A classic bolognese sauce — or ragu, if you will — is the cornerstone of any great Italian cooking repertoire. Yet, as with all classics, the foundational recipe for this one varies greatly. Part of that is the Italian-American influence on the original dish from Emilia-Romagna. Tomato sauces are added, the milk is often dropped, and debates rage over whether or not garlic is needed (Italian-Americans put garlic in everything, much to the chagrin of Italians in the old country).
I tend to lean heavily towards the authentic recipes from Bologna with my ragu. I know, shocking. Thing is, I’ve spent a lot of time in Bologna. It’s one of my top three favorite cities in the world — depending on my mood, it may even be my most favorite. I spend a lot of time there and I hang out with chefs and talk about food. That, inevitably, means we talk their ragu. I listen. I learn.
So, this recipe is a reflection of that. The dish below errs towards the Italian way but is still my take. It’s not exactly what you’d find from the “official” Bologna culinary elites, but it’s really freakin’ close. Let’s dive in and make one of the most satisfying meals on the planet.
Buy fresh. Buy local. Go to butcher shops. Go to farmer’s markets when you can. This is Italian cookery. Fresh is crucial.
You’re going to need a fair bit for this recipe. The base is pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, ground beef, red wine, broth, tomato paste, milk, salt, and pepper.
Each of those ingredients should be well-sourced. For the milk, you’ll need the full-fat, 3.5 percent stuff. Do not skimp here. I use a classic vegetable broth but you can use a mild beef stock if you like. The tomato paste needs to be the good stuff that’s extra thick. I tend to hit up the butcher and have them grind me a skirt or shoulder at an 85/15 lean/fat split. Sometimes, I’ll do 50/50 veal/beef. But, in the end, the taste isn’t different enough to warrant the extra cash.
As for the pancetta, try and actually get pancetta. Bacon is not a good substitute here at all. You need a cured pork belly and bacon is smoked with added sugars that you don’t want. Pancetta is a subtle, fatty meat that’s crucial to starting this dish. Don’t skimp.
Lastly, pull a nice Italian red wine. If you can find a bottle from Emilia-Romagna, great. If you can’t, it’s all good. My rule of thumb is that if I’d like to drink the stuff, it’ll be just fine to cook with.