The very first thing I cooked in our Inside Days was ragú bolognese. Previous to having all of the time in the world, I didn’t make it very often; we were too busy during the week and on the weekend, I preferred to be away from the stove. But that weekend! Our apartment smelled phenomenal as it gently bubbled on the back burner all afternoon, and I realized it had been way too long since we’d had the luxury of a multi-hour buildup to an anticipated meal.
I also remembered I’d been cheating on this site’s bolognese recipe for many years, and it was time to come clean. Previously, my go-to recipe was embedded in the lasagna bolognese, and to echo that recipe’s caveat: I think there are as many interpretations of Bologna’s famous braise there are people who make it — if you’ve found yours, I see no reason to veer from it. Marcella Hazan’s in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking has long been what you could call an industry leader, but I loved Anne Burrell’s, a milk-free, red wine-forward version that put the utmost care into building base layers of flavors.
But tastes shift. These days, the SK house bolognese is a little bit Hazan, a little bit Burrell, and bunch of things I’ve found I prefer: a moderately tomato-forward flavor (which is less traditional), white wine instead of red (which can give off too much of a bourguignon vibe), and enough milk to give the bolognese some body but not so much that it’s pale. If I have pancetta, I might add it first; if I don’t, I’ll start with olive oil. I look out for less lean beef (80/20 or 85 works well here), which holds up better to long cooking times. And apparently — and my family finds this funny but we all have our Things — I cannot abide cubes of anything in my bolognese. All of my bad ragú memories come from versions where the canned dice of tomatoes,* carrots, and/or celery were still intact in the final sauce, confettied throughout. I prefer a more harmonious ragú, and so I use tomato paste instead of whole or chopped tomatoes, and I roughly mince my vegetables. Neither garlic nor pepper flakes are accepted on the Italian Academy of Cuisine ingredient list for ragù alla bolognese, but I like to live on (er, timidly approaching) the edge.
Finally, once you’ve built the foundation of flavor you must — there is no negotiating here — braise your bolognese for three to four hours. Beef takes three hours to cook to that wonderfully mellow, collapsed texture (it’s why you see similar cooking times for stew, short ribs, and brisket). Some recipes call for up to six hours, and although I don’t find I need it to get the ragú of my dreams, given that time is an abstract concept these days, you’re welcome to let it glurp longer on the stove. While the cooking is mostly hands off, you’ll want to visit the pot every 30 minutes and check the water level. Water is added gradually during the cooking time because we are braising, not boiling (shudder), the meat. Go ahead and taste it too, adjusting the seasoning as you need to, so by the time you’re ready to serve it, it’s absolutely perfect. You deserve nothing less.
* many are, in fact, treated so that they hold their shape
Six months ago: Roasted Cabbage with Walnuts and Parmesan
One year ago: Austrian Torn, Fluffy Pancake
Two years ago: Chilaquiles Brunch Casserole
Three years ago: Rhubarb Upside-Down Spice Cake
Four years ago: Perfect Garlic Bread, Shaved Asparagus Frittata and Palm Springs Date Shake
Five years ago: Potato Scallion and Kale Cakes, Salted Chocolate Chunk Cookies, and Crispy Broccoli with Lemon and Garlic
Six years ago: Blue Sky Bran Muffins and Fresh Spinach Pasta
Seven years ago: Spring Vegetable Potstickers and Essential Raised Waffles
Eight years ago: Bacon, Egg and Leek Risotto
Nine years ago: Sour Cream Cornbread with Aleppo and Ribboned Asparagus Salad with Lemon
Ten years ago: Radicchio, Apple, and Pear Salad, New York Cheesecake and Shakshuka
Eleven years ago: Black Bread and Ranch Rugelach
Twelve years ago: Chocolate Walnut Cookies + More Flourless Dessert, Almond Cake with Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote
Thirteen years ago: Corniest Corn Muffins and Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
Simple, Essential Bolognese
- 1 small yellow onion
- 1 slim carrot
- 1 rib celery
- 2 cloves garlic (optional)
- 2 ounces pancetta, diced (optional) or 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper and red pepper flakes
- 1 pound ground beef (80/20 or 85/15)
- 1/2 cup whole milk, or 3/4 cup of a low-fat one
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
- 1 bay leaf
- A few gratings of fresh nutmeg
- 1 pound dried tagliatelle
- Prepare your vegetables: Cut the onion, carrot, and celery into big chunks. If you have a food processor or high-powered blender, pulse the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic (if using) in the machine they’re chopped into chopped very small, ranging from couscous to pea-sized. If you don’t have a machine, just continue to run your knife back and forth over the mix of vegetables, adding the garlic, until they’re chopped very small.
