by Will Packwood • Photography by Jenna Northcutt
Ragù alla Bolognese is a rich yet delicate meat sauce originating in Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna. Ragù is a classification of thick, meat-based sauces generally served with pasta, and on October 17, 1982, Bologna’s chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina chose one recipe to be accepted as the “most accurately true” ragù alla Bolognese. Of course, this set off weeks of debate, discussion and questions about the most traditional ingredients, the most traditional quantities of said ingredients, the most traditional method of preparation and the origin of ragù alla Bolognese. As with all other authentic Italian foods, there are as many recipes and variations as there are cooks.
What can be agreed upon, though, is that ragù alla Bolognese is finely minced meat long-simmered with various vegetables, aromatics, liquids and the addition of tomato, crushed and/or paste. To better understand the finished product, let’s look at the individual components.
Emilia-Romagna occupies the majority of the Po Valley, Italy’s agriculture center, and produces large quantities of milk and dairy products. Butter is the obvious choice of cooking fat—it adds a subtle richness and sweetness to the finished sauce. Usually, a small amount of olive oil or vegetable oil is added to help raise the smoking point and prevent the butter from burning.
Carrot, celery and onion are almost always included—they provide depth to the long-cooking ragù. In addition, softer more delicate herbs, such as parsley and bay leaves, are often included to add freshness. Harsher flavors such as garlic and more robust herbs and spices are usually omitted.
Today, beef is the most commonly used meat. Pork and veal are often included to add texture and richness. The best cut is from the shoulder of the animal, the chuck and pork butt. These cuts benefit from the long cooking time and have a great meat-to-fat ratio. Many recipes also include pancetta, salt pork and chicken livers, each of which add additional flavors and consistencies.
Milk is usually the first liquid added during the simmering process. Milk adds a subtle sweetness and aids in softening the meats. Wine adds flavor, and more importantly, acidity. Only use a wine you would drink—any negative flavors in the wine will become more evident during the cooking process. Tomato puree adds additional liquid and that expected tomato-y flavor, but remember, this is a meat ragù, not tomato sauce; tomato only plays a supporting role. Broth is used when additional liquid is needed (make sure it’s very mild or diluted with water so as not to overpower the other flavors). Heavy cream, sometimes reduced to a thick consistency, is often added immediately before serving.
Other flavors are sometimes included: Nutmeg is fairly common, adding a pleasant earthiness. Rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano and anchovies are also often used to add savory notes (aka umami). SERVING SUGGESTIONS Ragù alla Bolognese is most typically served with tagliatelle (a flat pasta similar to fettuccine). Small- to medium-sized hollow maccheroni shapes, such as rigatoni, penne and garganelli are also suitable. Round noodles such as spaghetti are never served with ragù alla Bolognese because of their inability to hold the sauce. Ragù alla Bolognese is also an important component of lasagne alla Bolognese.