March 5, 2009

The best bolognese

I have always loved a good bolognese sauce, ever since I first tried it in a little trattoria in Ferrara.

I was studying in Florence that year and I had taken a train northeast to Bologna and stopped along the way in this beautiful town in the Emilia-Romagna region to see the Castello Estense, a famous brick castle in the center of town surrounded by a moat.

The 14th-century castle is certainly impressive, but what I remember being most impressed by were the well-dressed Ferraresi of all ages choosing bicycles over cars... and their famous Bolognese meat sauce.

(foto courtesy

The residents of Ferrara, as I learned, are as enthusiastic about biking as they are about homemade pasta. Located in the heart of Emilia-Romagna, the region made famous by parmigiano, prosciutto and salumi, the city's inhabitants are known all over Italy as the experts in stuffed pastas (ravioli, tortelli di zucca, tortellini) and the all-important ragù, indispensable for lasagne.

If you've never learned to make a real Italian ragù, now is your chance. I never thought much about it, I admit, for many years traveling and eating throughout Italy. It is not as prevalent in the places where I've spent a lot of time, like Rome and Tuscany. But in Central Italy and the cities of Bologna, Parma, Ravenna and Ferrara, it is essential to the local cuisine. And to know how to make a good, versatile ragù is to know how to do just about anything.

Called "bolognese" after the city of its origin, whenever a menu lists pasta alla bolognese, that means it is served with ragù. This is the meat sauce that is preferred in the region for homemade pasta. As Marcella Hazan notes: "a properly made ragù clinging to the folds of homemade noodles is one of the most satisfying experiences accessible to the sense of taste."

I happen to agree. And, as Marcella says, the key to a good ragù is in the long, slow simmering of the sauce. The minimum is 3 hours, she says, but 5 is better. Now, before you run away thinking this is something you will never do, remember that the sauce just needs to be left alone to cook at the merest simmer for all that time. Once it's on the stove you are free to do a million other things. I even ran to the airport and picked up friends while mine simmered on the stove the other day, in preparation for my lasagne bolognese. I don't recommend leaving your stove unattended, but I had no choice. My friends were early and I was not going to mess with my ragù.

Here is the recipe I learned while in Italy from Carla, the cook at Fattoria degli Usignoli. The only difference between hers and others I've seen (Marcella's of course, and Tyler Florence actually makes a good one, if a bit heavy on ingredients) is in the addition of milk or not. Marcella maintains that the meat, after just barely losing color, but not browned, must be cooked in 1/2 cup of milk before the tomatoes are added. This, she says, keeps the meat creamier and sweeter tasting. But I made it without and it was pretty sweet and creamy anyway. You should also use at least two types of meat, one of which, like pork, has a high fat content.

For one large lasagna or enough sauce for pasta for 6 people:

1 large red or yellow onion
1 large carrot
1 large celery stalk
3 T olive oil
3 T butter
1 T diced pancetta
3/4 lb ground beef, preferably sirloin
3/4 lb ground pork
1 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup milk (optional)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 15-oz can whole-peeled tomatoes

Tips: Make this in a large cast-iron enamel or earthenware pot. And, this is one thing that I like to use the food processor for --to chop very, very finely the carrots, onion and celery --so that they make almost a puréed 'sofritto' to start with.

After chopping the veggies, heat oil and butter in pot and add the pureed veggies and cook for at least 10 minutes until they begin to soften and give off moisture. Then add the pancetta, let brown, then the ground meats, crumbling in the pot with a fork and cook only until the meat has lost its raw color. Add the wine and turn the heat up to medium high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the wine has evaporated. (Add the milk and nutmeg at this point and cook until the milk has evaporated). Stir frequently. Add the tomatoes and when it starts to bubble, turn down the heat and let the sauce cook at the lowest simmer, uncovered, for about 3-4 hours. Taste and correct for salt.

Ragù can be made ahead of time, but do all the cooking in one day. It can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or frozen, and reheated.


  1. i feel like i just got back from a trip to italy, except my stomach has no ragu

  2. i was lucky enough to have an entire dish of lasagna made with this bolognese by noneother than joy (i said i was lucky).
    absolutely perfect, ridiculously delicious.

  3. I have been thinking about this sauce for awhile now and I am finally attempting it.Even my daughter Sarah was asking me the other day if I had seen Joy's bolognese sauce recipe so it must be time.

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