Bolognese Sauce

This ragu is pasta comfort food at its best. Meaty and just-bold-enough with loads of dry red wine with just enough tomato sauce to keep it from being too rich. Make this early in the day on a weekend and freeze the leftovers for easy, delicious dinners to come.


THE RECIPE


Bolognese as adapted from Anne Burrell

(makes about 4 quarts)

Don’t forget to check out my Tips, Tricks, and Substitutions at the bottom of the recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 large Vidalia/sweet yellow onion, cut into a 1-inch dice
  • 2 large carrots, cut into a 1/2-inch dice
  • 3 ribs of celery, cut into a 1-inch dice
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for the pan
  • coarse kosher salt, to taste
  • 3 pounds ground beef
  • 2 cups tomato paste
  • 3 cups hearty red wine
  • one 28-oz can San Marzano Tomatoes, pureed
  • water
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 bunch thyme, tied in a bundle
  • prepared pasta (I recommend Pappardelle)
  • freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. In a food processor, puree onions, carrots, celery, and garlic until they form a coarse paste.
  2. Coat a large, heavy-bottomed pot with the oil and place over medium heat.
  3. Add the veggies and season, generously, with salt.
  4. Bring the pan to medium-high heat and cook until all the liquid has evaporated and the puree has become nicely browned, about 15-20 minutes. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
    • I know this feels like forever, but massive flavor is developing that you don’t want to miss. The scent of the browned veggies will say it all.
  5. Add the beef and, again, season generously with salt.
  6. Brown for another 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning.
    • You should see dark brown bits accumulating all over the bottom of the pan and as long as nothing smells burnt, you’re doing everything right. Those dark bits are the source of the deep flavor–think of how toast tastes in comparison to bread or how caramelized carrots taste in comparison to boiled. Worlds of difference.
  7. Add the tomato paste and brown for 4-5 minutes.
  8. Add the red wine and cook until it’s reduced by half, about another 4-5 minutes.
  9. Add the tomato puree/sauce and enough water so that the liquid rises to about an inch above the beef (you may or may not need to add any water, at this point).
  10. Toss in the bay leaves and thyme, stirring to combine.
  11. Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
    • I like to scrape the bottom of the pot every 15 minutes to be really safe–for me, it’s better to get up often to stir than to allow such an effort to burn.
  12. The sauce should cook for 3.5 to 4 hours. As it does, the water will gradually evaporate, at which point you’ll add 2-3 cups more. Don’t forget to taste at every stirring to ensure it’s seasoned properly.
  13. If you plan to eat this the same day it’s made, prepare a pot of pasta just before dinner time.
    • Don’t forget to save some pasta water!
  14. When ready to serve, top your pasta with Bolognese (you want an even ratio of pasta to sauce) and add some of the pasta water to mix
    • This starchy water will help the sauce stick to the noodles and, especially if pulled out of your freezer (in which case some of the liquid is lost), will thin it at the same time without making the sauce watery.
    • If serving a crowd (6-8 people), Anne Burrell’s directions are to prepare a pound of pasta that’s tossed with half the Bolognese and 1/2 a cup of pasta water, shortly cooking the mixture until the water has reduced. Then, give a big sprinkle of Parmesan and even drizzle with some olive oil to finish it off. Give it one last toss and serve 🙂

Tips, Tricks, and Substitutions

Salt: You should always season your food to taste. Every time you stir the sauce, dip a clean spoon in it and take a taste. If it needs more salt, add it. How will you know? There are browned veggies, beef, tomato paste, red wine, tomato sauce, and herbs in this pot; if it tastes bland with all of that, you don’t have enough salt. Just season and taste every step of the way until it’s to your liking. But remember, you can add, but you can’t remove!

Ground Beef: I didn’t specify a specific cut because I think it should be your choice; everybody has their own preference. I like to use a fattier cut, like chuck, because I think the sauce tastes a little too dry with round. For me, 85/15 is the right fat ratio, but if you’re one who’s careful about fatty meat, by all means, go with a leaner ground beef!

Red Wine: I don’t specify the wine because, again, you should use whatever wine you think tastes good. I use whatever red wine I have available in my house, so my sauce always tastes a little different from the last batch. If you’re not a fan of red wine, ask someone who is. So far, my favorites are Merlot and Burgundy. But remember, not all wines are created equal, even of the same type, which is why it’s important you use a brand that you trust to make that style delicious. I love Clos du Bois and Fetzer.

Tomatoes: San Marzano are well-known as the best tomatoes you can buy. That being said, a lot of cans claim to be authentic San Marzano, but aren’t, and there are plenty of tomatoes that are absolutely delicious. My real advice? Buy a few different brands of canned tomatoes and do a taste test. You’ll be surprised! I bought Cento for years and when I compared it to a couple other brands, I found out that it’s actually very bland! Find some good, flavorful tomatoes and just use those 🙂 And if you can get good San Marzano’s, by all means, do it!

Pasta: This is a thick, heavy sauce, so you need to use a pasta that can stand up to it, not something thin and flimsy like spaghetti. I’d go straight for pappardelle, which is a beautiful long, wide pasta. Other good choices would be tagliatelle, fettuccine, or even a shape like fusilli or rigatoni. Though, I will say that pappardelle is my favorite.

