How to Make the Perfect Bolognese
Comforting. Meaty. Delicious. Bolognese always satisfies. While some believe you can just throw meat into tomato sauce and call it Bolognese, true Bolognese must be crafted from scratch with patience and love. Here’s a recipe full of ideas to inspire the creative cook within you:
Fat - Used for the initial sauté. Olive oil is best, but don’t use extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin contains particulate from olives that burn with high heat. It is common to use butter or a combination of butter and olive oil as well.
Salt - Kosher or sea salt please! The iodine in iodized salt will ruin your Bolognese.
Pepper - Black pepper is essential. Freshly cracked is best. If you’d like to add a little heat, crushed red pepper is great. Using chipotle is a great twist to add some smokiness to the flavor profile.
1 ½ Lbs of Meat - Traditionally beef is the primary meat source and pancetta is added for flavor. However any meat or combination of meats can be used including beef, veal, pork, uncased sausage, lamb, and buffalo/bison. Keep meats leaner to avoid pools of fat atop your sauce, but don’t go too lean. Trying to make a healthier sauce using chicken, turkey, or other less flavorful meats will lead to a sauce that tastes a little flat, but feel free to use these meats in combination with the others. Additional meats to add flavor include pancetta, bacon, prosciutto, duck, and liver. Commonly ground meat is used, however cubed meat adds a wonderful, succulent texture once tenderized and broken down. Go with meat you like and what looks good at your market.
2-3 Cups Chopped Aromatic Vegetables - Standard issue is onion, celery, and carrot (known as mirepoix in French cooking), but the only necessity is onion. Many add bell pepper to the mix, and other root vegetables such as parsnip or celery root can impart an earthiness to the sauce. One thing to watch is to keep your flavors balanced and the mix aromatic. For instance, don’t use a sweet onion (e.g., Vidalia or Maui) with carrots and red bell pepper. Your sauce will end up too sweet.
Garlic - Fresh garlic finely chopped is the preference, however pre-chopped or garlic powder will work. Amount of garlic used is always taster’s choice.
Tomato - Contrary to popular belief, Bolognese is not a tomato-based sauce. Do not add large quantities of tomato. If using fresh tomato, use 3-4 tomatoes or 6-7 plum/Roma tomatoes. You do not need to dice the tomato as the skin will deteriorate while cooking. If using canned tomato, use one 14 oz can of tomatoes or tomato sauce or a 6 oz can of tomato paste. Using sun-dried tomatoes in addition to those already mentioned is delicious, but chop them into a desirable size because they will not break down from cooking.
Alcohol - Tomatoes contain flavors only accessible to your taste buds when combined with alcohol, so you need to add alcohol. Using ½ cup vodka will bring out the flavor in the tomatoes but not add additional flavors top the sauce. If using wine, use a minimum 1 cup. Keep in mind that wine adds flavor and sugar, but add as much as you’d like in combination with the liquids listed below.
Liquid - You’ll be simmering your sauce for a minimum of 3 hours, so you’ll need to add liquid to keep the Bolognese the proper consistency (and from burning on the bottom of the pot). Water works great and will keep your flavors true to the other ingredients. Beef broth will add richness and salt, but be careful how much you add or the other ingredients will be overpowered.
Milk - Some traditionalists are adamant about the use of milk in Bolognese, but it doesn’t do much in terms of flavor, aroma, or consistency. If you’re the traditional type and would like to try it out, add milk while cooking the meat (and cook the meat after the vegetables unlike the provided directions).
Herbs - Not a necessity, but herbs add wonderful aroma and flavor to a sauce. Including some parsley, the mildest of herbs, will impart some freshness and aroma. Basil and oregano are classic and perfect additions to balance and round out flavors. A bay leaf or two adds great fragrance, but isn’t too traditional. Thyme, sage, or even rosemary are tasty during winter months. Other than the bay leaves, finely chop herbs, add anywhere from a pinch up to two cups, and save some to top the finished Bolognese when served.
Spice - Feel free to experiment with small amounts of spices to impart some unique flavors. Both nutmeg and cumin are welcome visitors to Bolognese.
Mushrooms - If you like mushrooms, add them to give a different textural element and earthy aroma to Bolognese. Any mushroom will work, however put porcini at the top of your list for its nutty flavor and smooth texture. Common white button mushroom are sufficient, but lean towards the equally available Italian brown (a.k.a. cremini). Shiitake are more commonly used in eastern cuisine, but also delicious here. Make sure you remove the inedible stems from Shiitakes (but you can save them to make a deliciously aromatic soup broth). Portabellas will add good flavor but are a little too dense, so not ideal. Lighter flavored mushrooms will be lost in the richness of the Bolognese.
1. Place a large stock pot over high heat and add fat to coat the bottom of the pot. If using butter, use a medium-high heat to avoid burning the butter solids.
2. Dry meat with a paper towel, season appropriately with salt/pepper, and add to the pot. Brown on all sides (this will not occur if you didn’t dry first) and then remove from the pot. NOTE: Most recipes for Bolognese will have you sauté vegetables first and then add meat. Adding meat first allows you to cook the vegetables in the fat rendered from the meat. This allows flavors to start melding early, which is important. It also allows bits of meat to stick to the bottom of the pan. These bits are released during the long simmer and impart wonderful flavor to your Bolognese. Not a traditional Italian thing to do, this method is borrowed from French cuisine, which employs this cooking technique for stews such Beef Bourguignon.
3. Drain excess fat from the pot, making sure enough is left to sauté the vegetables. Add aromatic vegetables to the pot, salt/pepper appropriately, and sauté until sweated (onion will be slightly translucent on the edges).
4. Add garlic and any spices and sauté for 1-2 minutes to release their flavor.
5. Add the meat back to the pot and thoroughly stir the pot’s contents.
6. Add tomato, any herbs, and alcohol (and optional mushrooms). Cook and stir until the tomatoes fall apart (if using fresh, whole tomatoes). Then reduce liquid in the pot in half.
7. Add 2 cups of your liquid of choice, bring back to a low boil, and then reduce the heat down to a steady simmer.
8. TASTE!!! At this point you want to add any additional seasoning, if necessary.
9. Continue simmering for a minimum of 3 hours. The longer you cook a Bolognese, the better. Stir as much as possible, ensuring to always scrape up anything stuck to the pot’s bottom. Add liquid in 2 cup increments to keep the sauce from over-thickening and burning.
10. Serve atop pasta or in lasagna with some freshly grated cheese and fresh herbs.