All the tips and tricks to make the REAL traditional bolognese sauce - Once you try the original Italian recipe, there's no going back!
Traditional bolognese sauce (ragù alla bolognese) is a staple of Italian cuisine, and probably the most famous pasta meat sauce in the world.
*This post contains affiliate links*
It is a meat-veggie-tomato based pasta sauce originating in Bologna, Italy. The meat is slowly cooked in its sauce for hours, to help develop a complex-flavour and texture.
The result is a comforting, flavour-loaded meaty sauce that melts in your mouth.
To be honest, it’s very difficult to track down the real original recipe, and every single family in Bologna and in Italy has their version.
BUT, the one we are making today is as close as it can be, and it’s the official recipe from the Accademia Italiana della Cucina.
One thing is sure though, classic bolognese sauce is pretty different from the ones you see around the world.
What is Ragu'?
Italian beef ragù is a beef sauce served with pasta. It's typically made by simmering the meat and veggies in tomato sauce, white wine, milk and stock for a long time (often up until four hours).
This slow cooking process allows the meat to soften and break down into the sauce, creating a unique flavour and texture.
Let's start by clarifying the most important things of all. In Italy, we never serve bolognese sauce with spaghetti. Never.
If you think about it, it’s just way impractical.
The sauce drips away from the pasta and is left on the bottom of the plate, so you basically eat plain spaghetti and spoon the sauce off the plate. That doesn’t make sense.
Fresh egg tagliatelle are the official pasta that accompanies ragù in Bologna (the famous tagliatelle alla bolognese).
However, you can also serve it with any kind of short pasta with a “hole”, such as mezze maniche, rigatoni, penne pasta, so that the pasta catches up all the tiny meaty bits.
Also, in most of the unauthentic recipes, you often see the meat swim in a pool of tomato sauce.
In the original ragu' alla bolognese there's just enough tomato passata or pelati ( tomato puree or whole peeled canned tomatoes) to add a hint of sweetness and another layer of flavor to the sauce.
These are the two most common mistakes, but if we look closely, there are a lot more differences, mainly on the ingredients. Let’s have a look.
Bolognese Sauce Ingredients
It's fair to say that the better the ingredients you use, the better your sauce will be, so choose them wisely.
Beef Mince and Pancetta
Traditionally the meat cut called cartella (near the belly) was used, but nowadays most people use the shoulder, as it’s easier to find and less fatty.
You'll need your meat to be coarsely minced, so ask your butcher to fresh-mince the meat for you, making sure the meat is quite coarse and not finely minced.
Note: Most chefs like to chop the beef by hand using a sharp knife. If you go this route, note that your ragu will need to cook for a couple of hours longer.
Try to avoid prepackaged supermarket minced beef, as it's usually finely minced and you have no control over the meat cut used.
The truth is, if you want a proper bolognese sauce, you need proper meat.
Together with the beef, you will also need pork pancetta or pork belly, but try to go for the sweet kind as the tradition wants, and not smoked kind.
If you have trouble finding it, you can use pork mince as a last resort or just use smoked pancetta - I promise I won't tell anyone.
You can use either tomato passata or pelati tomatoes *affiliate link*.
If you use the latter, remove them from the can (don't discard the juice). Cut them in half lengthwise, deseed them and put them back in their juice and proceed with the recipe.
You can do the same process above if you use fresh tomatoes, but make sure to first blanch them in boiling water, and remove the skin.
Alternatively, you can swap the tomato sauce altogether and use 20 gr of triple tomato concentrate *affiliate link* (also called tomato paste).
Most of the most amazing Italian sauces and stews start with a soffritto, basically the Italian mirepoix.
This mix of finely minced carrot, celery, and onion is all you need to make the base for the ragu'.
Of course, go for organic veggies if possible, and make sure you cut them evenly.
Wine, Milk & Broth
Don't be surprised to see wine as part of the ingredients.
Real bolognese needs wine. Use a good red wine or dry white wine with moderate alcohol content (ideally between 10 and 12 percent) and generous acidity.
I personally prefer white wine, Verdicchio or Sangiovese wine are some of my favourite options.
Don't be surprised to see milk in the ingredient list either.
A little milk poured into the sauce towards the end, helps smoother up the acidity from the tomato and tender the meat, so don't skip it.
Keep some veggie or meat broth on the side whilst you cook the sauce.
If you use pureed tomatoes or pelati, you won't probably need much, but if you use the tomato paste, you'll need about 250 ml of vegetable broth.
How To Make Italian Traditional Bolognese Sauce
Once you have the right ingredients, this sauce recipe is pretty straightforward and quite easy to master.
Step 1. Start by heating a large pot with a swirl of olive oil over low heat.
Fold in the soffritto vegetables, and cook, stirring often for about 10 minutes, until the veggies have softened.
Step 2. Heat another pan over medium heat, fold in the pancetta and stir fry for 5 minutes.
