I have long shied away from writing a post about Bolognese sauce. There are a few reasons why it’s a somewhat daunting prospect. Few dishes command the stalwart fanaticism that Bolognese does. More than that, so many of these long held beliefs contradict one another: “Bolognese is only Bolognese with a glug of red wine”; “There should be no wine in Bolognese”; “I like my Bolognese to be full of tomatoes”; “Bolognese is a meat sauce and should barely have tomatoes”; “Bolognese should have a little dairy”; “Milk or cream in Bolognese is sacrilege”. It’s also very difficult to get an attractive photo of spaghetti Bolognese (most of the time it looks like an actual dog’s dinner despite how good it tastes) and so many people have written about it that it’s hard to have much new to say. However, a couple of friends asked me for the recipe, so I thought I’d offer up my contribution to the evolving Bolognese landscape and hope that if people don’t think it classifies as Bolognese they can just call it whatever they like because it’s still delicious! Also, for all those who say Bolognese is a sign that Winter is Coming, well I think you just haven’t tried stuffing squash with it – delightfully light and summery.
The most overlooked but actually important part of a Bolognese is the meat choice – it is a meat sauce after all. It’s getting harder and harder in supermarkets to buy the right ground meat for sauces like this. Everyone, quite understandably, wants lean ground meat which normally comes from cuts that aren’t really compatible with slow cooking. However, the long cooking will render out the fat so you shouldn’t be worried about picking up that 20% fat option that comes from ground beef chuck or pork shoulder. If you’re lucky enough to have a nearby butcher who will grind up specific cuts of meat for you then get him/her to grind some beef chuck and pork shoulder, but otherwise fat content will be your best indicator of a suitable cut in a supermarket. Some people opt for 100% beef; personally, I find that doesn’t provide the right balance of texture and flavour so opt to split it 2:1 beef : pork mince with some added pancetta for flavour. Some people like to add lamb mince, but I personally find the lamb flavour a little too pronounced. Also, G hates lamb – a constant beef in our family. I refuse to apologise for that pun, I think it’s great!
For me, Bolognese should be a contradiction in textures. Somehow it should feel silky smooth, almost unctuous, yet with chunks of coarse meat interspersed – all whilst maintaining a deeply intense flavour. That silky texture is achieved in a few different ways. Firstly, and most importantly, through the effect of gelatin. As the meat and meat stock cook down, the gelatin content increases giving it a rich mouthfeel. In restaurants there’s no shortage of great quality stock lying around that is already rich in gelatin, but it can be harder to come by at home. Stocks in supermarkets are getting better, and in the UK they’re much better than in the US, but I like to add some powdered or leaf gelatin to my Bolognese whilst it cooks. The second factor contributing to the silky texture is a combination of fat and milk solids. I incorporate both through the judicious addition of cream (and I control how much of the fat that renders from the meat is left in). You don’t want your sauce to become greasy, but you do need some fat emulsified in or it’ll be dry. Traditionally, and in my recipe (as well as Heston’s from this awesome TV series), the Bolognese ragu is lightly cooked in olive oil before serving, which adds a grassy note as well as improving the texture.
The texture is nothing, though, without an intense flavour. For this we want three pillars – good browning, a few secret add-ins, and boatloads of umami. I find the combination of slow cooking and browning is best achieved at a low temperature, uncovered in an oven. As the liquid reduces the top browns, incorporating more and more beautiful maillard-style flavours into the stew without drying any of it out. I like to do this overnight so I don’t have to worry about it, perhaps turning it down slightly as it will cook a little longer than it would if I were watching constantly. However, if you do cook it whilst you’re awake then every 45 minutes or so you can scrape down the sides to improve the browning. As for some flavour add ins, I add some puréed chicken liver (trust me it just adds a faint iron-like richness without tasting livery) and parmesan cheese for a deep flavour boost. For the umami, I turn to Worcestershire sauce. Like its ancient Roman precursor Garum, or its Asian cousin Thai fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce is chock-full of umami and gives the entire Bolognese a much needed kick up the backside. The good folks over at SeriousEats recommend using fish sauce and if you can’t find Worcestershire over in the US then that might be a good substitute but I personally prefer a little (ok, actually a decent slug) of Worcestershire.
