When you go to your favorite Italian-American restaurant do you order Tagliatelle Bolognese? Do you get authentic “Bolognese” as it’s served in Italy and defined as “Ragù alla Bolognese” according the Accademia Italiana della Cucina? Probably not.
Ragù Bolognese is a meat sauce originating in Bologna Italy. Preparing traditional Ragù alla Bolognese includes the sweating of a classic soffrito of finely chopped celery, onions and carrots; the frying of minced or ground meat such as beef and veal with some pancetta; which is then slow simmered in meat stock, red or white wine and a little tomato paste. Finally some milk or cream is added towards the end of the cooking cycle all contributing to a complex ragù with many layers of flavors and textures. This makes Ragù Bolognese the classic sauce for preparing Tagliatelle and Lasagna; or other broad flat pastas like pappardelle or fettuccine.
The earliest documented recipe for a meat ragù served with pasta comes from late 18th century Imola, near Bologna; and in 1891 Pellegrino Artusi in his classic cookbook La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene published a recipe for a meat sauce characterized as being “Bolognese”. The recipe Maccheroni alla Bolognese resembles the classic ragù since the recipe called for lean veal, pancetta, celery, onion, carrot, meat stock and cream. The meats and vegetables were finely minced, cooked with butter until the meats browned, then covered and simmered in the stock. Artusi also suggested adding small pieces of dried mushroom, a few slices of truffle, or chicken liver to the minced to meat to make it tastier. As a final touch, he suggested adding “half a glass” of cream to the sauce when it was done to make it “taste smoother”. Historically “maccheroni” is a generic reference to pasta and not indicative of any particular type or shape. Accordingly, in his recipe Artusi did not suggest Ragù Bolognese with any specific pasta but did mention a couple medium sized “paste asciutte”, dry pastas; these he referred to as “denti di cavallo” and “strozzapreti”; or “horse teeth” and “priest chokers” respectively. These pastas may be compared to cavatelli but are perhaps a bit longer. He suggests cooking the pasta until it’s al dente, and then topping with the Ragù and grated Parmigiano cheese. Since Artusi published his interpretation of the recipe for Maccheroni alla Bolognese, the dish has evolved along with the cuisine of the region. The two most notable changes are the preferred type of pasta, which is tagliatelle; and the inclusion of a small amount of tomato paste.
Today, there are many variations of the recipe even among native Italian chefs, but the many variations tend to be based on a common theme. For example, meat, stock and chopped vegetables dominate the ingredients; garlic or herbs are not found, the seasoning is limited to salt, pepper and perhaps a pinch of nutmeg; tomatoes are only an accent ingredient as in the use of tomato paste, and wine and cream or milk are always included. The numerous variations among recipes for Ragù alla Bolognese have led to the search for the definitive, authentic recipe and in 1982 the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, Italian Academy of Cuisine, an organization dedicated to preserving the culinary heritage of Italy, recorded and deposited a recipe for “Ragù Bolognese Classico” with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce. The academy’s recipe confines the ingredients to beef, pancetta, onions, carrot, celery, tomato paste, meat broth, dry red or white wine, milk, salt and pepper. The option of adding a small amount of cream at the end of the preparation is recommended. Even with this “standard” in place, many variations persist leading many professional chefs to say that there is in fact no definitive recipe for Ragù Bolognese. But, to be worthy of the name, the recipe should be consistent with that published by the Academy and respect the ingredients and traditions of the area.
In Bologna, Ragù alla Bolognese is typically served with tagliatelle, made with eggs and soft wheat flour. The Bologna Chamber of Commerce holds a solid gold replica of a piece of tagliatelle in a glass case indicating the correct dimensions for tagliatelle as 1 millimeter thick by 6 millimeters wide. Acceptable alternatives to fresh tagliatelle include other broad flat pasta shapes, such as pappardelle or fettuccine; and tube shapes such as rigatoni and penne. Many Italian Chefs use Ragù alla Bolognese along with Béchamel to prepare the traditional Lasagna alla Bolognese.
Outside Italy, the phrase “Bolognese sauce” usually refers to a heavy tomato-based sauce to which ground beef or pork has been added, and is often found on the menu as “Spaghetti Bolognese”. In the UK and other commonwealth countries it is also popularly referred to as SpagBol. In the United States this is found in most, if not all, Italian-American restaurants and often offered with a choice of pastas. These preparations bear little resemblance to authentic Ragù alla Bolognese and by comparison are generally just a characterless tomato sauce with chunks of ground beef in it, and not in any way considered a reasonable facsimile of Ragù Bolognese.
I’ve included what is considered to be an “authentic” recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese; so the next time the urge strikes, don’t settle for the Italian-American restaurant impersonations; instead, make your own at home and you will never order Ragù alla Bolognese out again.
- 8 oz ground beef
- 8 oz ground veal or pork
- 4 oz pancetta, finely chopped
- 4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 medium carrot, finely chopped
- 2 celery stalks, white lobes and leaves removed, finely chopped
- 1 14½ oz can beef stock
- ½ cup red or white wine
- ½ cup tomato paste
- ½ cup milk or cream
- Salt and black ground pepper for seasoning
- To a heavy saucepot, add the olive oil, onion celery and carrot and sauté over medium heat until the vegetables start to soften.
- Add the ground meats, the salt and pepper and brown. Then add the wine and cook about 1 to 2 minutes. Finally, add the beef stock and stir in the tomato paste. Simmer over low heat for about 1½ hours, stirring occasionally. Add the milk or cream and stir until well incorporated. Adjust seasoning and simmer for 10 more minutes.
- Serve over tagliatelle or your favorite pasta topped with grated Parmigiano cheese.
The image Homemade Tagliatelle and Bolognese is used under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 (CC by NC-NC-SA 2.0) License