“Bolognese” sauce is a funny thing. The sauce is not just found in Bologna – most towns in the Italian region (Emilia-Romagna) have their own version, some quite different from one another. Even in Bologna there is little agreement on ingredients or a standardization of the recipe – the old joke is that if you asked 100 people in Bologna for their sauce recipe, you’d get 100 different versions. At its essence, Bolognese sauce is a minced- or ground-meat “sauce” (and I use that word loosely, for reasons explained below) cooked with a sofrito (onion, carrots, celery) and usually with some type of wine and some form of tomatoes. I’ve seen recipes with white wine, with red wine. With mostly ground beef, with only ground beef, with mostly ground pork, with a mixture of the two, and with beef, pork, and chicken livers. With whole tomatoes, or with tomato puree. Lots of recipes add milk during the cooking, some tell you to stir in bechamel sauce at the end instead. The only consistent aspect of any Bolognese sauce recipe is that it must, must, must be cooked for a long time – upwards of two hours or more.
“Sauce” is a word used rather loosely here, because Bolognese sauce is not what most of us outside of Italy would consider “saucy”. That is, Bolognese sauce is much “drier” than your typical pasta sauce. In general, Italians use quite a bit less sauce than we do in the U.S., and Bolognese sauce has quite a bit less liquid than other sauces. (You’ll probably just have to make it to see what I’m talking about.) In the pictures above, I’ve actually used a lot more sauce than you’d normally see on pasta in northern Italy, but even in my version the sauce isn’t glopped on top of the pasta, but rather mixed in so that it coats all of the pasta bits equally. Bolognese sauce in northern Italy is served with tagliatelle (a wider, fettuccine-like fresh egg noodle), in lasagna, with tortellini, or with dried pasta such as rigatoni (shown in the picture above) or penne. It is never, ever served with spaghetti (that is a British adaptation). If you use dried pasta, don’t rinse it after cooking. You don’t want to rinse off the starch that clings to the pasta – this is what allows the sauce to adhere to the pasta.
This recipe is a partial adaptation of a recipe I translated from a book I picked up on a recent trip to Bologna – Laura Rangoni’s La Cucina Bolognese, although I made quite a few alterations. If you are fat-phobic, this is not the recipe for you! There is a huge amount of pork fat (and other fats) in this recipe. Using pasture-raised pork and beef (and butter from grass-fed cows) helps reduce the amount of “bad” fat, but still. There is a LOT of fat in this recipe. If you want to stay true to the recipe but reduce the amount of fat in it, you can skim off the fat at the end (it will separate out from the rest of the sauce) or you can refrigerate the sauce overnight and de-fat it after the fat has solidified. Don’t remove all of the fat, though, because the fat is what really coats the pasta and creates a “saucy” feel in the mouth.
A few last words about ingredients: make sure you dice your sofrito (onion, carrot, celery) as finely as possible – you don’t want big chunks of celery or carrots in your final sauce (they’re supposed to sort of melt into the sauce after the long cooking time). This recipe calls for prosciutto cotto and pancetta. Prosciutto cotto: literally, “cooked prosciutto”, prosciutto cotto is exactly that – prosciutto that has been cooked. It is sold like other deli meats. If you can’t find prosciutto cotto, you could substitute good-quality ham. If you can’t find pancetta (sometimes referred to as Italian bacon – but only because pancetta is made from pork belly – other than that, there is little similarity), omit it. Don’t be tempted to use American (smoked) bacon – you’ll ruin the balance of flavors in the sauce. If you find pancetta, have your deli man (or woman) slice it thinly to facilitate you chopping it into tiny, tiny bits. I used La Quercia pancetta (normally I’d never say “domestic” and “pancetta” in the same breath, but La Quercia’s pancetta is truly delicious and comes from humanely raised pigs). And finally, I prefer Bionaturae brand of tomato puree, but if you can’t find a good puree, you can simply open a can of high-quality whole tomatoes and puree them in your food processor or blender. Strain the seeds using a fine-mesh strainer if you like.
For 6-8 servings
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, very finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and very finely chopped
2 ribs of celery, very finely chopped
3 ounces pancetta, very finely chopped
4 ounces (1/4 pound) prosciutto cotto, very finely chopped
1 pound grass-fed ground beef
3/4 pound sustainably-raised ground pork
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/4 cups tomato puree
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 lb. pasta for serving
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving
- In a large, heavy dutch oven, add the butter, olive oil, onions, carrots, and celery. Saute over medium heat until the vegetables have softened (but not browned – turn down the heat if they start browning), about 10 minutes.
- Add the pancetta, and cook and stir over medium heat for another 5 minutes.
- Add the prosciutto cotto and cook and stir over medium heat for 5 minutes more.
- Add the ground beef and the ground pork, breaking up large chunks with a fork. Cover the pot and cook over medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes, or until all the pink is gone from the meat, stirring occasionally.
- Add the white wine, turn the heat up to medium-high, and let cook until most of the wine has evaporated, 15 minutes or so.
- Stir in the tomato puree.
- Turn the heat down to medium low and simmer for 2 hours or longer, stirring occasionally. The fat will separate from the sauce at the end of cooking. If the mixture becomes too dry during cooking, add a bit of water, a few tablespoons at a time. Don’t add salt until the very end, keeping in mind that the cured pork products add quite a bit of salt to the sauce.
- Cook your pasta of choice, drain, and toss with the sauce, stirring well to coat each piece of pasta. Top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Note: You can cook the sauce in a crock-pot instead of on the stove – add all ingredients to the crock-pot at step 7. Cook on low heat for 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Add water if the mixture becomes too dry, as discussed in step 7.