The Pot: You need to use something with a heavy bottom so you don’t burn everything during the browning stage. My choice is a good quality enameled cast iron Dutch oven, but any good quality, heavy pot will do. Just make sure the base is wide enough to brown efficiently; you don’t want to stand there all day 😉

How Much Water? Anne doesn’t elaborate about how many times you should add water, so I try to do so about each hour. The point is that the liquid is allowing the meat to braise, but if you add too much all at once, it will boil instead, resulting in blander flavors. So, we add water, allow it to evaporate, and then add it back and repeat until the sauce is finished, about 4 hours later.

Before the first evaporation, this pot was filled within half an inch of the brim! Like I said…grab yourself a big pot. And try not to eat it all within that four hours because, I promise, you’ll have a hard time stopping yourself from tasting and tasting, and tasting…and tasting 🙂


THE STORY


I’m very wary when it comes to Italian food recipes. You know…one of those people who appears to only want to eat “authentic” Italian and gags at the mere thought of The Olive Garden. How such a place can exist and why anyone would set foot in it, I have no idea. Who cares about their salads and breadsticks!? There’s better bread at Kruse and Muer and it’s not fake Italian!

Anyway, I digress. I can be a bit of an Italian snob or at least a picky Italian eater. What it comes down to is that I don’t truly, actually care if you’re making or eating “authentic” Italian food. I don’t eat all “authentic” Italian food! Take me to a bakery and I’m going to buy as many biancomangiare-filled cannolis as I can stand and not a single sweetened ricotta one, which any knowledgeable Italian can tell you is what’s “authentic” and just about the only thing you’ll find in Italy. Italian-Americans are the ones who “bastardized” cannolis with biancomangiare, an amazing, sweet, cinnamon-laced pudding. Why? Probably because Americans didn’t want to eat sugary cheese for dessert. Yet, in my opinion, the Italian-American version is superior in texture and flavor.

The problem with “authenticity” is that it has no concept of what actually works best or how varying taste buds are from person to person. Just because something is the “original” or the “tradition” in the place in which it originated doesn’t mean it’s in any way superior. Yes, I put down Olive Garden for being “inauthentic,” but it’s really because I just think the food is gross. My assertion about authenticity is a front so I can ignore anyone who tries to claim it tastes good 😉 SHH, don’t tell my friends!!

What is my point in telling you all this? As I said, I’m very picky about Italian food…and while I don’t necessarily care about “authenticity,” I am very interested in it. I want to know what is “authentic” and “original” so that I can try it and see what it’s like before going after all the variations out there. So, when it comes to Italian food, I go straight to the source I trust most, Anne Burrell. Trained in Italian cuisine, I haven’t found anyone whose food has been touted as more authentic than hers…or tastier! So, she’s my go-to Italian food source, which is why I went straight to her when I wanted to finally try my hand at Bolognese…the coveted meat sauce of Bologna.

And holy crap, have I ever tasted a sauce better than this? Addictive is a term that puts it lightly! I think my husband would have this for every meal and in between, if there were enough! However…Anne’s recipe is a bit rich for my tastes. So, I altered it. *GASP*

From what I’ve read, an “authentic” and “original” Bolognese has no herbs and very little tomato, relying heavily on the meat and wine for flavor…hence the richness! While delicious, I found myself having difficulties cleaning my plate. Each bite was harder than the last and that made me sad! I wanted to devour the bowl of pasta, not slowly meander through it. Of course, Billy had no issues, but here is where we note the differences in taste! His tongue was made for richness, mine was not…so I added more tomato to bring in a bit of that acidity I love so much 🙂 If you’re interested in Anne’s original, wonderfully rich recipe, though, you can find it here: Pasta Bolognese. I have no doubt you’ll be addicted to that, as well!

Now, you should realize this is a bit of an invasive recipe. I’m not sure of a better word to describe it. You’ll want to make it on a day off from work, preferably when your energy is at its peak and you either have at least a few hours before dinner or don’t plan to eat it until the following day, please don’t let that scare you away! Like a good marinara, Bolognese has to cook for about three hours or so. In addition to that, though…multiple elements need to be browned. First, there’s the soffritto (a cooking foundation that includes multiple pureed vegetables. Bet you didn’t know meat sauce had carrots and celery, did you?). Then the meat. Then the tomato paste. THEN you can add the liquid and sit back and wait…while getting up every 15 minutes or so for a stir to ensure the sauce doesn’t burn as all your hard work and sweat goes to waste 😉

Steam from the soffritto as I brown it. See how light it looks? By the end, it is a toasty, toasty brown. Smells like toast too! It’s simply a step you cannot miss. But do yourself a favor…turn on the fan 😉

Please don’t be intimidated, though! I know I just killed you with all that, but it really is an insanely amazing sauce and well, well worth the effort. Not to mention how proud you’ll feel when you taste it and can say you worked hard and made that amazing sauce! And if you have a large enough pot, you can make massive amounts and have frozen sauce that will last you months; it’s not like you have to go through this process often. Once it’s over and you’ve tasted it, you’ll forget you went through any trouble, at all, and will just emit a sigh of content, I swear 🙂 Plus, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come home exhausted from work and just said “get out some Bolognese!” so that I don’t have to make an effort, yet we have a fast, delicious meal that doesn’t miss out on veggies or protein. So, get yourself a nice big pot and let’s get started.

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