Traditional Bolognese Sauce
After a week of slinging quick-cooked dinners at my family, I absolutely love having the luxury of lazy weekend days to cook whatever I feel like. I crave the opportunity to doodle around in the kitchen all day, making a recipe that just gets better with time. A traditional Bolognese sauce is just that. One of my favorite weekend recipes–especially when it’s chilly outside–it’s about a 3-4 hour process, but most of the time it’s just bubbling away making my house smell amazing. I imagine if I had an Italian grandmother, this is what her house would always smell like.
Once you gather the ingredients it doesn’t take long at all–maybe 45 minutes to get to the point where you can just ignore it. This recipe makes a nice big batch, and it freezes beautifully. I like to serve it with pappardelle or tagliatelle, but linguine or fettuccine is good, too. Really, any noodle you choose will be perfect. My kids love “little ears” (orecchiette) because the sauce gets stuck inside them. It also makes the best (best!) lasagna. But that’s another post…
A few important notes:
First, make sure you really, really brown the meat and veggies. Like, get the meat to the point where it’s sizzling and popping, even sticking to the bottom of the pan and scaring you a little. This caramelization is how you get the deep, rich flavor in the finished sauce. It is important to use separate pans as it allows you to get the veggies and meat going at the same time, while also allowing them to brown individually–veggies have a lot of water, and it would be very difficult to get the meat properly browned if they were combined, and by the time the meat finally browned the veggies would undoubtedly burn. It’s only one extra pan to wash… I promise it’s worth it.
Next, I know this might sound weird, but I rinse the dried porcini before I soak them in the stock. I know everyone says, “don’t rinse mushrooms,” but 1.) They’re going to soak anyway; and 2.) Porcini are notoriously gritty, and I’m not wasting 4 hours making a gritty Bolognese. So there. Also, even if you don’t think you like mushrooms, you have to trust me, these will be ground up so small that, texturally, you won’t notice them. When it comes to the flavor though, they are so important. They add such a depth and richness and really round out the flavors.
Here’s how I make mine.
Traditional Bolognese Sauce
(This recipe makes enough to dress 2 lbs of pasta)
Prep time–about 20 minutes
Active cooking time–45 minutes
Inactive cooking time–3-4 hours
- 4 ounces pancetta–diced (if you don’t eat pork, you can leave this out)
- 1 ounce dried porcini (Two .5 ounce containers, which seems to be the standard)
- 4 cloves fresh garlic
- 1 medium onion
- 1 large or a few small carrots
- 2 celery stalks
- 1 lb ground pork (again, if you’re not a pork eater, just use all beef)
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 small can tomato paste (6 oz)
- 2 cups red wine
- 4 cups chicken stock (homemade if you can; choose a good all-natural, low-sodium one if store-bought)
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
- Parmesan cheese rind
- 2 bay leaves
- extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper
- tablespoon fresh rosemary–chopped
In a small sauce pan combine 4 cups of stock with the rinsed porcini. Bring to a simmer while you begin to prep the veggies.
Roughly chop onion, celery, carrot and garlic and add to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until all ingredients are finely minced. Preheat a large Dutch oven with a few tablespoons of olive oil, sauté pancetta for a minute or two before adding the minced veggies, rosemary, big pinch of salt (teaspoon) and a few grinds of black pepper.
Once porcini are soft, carefully scoop them out (reserving the stock for later) and add them to the same food processor bowl. Pulse until very finely minced and add to the Dutch oven with the veggies. Slowly sauté while you get the meat started.
*if you don’t have a food processor, just mince the veggies by hand–I often chop them by hand and I do have a food processor.
Preheat a separate large skillet over medium-high heat with a few tablespoons olive oil (at least a 12 inch skillet, but larger if you have it). Add meat, 2 teaspoons salt and about a teaspoon of black pepper. Break it up with a wooden spoon and stir every few minutes. This process should take at least 20 minutes, but up to 30 to get the proper caramelization. Take your time, channel your inner Italian and have a glass of red wine. Enjoy the process.
Once your veggies are really soft and beginning to brown (should take about 20 minutes), add tomato paste and cook for another minute.
Once the meat is really brown (should take about 20-30 minutes), add 1 cup of red wine to the skillet and scrape the pan, getting all the brown bits off the bottom. Add the meat to the Dutch oven with the veggie/tomato paste mixture, and add another cup of red wine. Give it a big stir, and allow the wine to reduce for about 5 minutes, then add crushed tomatoes, stock, milk, bay leaves, and parmesan cheese rind. Bring to a simmer and cook very gently for 3-4 hours–you want it barely bubbling. Stir occasionally. Remove the bay leaves and Parmesan cheese rind when finished.
This sauce gets better as it sits, and is even more delicious the next day and the day after. It is so rich and satisfying.
When you’re ready to serve, cook your favorite noodles just a little under al dente, and reserve a cup of the pasta water. The Italian trick to finishing pasta is to cook the noodles with the sauce and a little pasta water for the last few minutes. It makes a huge difference, and is so much better than just plopping sauce on top of noodles. So, transfer the sauce you aren’t using to containers, and when your pasta is done add it directly to the sauce along with a little pasta water and cook over medium heat for a few minutes until it is thick and glossy, I just toss it around with tongs until it looks right. You want plenty of sauce, but not so much that the noodles are drowning in it. Serve with basil and freshly grated parmesan or pecorino romano.