Then add in the beef and continue to cook, stirring often, until it's browned.
Step 3. Transfer the beef and pancetta into the pot with the veggies, and bring the temperature to medium-high.
Step 4. Pour in the wine and allow it to evaporate, about 5 minutes.
Step 5. Add the tomato sauce into the pot, and if you like, add in the bay leaf.
Step 6. Reduce heat to very low, partially cover the pot with a lid, then slowly cook the ragu' for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
If you see the sauce is drying out, pour in a little stock.
During the last half an hour of cooking, pour in about ½ cup of milk, a little at a time until fully incorporated.
The sauce is ready when it reaches a dense and rich texture.
If it's still too runny, continue to cook it gently a little more, don't add cornstarch or anything else, slow cooking is the key.
Tips for the Perfect Bolognese Sauce
The perfect bolognese is a direct result of the ingredients you use, however, there are a few secrets that will bring your sauce to the next level.
- Chop the veggies by hand. I know that using a food processor might be tempting, but the hand-chopped soffritto gives the ragu' a unique texture.
- Don't rush into it. The meat and the soffritto need different timings and temperatures to cook.
- The meat needs high heat to sweat, whilst the soffritto needs to cook gently until the veggies are soft.
- Use two pans, then add the meat to the pan with the soffritto.
- Alternatively, cook the vegetables first, remove them from the pan, then cook the meat, then add the veggies back in.
- Both the veggies and the meat need to cook evenly, so use a large heavy-duty pan or a cast-iron pot, that will hold the heat steady.
- If you use minced beef, the cooking process should take about 2 hours.
- If you use knife-chopped meat instead you want to slow cook it for up to 4 hours, until the meat breaks downs nicely into the sauce.
- The traditional recipe, surprisingly, doesn't call for any kind of aromatic herbs. However, if using tomato passata or pelati, I always add a fresh bay leaf, to help level up the tomato acidity.
- Leave the salt and pepper out until the very end. The ragu' should be seasoned once it is cooked through.
Taste it first, you'll see that it won't need much salt, I rarely season it to be honest. Freshly-cracked black pepper is not essential either.
- Finally, be patient. The slow and long cooking process is, in fact, essential for the right flavor and consistency.
- Cooking the bolognese at very low heat, for about two hours, it's the real secret that will thicken your sauce.
Your traditional Italian ragu' will be ready when the sauce is dense and not too runny.
What Should You Serve With Traditional Bolognese Sauce?
Traditionally, you serve it with fresh egg tagliatelle pasta or pappardelle.
In northern Italy, ragu' is also served on top of polenta and it's absolutely delicious.
You can also use this meat sauce to stuff cannelloni or make classic lasagna.
How To Store It
Once cooked through, allow the sauce to cool.
Divide the bolognese among freezer-friendly containers, and store in the freezer for up to 1 month.
Bolognese keeps well in the fridge for up to 2 days.
More Italian Recipes:
If you enjoyed this great recipe, I'm pretty confident you'll love these classic Italian recipes just as much:
- Traditional Italian Pizza Dough
- Traditional Tiramisu
- Authentic Potato Frittata
- Prawn Linguine - Authentic Italian Recipe
- Traditional Italian Pasta e Fagioli
DID YOU MAKE THIS RECIPE?
Please let me know how you liked it! Leave a comment below and share a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #thepetitecook! Looking at your pictures always makes me smile *and super hungry*!
Traditional Bolognese Sauce ( Ragu' alla Bolognese)
- 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 50 gr carrot finely cubed
- 50 gr celery finely cubed
- 50 gr golden onion finely cubed
- 150 gr raw pancetta finely cubed
- 300 gr freshly-minced beef (preferably shoulder cut)
- 200 ml dry white wine
- 300 ml pureed tomatoes or 3 tbsp triple concentrate tomato paste
- 1 bay leaf optional
- 100 ml vegetable or beef stock
- 120 ml fresh whole milk
- Heat a large pot with 2 tablespoons of olive oil over low heat. Fold in the carrot, celery and onion and cook, stirring often for about 10 minutes, until the veggies have softened.
- Heat another pan with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat, fold in the pancetta and stir fry for 5 minutes, then add in the beef and continue to cook, stirring often, until it's browned.
- Transfer the beef and pancetta into the pot with the veggies, and bring the temperature to medium-high. Pour in the wine and allow to evaporate, about 5 minutes.
- Pour the tomato sauce into the pot, and add in the bay leaf (if using). Reduce heat to very low, partially cover the pot with a lid, then slowly cook the ragu' for at least 2 hours.
- Stir the sauce occasionally, and if you see it's drying out, pour in a bit of stock. During the last half an hour of cooking, pour in the milk a little at a time, until fully incorporated.
- The sauce is ready when it reaches a dense and rich texture. If it's still too runny, let it cook a little more .
- Serve with egg tagliatelle or short pasta, and freshly-grated Parmesan cheese on the side.
The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.