I learned how to make the the world's best Bolognese sauce from famed Italian cook Marcella Hazan. Sort of.
Although I was never fortunate enough to meet Marcella, much less take a class from her, I did spend quality time with her 1992 masterwork, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. After making only a few of her dishes, I knew that if I followed her instructions, I'd achieve Italian food perfection every time.
This Bolognese sauce is proof. It's not just meat and tomatoes over pasta. It's meaty and tomato-y, yes, but it's also creamy and sweet and has the ability, if the Sangiovese is flowing, to make you feel like you're having dinner on a balcony in Bologna. It's that good.
When making Bolognese, you want to use the best imported Italian plum tomatoes you can find. You most definitely want to serve the dish with good parmesan. Buy a hunk of the real kind that has Parmigiano-Reggiano stamped on the rind, and be generous with it. Really want to aim high? Make your own pasta.
One more critical ingredient: time. As Marcella says about the sauce, "It must cook at the merest simmer for a long, long time. The minimum is three-and-a-half hours; five is better." I, of course, always opt for five hours, and I'm never disappointed.
Don't be shocked: Having made Marcella's Bolognese countless times, I've adapted it slightly. I switched out the vegetable oil for olive oil, cut back the milk just slightly, and subbed ground nutmeg for fresh, which is hard to get in my neck of the woods.
This is still Hazan's famed Bolognese, just made a little more approachable. My family is always excited to see it on the table and my guests never fail to ask for the recipe.
The BEST Bolognese sauce
Yield: serves 6
- ½ cup chopped yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons butter, divided
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 2 large carrots, chopped
- ¾ pound lean ground beef
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 cup dry white wine
- ½ cup whole milk
- pinch of ground nutmeg
- 2 cups canned Italian whole plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
- 1 lb pasta (traditionally tagliatelle, but fettuccine and spaghetti work too)
In a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent. Add the celery and carrot and sauté for an additional 2 minutes.
Add the ground beef, using a fork or spatula to crumble it as you stir. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook meat just until it is no longer pink.
Add the wine and increase heat to medium-high. Let the wine simmer until it has evaporated completely.
Add the milk and a pinch of nutmeg. Reduce heat to medium and let the milk simmer until it has evaporated completely.
Add the tomatoes and stir until thoroughly mixed. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, reduce heat to the lowest simmer and cook uncovered for at least 3 hours, but optimally 5 hours. Stir occasionally. If you keep it on the lowest possible simmer, you shouldn't need to add any more liquid. If, however, it starts to stick, add a few tablespoons of water (but make sure no water is left at the end of the cooking time). Taste and adjust salt if necessary.
Serve over cooked pasta, tossed with a teaspoon or two of butter. Top generously with freshly grated parmesan.
Photos by Allison Ruth of Some the Wiser.