Ragù alla Bolognese and spaghetti Bolognese are generally pigeonholed together, but the two are very different. While spaghetti Bolognese is popular all over the world and one of the most globally recognised pasta sauces, ragù alla Bolognese has been cooked and eaten in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna for centuries.
Not considered part of Italian or traditional Bolognese cuisine, spaghetti Bolognese typically consists of spaghetti with a sauce made from tomatoes, minced beef, garlic, wine and herbs, but it has more similarities with Neapolitan ragù than the northern Bolognese version. If we absolutely must compare it to an authentic Italian dish. It’s believed to have been invented either in America or Britain during the post war era, and has since garnered widespread popularity, much to the disapproval of most Italians.
Ragù alla Bolognese, on the other hand, is a meat-based sauce made using slow-cooked protein, typically including a sofrito of onion, celery and carrot, minced beef and pork, white wine, milk or cream, and a notably small amount of tomato. While spaghetti Bolognese is often considered a quick, easy dish, ragù alla Bolognese is instead simmered at length to produce a rich, deeply flavoured sauce. And instead of spaghetti, it’s customarily served with tagliatelle pasta or combined with béchamel and baked into the Bolognese version of lasagne.
With origins related to French ragout, the first documented ragù alla Bolognese recipe served with pasta dates back to the late 18th century, written in Imola (near Bologna) by Alberto Alvisi – a cook of the local Cardinal Barnaba Chiarmonti, who later became Pope Pius VII. Pellegrino Artusi later published a recipe specifically characterised as Bolognese, which called for meats and vegetables cooked until browned then covered and finished in broth. Tomato sauce wasn’t used, however, and cream was added to the sauce to make it taste smoother.
Similarly, this ragù alla Bolognese recipe also uses cream and very few tomatoes, focussing on the slow-cooked beef and pork, served with al dente tagliatelle and dressed with fistfuls of grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Large, heavy-based saucepan
- 1 large onion finely chopped
- 2 medium carrots peeled and finely chopped
- 2 sticks celery finely chopped
- 600 g minced beef
- 300 g minced pork
- 200 g pancetta or smoked streaky bacon cut into lardons
- 50 g tomato puree
- 1 litre beef stock
- 200 ml white wine
- 125 ml double cream or milk
- 2 bay leaves
- 750 g tagliatelle pasta
- Parmigiano Reggiano to taste
- Olive oil
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a large, heavy-based pan until shimmering and add the beef. Cook on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally and breaking up with a spoon. Once lightly browned (3-5 minutes), remove the beef from the pan and set aside. Repeat the process with the minced pork. Once the pork is browned, set aside.
- In a separate pan, cook the pancetta over low-medium heat until golden.
- Meanwhile, add the onion, carrot and celery to the large saucepan used to brown the meat and sauté until soft, adding more oil if necessary.
- Slightly drain the pancetta to remove excess fat (but save the rendered fat for another recipe) and add to the pan with the onions, carrot and celery. Increase the heat, then season with a pinch of salt and add the tomato puree. Stir to combine.
- Cook the tomato puree for a minute or two, then pour in the red wine to deglaze. Make sure to scrape all the frond from the bottom of the pan. Simmer for five minutes or so, until the wine has almost completely evaporated.
- Return the browned beef and pork to the pan, followed by the beef stock. There should be just enough stock to submerge all of the ingredients in the pan. Add the bay leaves, stir to combine, then bring to the boil and gently simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if need be.
- Pour the cream or milk into the pan and stir to combine. Cover with a lid slightly ajar and simmer, stirring occasionally, for another 45 minutes.
- Once the ragù is almost ready, remove the bay leaves and cook the pasta until approximately 2 minutes before fully cooked. Add the pasta to the pan with the ragù alongside a ladleful of the pasta’s cooking water, increase the heat to high, then stir to quickly incorporate.
- Serve with grated cheese, such as Parmigiano Reggiano and a crack of freshly ground pepper.
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