How to Make a Classic Bolognese Sauce (Sugo alla bolognese)

Tagliatelle alla bolognese
Tagliatelle alla bolognese. Aleksandra Iakoleva/Getty Images
  • 3 hrs
  • Prep: 30 mins,
  • Cook: 2 hrs 30 mins
  • Yield: 4-6 servings
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As you might deduce from the name, ragù (or sugo) alla bolognese, or Bolognese Sauce, originates from the Central Italian town of Bologna. It is traditionally served on tagliatelle, a flat, long pasta noodle, and it is never served on spaghetti in Italy, although "spaghetti alla bolognese" has somehow become a ubiquitous thing outside of Italy. It is also used in lasagne alla bolognese, a lasagna made with layers of bolognese sauce and besciamella white sauce.

More traditional versions often include several types of ground meat and chicken livers, but this is a simplified version. There is no garlic in this recipe because Central and Northern Italians generally do not use nearly as much garlic as Southern Italians (and hence, Italian-Americans) do. They generally put either onion or garlic in a dish, but not both. 

[Edited by Danette St. Onge]

What You'll Need

  • 6 to 8 ounces ground beef (it shouldn't be too lean, or the sugo will be dry)
  • Optional: 2 ounces pancetta (minced; if you omit it increase the beef)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 medium onion (minced)
  • 1/2 carrot (minced)
  • 1 stalk celery (minced)
  • 1/2 cup red wine (dry)
  • 3/4 cup tomatoes (crushed or 2 tablespoons tomato paste dissolved in 1/2 cup water)
  • 8 ounces beef broth (If you don't have any, dissolve half a bouillon cube in a cup of boiling water)
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 pound pasta
  • Garnish: freshly grated Parmigiano

How to Make It

If you omit the pancetta, use a full 8 ounces of ground beef.

If you are using the pancetta, mince it and the vegetables, and sauté them in a casserole or Dutch oven with the oil. When the onion is golden, add the ground meat and continue cooking till it's browned. Stir in the wine and let the sauce simmer till the wine has evaporated, then add the tomatoes, a ladle of broth, and check the seasoning.

Continue simmering over a very low flame for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally, and adding more broth if the sugo looks like it's drying out.

The sugo will improve steadily as it cooks, and if you have the time simmer it longer - some suggest it be simmered for 6 hours, adding boiling water or broth as necessary. When it is done it should be rich and thick.

This meat sauce will serve about six as the topping for a first course of pasta or gnocchi, or about four if served over pasta with a tossed salad on the side; in either case serve it with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. In terms of a wine, I'd suggest a relatively light red such as a Chianti Colli Fiorentini.

Notes:

  1. This bolognese recipe expands and freezes well, and if you double or triple it, using some and freezing the rest, you will have taken care of several meals.
  2. This sauce invites improvisation. For example, you may wish to add a few chopped dried porcini (soak them in boiling water first, and strain and add the liquid as well), or a minced chicken liver to the sauce while it's simmering. Some cooks use the meat from a link sausage instead of pancetta, whereas others omit the pork entirely, using more beef. If you use more pork the sauce will taste sweeter. Artusi suggests that you may want to stir 1/2 cup of cream into it just before you pour it over the pasta.


A Variation: one of my mother-in-law's most spectacularly good Sunday dinner dishes is bracioline al sugo, cutlets in sauce. Make the sauce with 3/4 of a pound of ground meat, adjusting the other ingredients accordingly, and buy a pound of thinly sliced cutlets as well - they needn't be an expensive cut - ask your butcher to cut some 1/4 inch slices from the rump or the round. Add them when you add the ground beef, and cook the sugo as you normally would. Serve paste al sugo as a first course, and the cutlets as a second course, with boiled spinach that's been reheated by tossing in a pan with a quarter cup of olive oil and a minced clove of garlic. If you want to try something even better, substitute ossibuchi for the cutlets. Figure one ossobuco per diner, and remember to snip the fatty membranes around the ossibuchi in a couple of places or they will shrink and the ossibuchi will curl. Flour the ossibuchi and brown them in a skillet while preparing the herbs and browning the ground meat, and drain them before adding them to the pot. Simmer the sauce until the ossibuchi are tender, about three hours.

Of course, Sugo alla Bolognese is not the only sugo made in Italy throughout the winter months. Sugo di maiale, pork sauce, is quite nice, as are sugo di vitello/ veal sauce, and sugo d'agnello, lamb sauce. Though they do require some cooking time, you can easily expand them and freeze some for later.

Finally, if you want meatballs rather than ground meat in your sauce, check the meatballs recipe.