Hearty, comforting, and meaty, bolognese is the ultimate ragu.

If I had to choose, my ultimate comfort food would be a big bowl of pappardelle Bolognese. Toothsome, chewy, perfectly cooked wide ribbons of slippery egg pasta coated in the most delicious ragu of them all: Bolognese.

It’s hearty, it’s rich, it’s absolute flavor heaven. Good bolognese is the best comfort food. Thick, umami forward sauce with soft and supple slow cooked meat, a hint of sweet tomatoes, luxuriously creamy, and full bodied.

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But wait, just what is Bolognese?

When you think of Bolognese, what do you think of? Probably a tomato-y, meaty pasta sauce, which is exactly what it is, but with a couple of specifics. “Bolognese” means in the style of Bologna, the capital city of of Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy.

Essentially, Bolognese is a ragu (meat based sauce served over pasta) made famous in Bologna and now popular worldwide. Typically, Bolognese includes: meat (a mix of beef and pork), a classic soffritto (onion, celery, carrot), wine, milk or cream, and tomatoes. Bolognese in Bologna is almost always served with tagliatelle.

Nowadays it seems like every tomato based meat sauce is called Bolognese. I’m sure the people of Bologna would disagree 9 times out of 10. This sauce is pretty close to the classic with just a couple of twists.

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Bolognese vs meat sauce

Bolognese is meat sauce but not all meat sauces are Bolognese. The main difference is that a meat sauce is a tomato based sauce simmered with ground beef and various vegetables. Bolognese is a much more complex sauce with layers of flavor. It’s velvety rich, thicker, creamier (thanks to milk), and just straight up better.

The secret to a good Bolognese

Building out flavors is key to why this bolognese works, whether you only have one hour or 6. Thirty minutes and an Instant Pot will give you something truly delicious but if you can slow simmer for 6 hours, the sauce will become next level. The ingredients layer together in a way that builds up, leaving you completely satisfied. These are reasons why this Bolognese is going to be the best you’ll ever make:

Beef and pork

Most meat sauces out there – including the ones masquerading as Bolognese only call for beef. But for a really good Bolognese, you need a mix of beef and pork, not only for the different flavors, but for the differing fat contents. Pork adds a lighter umami sweetness that pairs well with the deeper flavors of beef. Plus ground pork tends to be a bit fattier than ground beef, giving the sauce a richness that you won’t get from just using beef alone.

Soffritto

The holy trinity of aromatic vegetables are onions, carrots, and celery, otherwise known as soffritto. Slow cooking soffritto in olive oil gently coaxes out an immense amount of flavor and complexity.

Garlic

There are two schools on garlic in Bolognese. Some say it doesn’t belong because its flavors overwhelm the sauce. I love garlic and find it adds nice mellow sweetness and hint of caramelization. This sauce has garlic in it!

Dairy

One of the ingredients that sets Bolognese apart from other ragu is the milk in the sauce. Slow cooking the meats in milk makes the sauce incredibly silky and rich and tenderizes the meat.

Cheese

Finish with cheese, always! Freshly grated parmigiano reggiano (get the DOP good stuff) adds saltiness, nuttiness, and so much umami. This bolognese is finished with a shower of fresh cheese and you should definitely have more at the table, so you can add as you wish.

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How to make the ultimate Bolognese

  1. Prep: Start by prepping the ingredients. Use a food processor if you have it, otherwise chop the onions, carrots, and celery into a very fine dice. Use a garlic press to mince the garlic, mince the prosciutto, and use a knife to roughly chop and break up the ground meats.
  2. Sweat the aromatics: Add a generous amount of olive oil to a heavy bottomed pan and stir in the onions, carrots, celery, and garlic. Cook over medium heat until very soft, but not brown. Stir in the anchovies, breaking them up, then deglaze with some white wine and reduce the wine over high heat.
  3. Add the chicken stock, tomato paste, milk, meats, and bay leaf. Unlike most other sauces that want you to brown your meat for the maillard reaction, just stir in the meat and break it up in the liquid. We want to slow braise the meats so they become silky soft and tender, so no browning is necessary.

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How to make weeknight Bolognese

When making weeknight bolognese, the Instant Pot is your best friend.

Instant Pot Bolognese

If you have an Instant Pot, you’ll have almost instant sauce. Pressure cooked ragu is a short cut on time but definitely not a short cut on flavor. Ground meat cooked under pressure becomes incredibly tender and moist thanks to the combo of heat and steam.

Instead of simmering for hours, you can have a rich and full bodied ragu in under an hour. There are just a couple of things to remember: when pressure cooking, there’s no evaporation (because you’re cooking in a closed environment), so you want to start out with quite a bit less liquid than you would use when cooking on the stove.

