I wanted the ultimate Bolognese. Six recipes later, I came up with the best ragu of them all. (2024)

Last year, my seasonal craving for ragu Bolognese — the famous long-simmered meat sauce from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region — failed to move on once the weather warmed up. Instead, it mushroomed into an obsession.

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You could blame the Great Confinement and an exaggerated need for comfort foods.

On this the Italians all agree: True ragu needs time.

But I also blame Evan Funke, the Los Angeles chef renowned for his pasta. Three months before lockdown, my son and I spent a chilly Saturday tracking down ingredients for the Bolognese in his cookbook “American Sfoglino.” First, we purchased a meat-grinder, as required by the recipe. Then, we chased down unsliced mortadella, prosciutto and pancetta, along with strutto — pork fat. The next day we made the ragu — a process so involved we had to start in the morning for the sauce to be ready for dinner. We began by cutting beef chuck, pork shoulder and the cured meats into cubes, then muscling them through our dinky, hand-cranked grinder, followed by celery, carrots and onions.

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Once we had everything chopped and ground and browned and simmering on the stove (for five to seven hours!) we rolled out and cut tagliatelle by hand — leaving the pasta machine in the cupboard, as Funke has evangelized.

That night, we sat with friends around the table to enjoy what we had wrought. The ragu was so spectacularly delicious — and so rich, no one could entertain the idea of seconds.

Before Extreme Bolognese weekend, when the ragu craving struck, I’d usually improvise one, or turn to Marcella Hazan’s famous version from “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” or one of Lidia Bastianich’s three iterations in “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine.”

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Now a burning (nay, simmering!) question gripped me: What is the very best Bolognese recipe of them all? I would cook my way around in search of an answer.

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What defines ragu Bolognese? That depends on whether you rely on history (Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 recipe), consult the Accademia Italiana della Cucina’s official 1982 recipe, or go by what Bologna’s famous cooking schools teach students — including Funke, who learned his ragu from Alessandra Spisni, maestra of La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese.

What the three definitions have in common is that ragu Bolognese is a simmered sauce made with ground meat, plus carrots, onion and celery (collectively known as soffritto) browned in fat, and usually broth or stock. Tomatoes were not originally included. In terms of meats, Artusi called for veal and a little pancetta, while the Accademia calls for beef and pancetta. Artusi did not specify a cooking time, but very long simmering is a requirement: The Accademia called for two hours after the meat browns; many other recipes call for three hours or more.

Chef Lidia Bastianich’s immigrant success story

These days, most respected versions call for ground beef and often pork, plus pancetta. All begin with some combination of olive oil, butter and/or pancetta or other pork fat. All call for soffritto and tomato, and two or three of the following: wine, stock and milk.

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I zeroed in on recipes. Hazan’s and Funke’s had to be included. I also wanted to try the two traditional recipes in Bastianich’s book. Thomas McNaughton’s recipe seemed worth a try: He’s the renowned chef of Flour + Water in San Francisco, profoundly inspired by time he spent in Bologna. And Domenica Marchetti’s recipe from The Washington Post beckoned seductively.

Over two months, I cooked each, eating and assessing half on the evening it was cooked, and freezing the other half.

Straight from the stove, I loved them all. The two richest — Funke’s and Marchetti’s — made the strongest impression. Marchetti’s was sumptuous, with deep flavor achieved by super-slow, long browning of the meat. I tasted it just before adding the unusual finish — cream and julienned mortadella — and swooned. I liked the flourishes, but ultimately found them gratuitous. McNaughton’s, which hasn’t gotten much buzz in recipe circles, was a sleeper hit — not striking, but classic-tasting and very good. Of the two Bastianich entries, we all preferred the one with wine, which was profoundly flavorful but not overly rich.

Cookbook author Marcella Hazan dies at 89

Hazan’s was familiar and delicious to us all, but the top choice only for my son’s girlfriend. It was the only ragu with just beef, and no pork or stock. It was the sole recipe in which the soffritto wasn’t finely chopped, so the vegetables didn’t melt into the sauce as they did with the others. It was also strikingly more tomatoey and carroty, brighter in flavor, but less deep.

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I considered my three favorites: Marchetti’s, Bastianich’s and McNaughton’s. I couldn’t single out one as best; there was something I’d tweak in each. So I stepped back, put my notes in a spreadsheet (to the amusem*nt of my cellmates — er, family), and created my own recipe.

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce III

Here’s what I’d learned:

  • Ragu Bolognese is best eaten the day it is made. Despite what many cookbook authors say, it loses vivacity in the freezer.
  • White wine is a must. Its pleasant acid lifts the ragu’s flavor, while red wine’s tannins weigh it down.
  • I prefer milk simmered into the sauce to cream added at the end.
  • Tomatoes (crushed, milled or pureed) in the proportion of about a cup to two pounds of ground meat, plus a little paste for additional umami, are ideal.
  • Long, slow browning adds valuable depth. I preferred Marchetti’s simple approach to Bastianich’s, which required close attention for 45 minutes.
  • Butter tastes more at home than olive oil for starting the soffritto. Homemade beef broth (which Marchetti calls for) makes excellent ragu, but I didn’t find enough difference between it and good-quality purchased chicken stock.
  • A couple nonuniversal touches add something worthwhile: garlic (which I found only in the Bastianich recipe, and which would no doubt be ridiculed in Bologna) and nutmeg.

Expecting a revolt when I told my family another ragu would soon come their way, I got cheers.

Lidia Bastianich's Pappardelle With Mixed Mushrooms

Lips smacking, forks twirling, grated Parmesan fluttering, they gave the new recipe their unanimous approval.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.

Get the recipe: Classic Ragu Bolognese

I wanted the ultimate Bolognese. Six recipes later, I came up with the best ragu of them all. (2024)

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