You can, of course, put this in a lasagne or serve over pasta – if you do, don’t forget to incorporate the pasta water and then finish the pasta in the sauce as it makes all the difference. However, you can also use it to stuff summer vegetables or fill the world’s best toasted (and very full!) sandwich. You can mix it with risotto, form it into balls, breadcrumb, and fry for super savoury arancini (if you’re feeling a little naughty, stuff the centre with buffalo mozzarella before frying). You can top it with mashed potato for a quick cottage pie or mix it with a few fresh peas and bake into an awesome meat pie. You can even mix it with a little crème fraiche and serve it as a dip with toasted pita bread, an ice cold beer, and a game of rugby on the TV. It freezes exceptionally well and if you freeze it in flat layers like this then it defrosts super-fast as well. In short, we’ve always got a freezer full of Bolognese and it’s a sure-fire winner all year round.
- 1 litre stock – if you can find (or make) good quality beef stock that’s great. Otherwise stick to chicken as some store bought beef stocks can be a little rubbish. Make sure it doesn’t have a large amount of salt added – ideally none – and please don’t use a stock cube.
- Gelatin – depends on the type. I add around 10 sheets of leaf gelatin. If using powdered then around 40g should work. Sprinkle it over the stock before using to hydrate better.
- 800g peeled whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, bought whole and then puréed (or just squished between your fingers)
- 400g chicken livers, puréed
- 1 kg ground beef chuck (about 20% fat)
- 500g ground pork shoulder (about 20% fat)
- 300g finely diced pancetta
- 1 large onion, finely minced
- 3 carrots, finely minced
- 4 ribs celery, finely minced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 30g minced fresh sage leaves
- 50g minced fresh parsley leaves
- 2/3 bottle dry wine (I use red but actually a dry white is almost indistinguishable)
- 500ml double cream
- 2 bay leaves
- 90g finely grated Parmesan cheese
- Worcestershire sauce
- Preheat oven to 140-150 degrees Celsius. If using powdered gelatin sprinkle over the stock and set aside
- Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat until shimmering. Add ground meat and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring and breaking up for around 1-0 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in puréed chicken livers.
- I like the vegetables to be finely minced, and the easiest way to do this on mass is to use the food processor. Simply roughly chop the peeled onions and carrots and transfer with whole peeled garlic cloves and the sage into a food processor and process until finely minced but not puréed.
- In a separate pan, cook the pancetta over medium-high heat with olive oil until fat has mostly rendered about 8 minutes. Add the minced vegetables and season with salt and pepper. Cook until the vegetables have softened but not browned, around 5-8 minutes.
- Add the vegetable to the meat in the Dutch oven and cook over high heat for around 10 minutes – you’re trying to drive off some moisture.
- Add wine and cook, stirring, until mostly evaporated. Add the stock, half the cream, bay leaves and the tomatoes. Bring it to a low simmer and then transfer to oven for around 4-5 hours at 150 celsius. If you want to cook it overnight then set the oven to more like 140 as it will cook for longer. Every 45 minutes or so scrape down the sides and give it a little stir. By the end the fat will have separated off – don’t worry that’s what you want!
- Carefully skim off most of the fat, you want to leave around 350ml but you can play it by ear. It’s chock full of flavour and vital for the texture but too much of it can make the sauce feel greasy. I find it best to reserve the excess and taste/adjust at the end (not to mention the fat makes incredible roasted potatoes or mash and is fantastic in a robust salad dressing instead of oil).
- Stir the rest of the cream, parmesan and parsley. Bring to a boil on stovetop, stirring constantly to emulsify. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add the Worcestershire sauce.
- Before using, add a good glug of olive oil to a pan and add the cooled Bolognese over a medium to high heat. Stir until the oil is emulsified in the ragu is just at the point of breaking (if it breaks then add a splash of water and it will come back together). If cooking pasta then actually take it past breaking and add some of the cooking water. I do this a few times to incorporate the starch from the cooking water into the sauce before finishing the pasta in the sauce with some more of the water, just watch the salt levels as the pasta water will be salted
.TimedEating tips and tricks for cooking ahead:
- Bolognese freezes exceptionally well – especially in flat layers for easy reheating
- It will keep well in the fridge for at least a week. It’s never lasted longer in our house without ending up frozen but I would expect it to probably last for two.
- If stuffing vegetables, reduce the moisture in the sauce slightly as it will leach out from the vegetable. I sometimes stuff a few squash and then keep them in the fridge ready for roasting after allowing to come to room temperature first. (I actually most prefer to heat the Bolognese and fill the cold squash with already heated sauce so I don’t over cook the vegetable in the time it takes to heat the sauce but for ease you can cook from chilled)
- As mentioned in the article, cooking the oven portion overnight is a great way to have it trundle along without any stress
- If you get interrupted half way through, I’ve written the recipe so you can pause at the end of any step. Simply cool it down and start again in much the same manner – it’s very forgiving.