Growing up, my dad would often cook western food. Chicken Ala King, Shepherd’s Pie, Meatloaf, Beef Wellington, and sometimes the occasional meat sauce. Unfortunately, I don’t recall being terribly inspired or blown away by his meat sauce, but at the end of the day, he did introduce different flavors and later on cooking techniques as I grew older. This meat sauce or ragù is a combination of research and cooking experimentation using a variety of different cooking techniques. As always, my cooking is slapdash and relies much on tasting and trying different things. However, what I love about this recipe is that in of itself, it requires a lot of technique, patience and trust that the final product was worth the effort. Would I be able to serve this to a traditional Italian grandmother? I have no clue, but I believe that my effort alone would bring a smile to anyone’s face. Before I go any further, I need to clarify that with this being a ragù alla Bolognese, it is not a tomato sauce, but rather a meat sauce with tomatoes.
Meat – ground meat! I like to use a mixture of ground beef and ground pork, and preferably with good fat content. Most supermarkets will have limited selection on what content with the standard being 90/10. I prefer 80/20 or even 75/25, thus try checking out your local butcher. Always get equal measurements. For my recipe where I utilized my 7Qt Dutch Oven, I bought a total of around 4lbs of meat. 2lbs of Ground Pork and 2lbs of Ground (Chuck) Beef.
Bacon – I used two rashers of thick cut bacon along with my sofrito/mirepoix to add fat and flavor. It’s unnecessary, but it also doesn’t hurt.
Mirepoix/Soffritto – Like almost all western slow cooking, there is a sofrito or mirepoix. Dubbed the “Trinity” in some cultures, mirepoix and sofrito are chopped aromatic vegetables that lend flavor. In my case, I used carrots, onions and celery. Now, I did cheat, because I was too lazy to buy large packages of carrots and celery, so you can buy the precut portions (I used three of them), but in the case of a large oven, I would one whole diced onion, and at least 2-3 stalks of celery and 2-3 carrots. You want them diced finely, so that they sweat and release flavor as they slow cook.
Aromatics – as much Garlic as you want, I used about 6-7 cloves, as well as some sprigs of thyme and 2-3 bay leaves. If you have “Italian seasoning” or dried oregano, or basil, or parsley, do not hesitate to add them as well.
Stock – I used Better than Bouillon Beef Stock and made about 5 cups. Feel free to just use water or any other stock.
Wine – Use a dry white or red. In my case, I used a wonderful dry Cabernet Sauvignon. I used about a cup or so to deglaze.
Pastes – I always have anchovy paste and tomato paste. Both are used around the same time so have them handy! Both pastes are great for most pasta sauces to build depth and base flavor.
Canned Tomatoes – I used one big can of crushed tomatoes. Remember, it’s a meat sauce with tomatoes not a tomato meat sauce! There’s a difference.
Fish Sauce – So, as many have watched Food Wars (great food anime) or anything with Kenji Lopez-Alt, or read Serious Eats, you’ll know that umami is often comprised of inosinic and glutamic acid. The meat and the tomatoes provide the glutamic acid and the fish sauce adds the inosinic acid. Together, it makes meat dishes taste meatier and unlocks “umami”. In other terms, it’s also just a seasoning and will help make your dish salty and more flavorful.
Parmesan – Usually a sauce is thickened with parmesan at the end, but I was once told to save parmesan rinds for soups, stews and sauces. Parmesan is also a key holder of umami flavors including glutamic acid. By adding it during the braising process, it slowly melts and adds the flavor crystals into the sauce.
This dish will take a long time. It’s traditional slow cooking that utilizes a great variety of cooking techniques. If you’re looking for an Instapot or Pressure Cooker recipe, I will apologize and say that this recipe probably won’t make sense to you. This recipe is designed to be low and slow, building layers and layers of flavor. I suspect that this sauce will take around 6-8 hours with only about 1-2 hours of active cooking. I use my massive 7qt Dutch Oven, but any large pot with tall sides should be useful.
– If you’re not using pre-prepared mirepoix, finely dice the vegetables, mince the aromatics.
– Prepare the beef broth, if you’re using premade, then have it, otherwise if you use bouillon, dissolve and set aside
– Finely dice bacon
– Open wine, taste it (maybe more haha)
Step 1: Add a touch or a dash of oil and then brown your ground meat over medium heat. The goal is to not sear or color the meat (you don’t have to worry about the maillard reaction at this stage of the dish), but rather to reduce the moisture. Try not to burn the meat, once 95% of the moisture has boiled off, take the meat out of the pot and set aside.
Step 2: Add the bacon and render out the fat. When bacon is crispy, add a nice squeeze of the anchovy paste and cook into the fat. Add the mirepoix and begin sweating the vegetables. The goal here is to soften the vegetables and to not let it burn either. Stir constantly making sure the fat is well coated in the vegetables. Add the garlic and the tomato paste. With the tomato paste, it is imperative to let the paste cook as well. If necessary, make a hole in the pot and heat the paste until it changes color. Add any other dry aromatics at this point (thyme, dried basil, oregano, etc) except the bay leaf.
Step 3: Return the meat back into the vegetables as well as any liquids. As everything comes to temperature, add the cup of wine and let the alcohol burn off (you can tell by when the pot stops smelling like alcohol). The wine is there to deglaze the bottom of the pot. At this point you may see brown bits sticking to the sides of the pot. This is the maillard reaction as I was mentioned before. The maillard reaction is a chemical reaction where the browning or the caramelization of proteins and sugars help create flavor. Scrape the sides and the bottom whenever possible to reincorporate the flavors.
Step 4: Add the can of crushed tomatoes and some water (swish in the can to make sure we have all the tomato juices into the pot. Then add the beef stock enough to cover the meat and then some. Finally add the bay leaf. If you have any parmesan rinds, add them here as well.
Step 5: Place into the oven uncovered at 350 degrees and let it cook for about 6-8 hours. Every hour or so, remove from the oven and scrape off the browned bits on the edge. You’ll notice the ragu reduce over time. Make sure to scrape the bits every so often to ensure this reintegration of flavor.
Step 6: After 6-8 hours, remove from the oven and taste for seasoning. Depending on how liquidey you like your sauce, feel free to adjust temperature and timing to your liking. Season for taste. I usually add a couple dashes of fish sauce at this point to add that last bit of umami. The sauce is done at this point, but I actually recommend letting it cool and sit covered overnight and then reheating it to serve. Letting it sit overnight allows the flavors to come together and meld and really helps finalize and balance all the flavors together.
Serve with a thick noodle (penne, tagliatelle, linguini, or lasagna sheets (or turn it into a lasagna). The sauce holds up nicely, and will freeze well. As I mentioned earlier, there are a great deal of cooking techniques involved here. From the preparation (mise en place), to the browning of the meats and the vegetables, to the braising at the end. This style of cooking can be replicated for most soups and stews, which makes it both a simple recipe, but also a heavily technical one. Enjoy!