- Fresh tagliatelle is the traditional pasta for bolognese, but I used what I could get, a loosely twisted trivelle. Even Hazan calls using boxed, dried pasta “irreproachable,” as I’m sure she would understand the accommodations a pandemic kitchen requires. Here’s a rich fresh pasta dough, should you wish to make your own tagliatelle; for a simpler one, use the pasta dough recipe within the lasagna bolognese recipe.
- I suspect you’re about to ask me about making this in the InstantPot, which I have not tested. However, this recipe has decent reviews and suggests that once you build all of your base flavor layers on the sauté function, 20 minutes on high will do the trick.
- I suspect you’re about to ask me about turkey as well, which I have also not tested. I do know that you’ll want to use ground dark meat and that the braising time will be, at most, a fraction of the three hours here — I suspect that 30 minutes will about as far as you can take it without it seeming over.
- If you like everything about this recipe but prefer a less tomato-forward bolognese, it’s as simple as using half a can of tomato paste instead of all, and doubling the milk. You won’t hurt my feelings.
- If you need to make this dairy free, you can use a dairy-free milk instead of whole milk.
- If you need to make this without wine, I’d deglaze the pan with 1 to 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar instead.
Build the base flavor: Heat a medium/large heavy pot or Dutch oven (4- to 5 quarts) over medium-high heat. If using pancetta, add it to the pan dry and let it cook and crisp, rendering a puddle of fat. If you’re not using pancetta, coat the bottom of the pan with the olive oil and let it warm up. For both approaches, add the vegetables and season them generously with salt and pepper, and add a pinch or two of pepper flakes. Cook the vegetables until they are evenly brown, stirring frequently and not fretting if they stick, it will all work out, about 10 minutes. Add your ground beef, season it generously with salt and pepper, and cook it until it’s very well-browned, about 10 minutes. Add the milk (which I do out of order in the photos, and regretted) and cook it until it has disappeared, 3 to 4 minutes, scraping up any stuck bits. Add the wine and do the same. Add the tomato paste and cook it for 3 to 4 minutes. Add 2 cups of water, a bay leaf, and nutmeg and bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low. Congratulations, you’ve now reached the “walk away” portion of the recipe.
Cook the ragú: Here’s how the next 3 hours (or more) hours will go: You’ll keep a carafe of water near the stove. You’ll stir the sauce from time to time, I find checking in every 30 minutes is about right. As the water in the sauce cooks off, you’ll want to add more but you don’t want to add more than 1 cup at a time or you’ll end up boiling the meat (shudder) rather than creating a thick, robust ragú. Taste it from time to time and add more seasoning if needed. Simmer for 3 hours — longer if you wish, but I promise that 3 solid hours will suffice. Remove and discard the bay leaf.
To finish: Cook your pasta to 1 to 2 minutes shy of done in well-salted water. Before you drain it, ladle 2 cups cooking water into your carafe. Drain the pasta and add it directly to the ragú, along with 1/2 to 1 cup of the reserved water. Cook the pasta and sauce together for 1 to 2 minutes, adding more pasta water if needed to keep it moving. Serve in wide bowls. Grated parmesan is not traditional to finish, but as the Academy is probably not coming to dinner tonight, I say you eat it in the way that makes you happiest.
Do ahead: If you don’t want to use all of the bolognese right now, it freezes fantastically in a bag with any extra air pressed out. Defrost in the fridge and bring back to a simmer in the same pot; you’ll usually need a couple extra splashes of water to loosen it.