Bolognese sauce, done right

Everyone knows how to make spaghetti bolognese … after a fashion. It’s classic student cookery, isn’t it? Onions, minced beef and tomatoes into a pot, simmer for a while — bam, done. But it can be done right, and then it’s a glorious thing.

Photo from Kok Robin’s blog.

And the good news is, it’s not difficult. It doesn’t need the ludicrous over-complication of Heston Blumenthal’s version. The main thing it needs is elapsed time. What you can’t do is make it in a hurry. But most of the time is simply simmering, so it doesn’t need to take up much of your time.

Here’s how I do it — most recently, a couple of nights ago, when it was so good I thought I was going to weep.

  1. Chop three good-sized onions and fry them until they’re up to heat. (I often have chicken fat, saved from the previous Sunday’s roast. If so, I use that; otherwise olive oil or vegetable oil is fine.)
  2. Turn the onions to a low heat — low enough that they won’t stick — cover them, and leave them for an hour or two.
  3. Coarsely chop two carrots and three sticks of celery into roughly 5 mm cubes. (If you’re feeling lazy, you can grate them instead, but the texture is better if you chop.)
  4. Add them to the onion, stir in, and bring the pot back up to heat.
  5. Turn the onion-carrot-celery mixture to a low heat, cover them and leave them for an hour or two.
  6. If this mixture starts to dry out, add some liquid. I use a cup of chicken stock, but water would be OK if you don’t have any.
  7. Add 800 g of minced beef. Stir it in until it browns.
  8. Add salt, pepper and whatever herbs you favour — oregano works well. If you have some bay leaves, throw in four or five.
  9. Turn down the heat, cover the mixture, and leave it for half an hour.
  10. Add two tins of tomatoes, chopped finely, and a generous glass of red wine.
  11. Leave the lid off — you want some of the liquid to evaporate out — and simmer the mixture for and hour or two. Longer if you can, turning the heat down lower once you’ve got it to the consistency you want.

That’s it. As you can see from all the leave-it-to-simmer instructions, it takes four or five hours in total, but you only need to be actually cooking for maybe 20 minutes of that.

Once you’ve cooked it this way, you’ll never go back.


10 responses to “Bolognese sauce, done right

  1. This is very close to how I make Bolognese, and very close to Marcella Hazan’s recipe. The main difference being that I do not cook the aromatics that long (though I’m inclined to think I should, after reading this,) and I add a bit of milk to the beef once it has browned )and I often like to use half pork if I have it on hand.) I will also sometimes add a bit of red bell pepper- Marcella would frown, but I like it.

    The consistency I look for in a Bolognese is something like an oily paste- that doesn’t sound good, but of course it is when you toss it with some fresh fettucine.

    I agree- your recipe is in fact Bolognese done right. In the US a lot of restaurants claim to serve a Bolognese, but it always turns out to be a runny cream/tomato/meat sauce that is sometimes fairly tasty, but that seems to me about what you would expect if you asked for Bolognese in the Heart of Gold.

  2. Looks really good and hearty!

  3. It really is! I’ve actually eaten it for four of my last five meals.

  4. Tagore, nice Nutri-matic reference.

    I’ve heard the idea of adding milk from quite a few different sources now. It sounds weird to me, but maybe I’ll try it. Half pork makes sense to me, too. Bell peppers, though? Not in a bolognese!

    In terms of texture, I am looking for something a bit more defined than your “oily paste”, which is why I recommend chopping the carrots and celery instead of grating. There’s something special about having recognisable chunks of these things, each of them distinctly itself while having also absorbed the essence of the others.

  5. Marcella Hazan claims that adding some milk to the meat buffers it against the acidity of the tomatoes. I pretty much learned to cook from Hazan (OK, from my Mom too, but more from Hazan if I’m completely honest) but I’m skeptical. That said, adding a half cup to a cup of milk to the meat and letting it reduce to nothing before adding the tomatoes does improve the sauce, in my experience. It might simply be a matter of adding richness (which is coals to Newcastle, but hey, it gets cold in Newcastle too, right?)

    Some dairy is traditional in a Bolognese. As I mentioned, in the US what is generally called Bolognese is actually a runny cream/tomato sauce. That’s clearly very wrong(!). but a little bit of milk is, IMHO, very right

    As for the consistency, I do chop the aromatics (it wouldn’t even occur to me to grate them,) but I chop them fairly fine. A bit smaller than mirepoix, perhaps. After >five hours they have lost most of their individuality. I cook my Bolognese until there is very little water left in it, and it is the concentration of sugars, and their dispersal into the fat from the meat, that I consider the hallmark of the sauce.

    This is, btw, always the sauce I make on the rare occasion that I have enough time and ambition to make pasta completely by hand (well, with a rolling pin and a knife,) aside from some Bechamel-based lasagnas. There is something very satisfying about hand-made pasta paired with a good winy-sweet Bolognese. And lasagna made this way is.. very good.

    As for the red pepper- well, as I said, Marcella would frown. But I like it ;).

  6. Making your own pasta is about twelve levels further than someone as lazy as me is prepared to go :-)

    Anyway, thanks again for the milk tip: I’ll try it next time.

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  8. insearchofheston

    Fantastic post and especially your photo. Very impressed at how closely you were able to replicate the look of the photo from Kok Robin’s blog!

  9. Haha, yes! The photo is from Kok Robin’s blog: I ate mine before I thought to photograph it.

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