A Recipe for Tuscan-Style Ragu' (Meat Sauce)

Tagliatelle al ragu' being served at a table
Sofie Delauw
  • 95 mins
  • Prep: 10 mins,
  • Cook: 85 mins
  • Yield: About 2-3 cups (4 to 6 servings)
Ratings (15)

Ragù is the classic Italian meat sauce, and while there are many different regional versions, this one is a Tuscan-ish take. I say that because it originated from my friend Judy Francini's version, but with some of my own tweaks and (rather unorthodox) additions*. Unlike meat sauce as it is often made in the U.S., an authentic Italian-style ragù is mostly meat, with very little tomato, but you can make your sauce more or less liquid depending on your taste and how you intend to use it. For example, if you intend to use it in a lasagna made with dried pasta noodles, make it more liquid, while if you're going to make a lasagna with fresh pasta sheets, keep it dryer. 

This is one of those magical dishes that tastes better every time you reheat it, so what I like to do is make a big batch of it on a Sunday, use it as a pasta sauce for a day or two, then make a meat lasagna with it on the second or third day, and freeze any leftover sauce. It freezes wonderfully. If you're making a lasagna or want to have extra to freeze, then you can easily double or triple the recipe. 

If you can find ground veal, I find that the sauce is even better with a mix of three kinds of meat -- in that case you could use 4 oz. ground beef, 2 oz. ground veal and 2 oz. ground pork. 

This sauce is, of course, wonderful on pasta, particularly fresh tagliatelle or pappardelle, but it's also great served on top of small square or round slices of fried polenta as an antipasto or party finger-food, or even on small rounds of bread or crostini. You can also use it to stuff fried arancini rice balls, or cannelloni or any other type of stuffed pasta shell, then top with besciamella sauce and some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and bake until golden.

*NOTE: Regarding the "unorthodox," non-traditional ingredients, the comprehensive entry on ragù in Gillian Riley's Oxford Companion to Italian Food ends with this note:

"The efforts of one of our scientifically minded chefs (Blumenthal, 2007) to isolate what's going on in all this, and come up with a supercharged version, is in the best traditions of medieval and Renaissance Italy, using spices (in this case star anise, coriander, cloves), and some not-so-outlandish flavouring elements like Thai fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and a drop or two of Tabasco, to add extra pinpoints of sensation, just as any inspired cook of the past might have done."

I was surprised to discover that Heston Blumenthal had independently arrived at the addition of Thai fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce, just as I had, and then again, it's not so surprising, as food-science buffs know that those are two of the most umami-packed, flavor-enhancing ingredients in the world, so adding even a tiny bit of them to a meaty, tomatoey sauce could only have a positive effect. 

What You'll Need

  • For the Soffritto:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup onion (finely diced, about 1 small onion)
  • 1/2 cup carrot (finely diced, about 1 small carrot)
  • 1/2 cup celery (finely diced, about 1 celery stalk)
  • For the Ragù:
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste (doppio concentrato di pomodoro)
  • 1 ounce/250 grams dried porcini mushrooms (soaked in warm water for 15 min)
  • 1.5 ounces/43 grams prosciutto (about 4-5 paper-thin slices) 
  • 4 ounces/113 grams ground pork (1/4 pound or 1 sweet Italian pork sausage, casing removed)
  • 4 ounces/113 grams ground beef (1/4 pound)
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 12 ounces/350 grams tomato puree (1 1/2 cups  passata di pomodoro -- look for the kind in glass jars)
  • Fine sea salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste (freshly ground)
  • Pinch nutmeg (freshly ground)
  • Dash Worcestershire sauce (see note)
  • 1/4 teaspoon tamari sauce (or soy sauce, see note)
  • Optional: 1 to 2 dashes fish sauce (see note)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest (finely grated)

How to Make It

Place the dried porcini in a small bowl with enough warm water to cover and set aside to soften while you make the soffritto, about 15 minutes. When the mushrooms are softened, drain them -- but retain the soaking water in a separate bowl -- and chop them finely.

To make the soffritto:

Saute the finely diced vegetables in the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat until softened, reduced, and the onions are slightly caramelized, about 20 minutes.

(Detailed, step-by-step instructions on making soffritto, with photos.)

To make the ragù:

Add the tomato paste to the soffritto and cook until the paste thickens and darkens, about 2 minutes.

Add the prosciutto and the ground meats and raise the heat to brown them, stirring often with a wooden spoon.

Add the wine and stir until most of the alcohol aroma evaporates, about 1 minute, stirring to loosen and dissolve any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.

Add the chopped porcini and tomato puree and stir well to mix. Season with salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of freshly ground nutmeg, a dash of Worcestershire sauce (Here come my unorthodox* ingredients! by "dash" I mean just 1 or 2 drops, so be careful not to over do it here), the tamari or soy sauce (tamari is a Japanese version of soy sauce with a richer, stronger flavor, but you can use any soy sauce here), and a dash or two of fish sauce. [Yes, I can feel the skin of readers around the world crawling as they read this, but these are all super umami-boosting ingredients which will punch up your sauce to make it incredibly flavorful. You are not adding enough so that their individual flavors will be detectable in the sauce, or to alter the traditional flavor profile of an Italian ragù. Of course, if you don't have any of these on hand, can't bring yourself to do it, or just hate flavor, feel free to stop at the nutmeg and omit the Worcestershire, tamari and fish sauce.]*

Now cover the pot and lower the heat to low. Let the sauce just barely simmer for a minimum of 1 hour, preferably 2 or 3.

Check it occasionally and if it seems like it's too dry, you can add some of the mushroom soaking water. Tip: shake the mushroom soaking water in the tomato puree jar before adding it, so that none of the puree is wasted!

As a final touch, when your sauce is done and after removing it from heat, stir in some finely-grated lemon zest. This also sounds unorthodox, I'm sure, but the touch of brightness really balances out the heavy richness of the meat sauce and brings all of the other flavors together. Try it!