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How to make Bolognese in the Instant Pot

  1. Cook the soffritto in the olive oil, along with the anchovies over medium heat.
  2. When the soffritto is soft, but not browned, add 1/2 cup wine and cook down until almost evaporated. Stir in 1.5 cups of chicken stock and 1 cup of milk.
  3. Add the tomato paste, and bay leaf. Stir in the meats.
  4. Put the lid on, set the pressure to high and cook time to 30 minutes. Quick release the pressure when cooking time is completed.
  5. Give the sauce a stir, then add the grated parmigiano.
  6. Taste and adjust with salt as needed and enjoy with pasta.

Cooking notes

No searing? What about the maillard reaction?

The key to a good Bolognese is slow simmered meats that are tiny yet juicy and supple. Traditionally, back in the day Bolognese was made with whole cuts of meat that were chopped and then, through the magic of slow cooking, melted down into tender shreds. More commonly today we use ground meats.

Because ground meats have such little surface area, instead of browning the meats, we’re going to stir them into stock; the meat will break up into little pieces and then slow cook until incredibly tender and juicy. Searing can lead to hard nuggets of meat that are dry, completely the opposite of what we are going for.

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Go the extra mile

  • Whole cuts: If you have the money and the inclination, try making this with whole cuts of meat like 1 lb of pork shoulder and 1 lb of beef shank or skirt steak. Chop them up into cubes and instead of stirring them into the sauce, give them a good sear so they’re browned on the outside, then continue with the recipe.
  • Chicken liver: Blend 1/2 pound trimmed chicken livers until smooth and stir them into the sauce before adding the chicken stock. The livers add an underlying earthy meatiness and umami.
  • Finish with cream: While you’re stirring in the parmesan at the end, add a generous amount of cream to emulsify and bring everything together into an even more rich sauce.

One last thing now that you’ve spent six hours on your sauce, please, please properly sauce your pasta!

How to properly sauce your pasta

The biggest difference in restaurant quality pasta and the pasta you make at home is how you finish and sauce the pasta. The best way to serve this Bolognese is to cook the pasta 1 minute before the al dente time on the package, then drain the pasta and transfer to a non-stick skillet along with about 1/4-1/2 a cup of sauce per portion. Heat the sauce and pasta over high heat and once the pasta is glossy and clinging with sauce, plate, adding extra freshly grated cheese. Enjoy immediately.

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The best pasta

A good sauce needs a good pasta. You don’t have to go super expensive, but look for a slow dried bronze extruded pasta, it’ll be miles better than the $1 package at the grocery store. For commonly available brands, Garofalo is always a popular choice, and Rustichella d’Abruzzo is a nice upgrade.

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Other recipes to try

bolognese | www.iamafoodblog.com

Ragu Bolognese Recipe

The greatest pasta sauce ever
Serves 10
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 6 hrs
Total Time 6 hrs 20 mins

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion finely diced, about 1.5 cups
  • 2 small carrots finely diced, about 1.5 cups
  • 4 stalks celery finely diced, about 1.5 cups
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 filets anchovies or 2 tsp anchovy paste or fish sauce
  • 1 cup white wine dry Italian such as pinot grigio preferred
  • 2.5 cup chicken stock no sodium preferred
  • 1 cup milk whole/full fat milk preferred
  • 6 oz tomato paste
  • 1 lb ground pork lean preferred
  • 1 lb ground beef lean preferred
  • 4 oz Prosciutto di Parma thinly sliced, then minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese finely grated

Instructions

  • Finely mince your onion, carrots, celery; you want about 1 cup of each. Mince the garlic. If you have a food processor, use it: the mince should be very small.
    soffritto | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • Add the olive oil to a very large heavy bottomed pot or dutch oven and heat over medium. Add the onions, carrot, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring, until very soft, but not brown.
    cooked soffritto | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • Stir in the anchovies, breaking them up. Add the wine, stir to deglaze and cook over high heat until the wine is mostly evaporated.
    reduced wine | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • Stir in the chicken stock, milk, and tomato paste. Add the meats, making sure they’re broken up in the liquid. We’re not browning the meats, instead opting for a very tender, slow braise. Add the bay leaf and bring to hard simmer, the reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Simmer for 6 hours, partially covered, checking on it every hour or so to make sure it hasn’t gone dry. Add stock as necessary.
    ragu bolognese | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • After simmering, the liquid should be almost completely reduced and the sauce should be thick and luscious. Stir in the cheese and season with salt to taste.
    bolognese sauce | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • To sauce: Cook your pasta 1-2 minutes before the time indicated on the package. Transfer 1/2 cup sauce per portion to a nonstick skillet and toss your pasta in the skillet for 1-2 minutes over medium heat.
    how to sauce pasta | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • Serve with extra cheese and chili flakes.
    bolognese sauce recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

Estimated Nutrition

Nutrition Facts
Ragu Bolognese Recipe
Amount Per Serving
Calories 286 Calories from Fat 113
% Daily Value*
Fat 12.6g19%
Saturated Fat 4.3g27%
Cholesterol 92mg31%
Sodium 371mg16%
Potassium 833mg24%
Carbohydrates 7.7g3%
Fiber 1.3g5%
Sugar 4.6g5%
Protein 33.7g67%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

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