The secret to this authentic Ragù Bolognese sauce recipe is cooking the meat in milk first before adding white wine and tomato paste. The texture will melt in your mouth! Serve with fresh homemade pasta or gnocchi, and good sourdough bread.
The Bolognese sauce I grew up with was far from “authentic.” Made with lean ground beef, red wine and canned tomatoes (lots), it was undeniably delicious, authentic to our Italian family and served as an easy pasta dinner any night of the week. I didn’t think anything of it.
But then… I fell down a rabbit hole researching authentic Italian recipes from northern Italy, specifically Bologna (birthplace of Ragù Bolognese), tasting and testing recipes from two of the greatest Italian chefs and food writers of all time: Marcella Hazan and Anna Del Conte. GAME CHANGER.
Nestled between broad and flat ribbons of pappardelle pasta, this new-to-me traditional Bolognese sauce was so soft and so tender it practically melted in my mouth! The tomato component was not dominant at all. It was an accent rather, a flavorful one, and when combined with milk and white wine I couldn’t help but wonder: was it really meat sauce at all?
Ragù vs Bolognese: What’s The Difference?
In order to understand what “real meat sauce” even is, it’s important to differentiate between Ragù and Bolognese. They’re not the same. In Italian, “Ragù” is a hearty meat sauce made of ground meat, vegetables, wine and some tomatoes. “Bolognese” is also a meat sauce, but it’s a regional variation prepared in the style of Bologna hence the name: Ragù Bolognese.
OK, So Tell Us More. What is Ragù Bolognese?
Ragù Bolognese is a beautiful, slow-cooked sauce made from ground beef and/or pork, chopped carrots, onion, celery, milk, wine, tomato paste and stock. No garlic.
Of course, there are slight variations as one would expect: cubed pancetta, chicken livers (we add this to our Bolognese sauce at Sfoglia), silky tomato passata (strained tomato puree), cream, and perhaps a bay leaf or two.
But to me, the biggest difference when compared to the tomato-heavy meat sauce I grew up with, is that Ragù Bolognese uses milk, white wine and notably less tomatoes. The milk tenderizes the meat and mellows out any tart, acidic notes. The flavor is soft, light and slightly sweet! That’s the selling point. And it’s brilliant.
Ingredients You Will Need
- Olive oil
- Ground Beef
- Ground Pork
- Whole Milk
- Nutmeg (the flavor is warm, not strong)
- Bay leaves (this is a must)
- White wine
- Tomato Paste
- Quality chicken stock (I use organic bone broth from Trader Joe’s)
A Few Tips:
- Use a food processor. The veggies should be finely chopped. No large chunks in the sauce.
- Don’t skip the milk. Cooking the meat in milk first, before adding the wine and tomatoes tenderizes the texture. Some Ragù Bolognese sauce recipes call for adding the milk at the end of cooking (bit by bit). But I add it earlier on- I like the texture and flavor better.
- Don’t brown the meat. Cook it gently to keep it soft and not rubbery.
- Try white wine (instead of red). It lightens and brightens the sauce.
- Double it. Make the most of your time and cook extra to freeze. You’re at the stove anyway!
What About The Pasta?
Traditionally, Ragù Bolognese is served with fresh tagliatelle, pappardelle pasta or fresh spinach pasta, which you can find in Italian specialty shops and some grocery stores. But why not make it yourself? Make fresh homemade pasta dough using my Beginner’s Guide, and then pop over to this post to make perfect pappardelle pasta. This sauce is excellent with fresh homemade gnocchi too. Buon Appetito!
*This post contains affiliate links. Photo credit & styling: Melina Hammer.Print
This authentic Ragù Bolognese sauce recipe boasts a rich, melt in your mouth texture with incredible flavor. The secret is cooking the meat in milk first, to tenderize it, before adding white wine and tomato paste. Serve with fresh homemade pasta, pappardelle or gnocchi for an old world touch.
**Make sure to read the Notes. Tips & Substitutions section below for best results**
For the Sauce
- 2 tbsp. (30 g) unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp. (30 ml) olive oil
- 2 oz. (60 g) diced pancetta
- 1 onion
- 1 carrot
- 1 celery stick
- 1/2 lb. (250 g) ground beef, about 80% fat
- 1/2 lb. (250 g) ground pork
- 1 cup (236 ml) whole milk
- pinch of ground nutmeg
- 1 dried bay leaf or 2 fresh
- 1 cup (236 ml) dry white wine
- Heaping 1/4 cup (60–70 g) tomato paste (see Notes below)
- 1–2 cups (236– 472 ml) quality chicken stock (see Notes below)
- 1 lb. homemade pappardelle pasta
- Fresh grated Parmesan cheese, to serve
Notes, Tips & Substitutions
- If you do not have tomato paste: omit the chicken stock and used canned tomatoes instead. A good size to start is a 14 oz (400 g) can of whole peeled plum tomatoes, adding more if you want. Chop the tomatoes before adding to the sauce (I snip them with scissors directly in the can.) Alternatively, use 1-2 cups (appx. 236- 475 ml) bottled tomato passata instead.
- My preferred tomato brands: San Marzano, Mutti, Cento, Jovial
- Cooking times will depend on the size of your pot (the smaller the pot, the longer it will take). Adjust accordingly.
- If doubling the recipe: increase the cooking times as needed.
- In a heavy bottom pot (a Dutch oven is perfect) warm the butter and olive oil over medium-low heat.
- Meanwhile, chop the pancetta, onion, carrot and celery in a food processor. The texture should resemble a rough looking “pulp” which will melt into the sauce. No large chunks.
- Add the chopped pancetta and veggie mixture to the pot. Sauté, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes until lightly golden. Feel free to add more oil or butter as needed, if the mixture seems dry.
- Add the ground beef and pork. Use a fork to mash the meats together. Season with salt and black pepper. Cook just until the meat looses its pink color; do not brown. This will keep the texture of the meat soft.
- Add the milk, nutmeg and bay leaf. Simmer until almost evaporated, up to 20 minutes (or more) depending on the size of the pot and how much liquid is released from the meat.
- Pour in the wine; simmer until almost evaporated. Add the tomato paste; stir to dissolve. Add 1 cup of stock. Stir well.
- Reduce the heat to low. Cook the sauce, with the lid ajar, for about 1-2 hours. The sauce should just “blip” about and not boil rapidly. Low and slow is key for a melt in your mouth texture. Do not rush the cooking process. If, at any point the liquid is reducing too quickly, add more stock or tomatoes as needed. Sometimes I add more tomato paste for color. The final sauce should look similar to chili (thick, but no too thick). Skim away any fat from the surface and season with salt, if needed.
- For the pappardelle: bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously. Add the pappardelle noodles and cook until soft and al dente, 3-7 minutes depending on thickness. Taste for doneness. Make sure to to stir occasionally so the pasta doesn’t stick together. When finished, use tongs to transfer the pasta directly into the sauce, adding an additional pat of butter for flavor. Serve with Parmesan cheese.
Keywords: Bolognese, Ragu, meat sauce, ground beef, tomato paste, white wine, bay leaf, Marcella Hazan, pappardelle pasta, homemade pasta, Italian cuisine