooks, the more it concentrates. Some like to cook it as much as 6 hours. It is an exercise of patience, love and contemplation and, as such, it can’t be rushed. Pretty much like a good stock or ramen preparation.
Not surprisingly, Italian ragù was a main course at the beginning of the 19th century and only many years later evolved into a proper pasta sauce. Today ragù is exclusively served with fresh egg pasta, such as tagliatelle, fettuccine, lasagne and cannelloni, and only occasionally with yellow maize polenta (especially in Southern Italy).
Almost every Italian region has its own version of ragù, the most famous being the ragù alla Bolognese (made with ground meat), originally developed in the Emilia region, and the ragù Napoletano (made with chopped meat, the so called spezzatino). Deciding which version is better can spur pretty heated debates among Italians, pretty much like football…
Ragù is considered such an important part of Italian culinary heritage that the original recipe was deposited in 1982 by the Italian Academy of Cuisine in the Bologna Chamber of Commerce and has been considered ever since as THE reference ragù recipe. So don’t mess it up, this is serious business!
Internationally, especially in Northern Europe and the US, the sauce is typically coupled with spaghetti. It’s important to know, however, that spaghetti are not historically part of the true tradition of the Emilia region, which favors, as already mentioned, fresh egg pasta over dry pasta.
As with all fine recipes, it starts with sourcing the right, high quality, ingredients.
For 4 servings you will need:
- 2 cups ground beef, plate cut (front belly, just below the rib)
- 80 gr (roughly 3 oz.) fresh pancetta (i.e. unsmoked pork belly)
- 1 large carrot
- 1 large celery stalk
- 1 small onion or shallot for a milder flavor
- 1 can tomato sauce (Italian passata di pomodoro)
- ½ cup dry white wine (not sparkling)
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup beef stock
- 4 tbsp extravirgin olive oil
- salt & black pepper
And here are the detailed cooking directions:
- Finely mince the pancetta with a sharp knife and stir fry in olive oil in a deep saucepan for 2-3 minutes
- Add the chopped onion, carrot and celery and sauté over medium heat for 4-5 minutes (the so called soffritto)
- Add the ground beef and cook until well browned, stirring frequently
- Pour the white wine, stir, and let evaporate for 2-3 minutes over high heat (until alcohol evaporates)
- Stir in the tomato sauce, season with salt and black pepper, cover with a lid and simmer at very low heat for about 3 hours
- Add beef stock in small quantities so the sauce doesn’t get too thick and stir frequently
- Finally add in the milk, about 30 minutes before turning off the heat, and let it rest
Congratulations you made it! You can have it right away or put it in the fridge (it’ll keep for a few days). When you’re ready, add some fresh tagliatelle, a touch of grated Parmesan cheese and buon appetito!