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David Ross

eG Cook-Off 57: Bolognese Sauce

153 posts in this topic

Welcome back to our eGullet Cook-off Series. Recent Cook-Offs challenged our skills with Grilled Chicken, Gratins, Shrimp & Grits and Savory-Filled Pastries. (Click here for the Cook-Off Index).

Today we’ll be launching eGullet Cook-Off 57: Bolognese Sauce. We've discussed Bolognese in the past here, but let's revist this classic dish and get into the heart,(with lots of discussion and photos), of one of the most traditional of all Italian sauces.

Bolognese Sauce, (often called “Ragu” Bolognese), dates back literally hundreds of years to the 5th century when the Romans were in power. Yet the historical records as to who actually created Bolognese Sauce are somewhat sketchy. Even more unclear is the question as to what is the “definitive” Bolognese Sauce. The argument over the ingredients that go into a Bolognese is probably as deep as the complex, rich flavors of this classic sauce.

As with many legendary recipes, there are literally thousands of variations of Bolognese-the meat, the vegetables, the spices, the “tomato” element and the pasta are all points for heated discussion and that’s exactly why we’ve chosen Bolognese sauce for our latest Cook-off. Along the way, I’ll be sharing a few suggestions for Bolognese from a James Beard Award-Winning Chef known for his expertise in Italian cuisine.

Start scribing your shopping list and assembling your ingredients and let's get in the kitchen and cook some Bolognese Sauce.

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Good cook-off topic. I'll be interested in reading your suggestions before I take another stab at this sauce. My previous attempts have not been especially memorable, Not bad mind you, but not the rich, full flavor I expected.



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What timing!

Does sugo di carne, the dumbed-down, quicker ragu, count? Because I made a big batch a few weeks ago, had some then, froze 2 more meals' worth, and had some of the frozen leftovers last night! No pictures!

By God it was good though....classic mirepoix softened in a mix of olive oil and butter, some garlic thrown in, then some ground meat, white vermouth, pureed tomatoes, milk, and nutmeg, simmered about an hour+.

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What timing!

Does sugo di carne, the dumbed-down, quicker ragu, count? Because I made a big batch a few weeks ago, had some then, froze 2 more meals' worth, and had some of the frozen leftovers last night! No pictures!

By God it was good though....classic mirepoix softened in a mix of olive oil and butter, some garlic thrown in, then some ground meat, white vermouth, pureed tomatoes, milk, and nutmeg, simmered about an hour+.

Yes of course that qualifies for our Cook-Off discussion. I'll be showing a classic recipe which is somewhat similar to the quick version you describe, (which sounds wonderful, especially the idea of freezing it for later meals).

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From what I understand, the full on ragú just uses a different cut of beef (vs straight-up ground) and adds pancetta (or guanciale? something bacon-esque), and goes for a longer cooking time right?

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I've never found ground beef to be able to stand up to the long cooking times of bolognese. I far prefer to use whole cuts which are braised until tender and then shredded.


PS: I am a guy.

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Also, I'd be curious to hear from anyone who's experimented with cooking bolognese sous vide. It seems like a dish that might benefit from gentle cooking.

My biggest issue with bolognese is that it's an involved enough process that you probably want to make a large batch and yet evaporation and concentration of flavors seems integral to the process. When I scale a bolognese recipe, I usually try to do some out of band reduction, reducing the red wine down by 1/2 in a separate pot for example, to try and mimic the concentrated and reduced flavors of a true bolognese.


PS: I am a guy.

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From what I understand, the full on ragú just uses a different cut of beef (vs straight-up ground) and adds pancetta (or guanciale? something bacon-esque), and goes for a longer cooking time right?

The classical recipe I used was ground chuck and yes, pancetta. The recipe called for about 1 1/2 hours cooking and I stretched it to about 4 hours. I think everyone will be intrigued by the photos that I'll be posting.

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Also, I'd be curious to hear from anyone who's experimented with cooking bolognese sous vide. It seems like a dish that might benefit from gentle cooking.

My biggest issue with bolognese is that it's an involved enough process that you probably want to make a large batch and yet evaporation and concentration of flavors seems integral to the process. When I scale a bolognese recipe, I usually try to do some out of band reduction, reducing the red wine down by 1/2 in a separate pot for example, to try and mimic the concentrated and reduced flavors of a true bolognese.

I have to agree with you that it's an involved process. When I got everything together in the pot I thought, "gosh, that looks too soupy." My instinct told me I needed to simmer it low and slow for a few more hours than the recipe called for to both concentrate the flavors and thicken the sauce. It took time, but in the end, it had a deep, dark red hue and incredibly deep flavor.

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I've never found ground beef to be able to stand up to the long cooking times of bolognese. I far prefer to use whole cuts which are braised until tender and then shredded.

You need to use some tough beef to get the desired result. Try ground beef neck.


Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four.
Unless there are three other people." Orson Welles
My eG Foodblog

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This topic should provide some interesting discussion.

White wine (Marcella Hazan, Vincenzo Buonassisi), red wine (most others), or none (Silver Spoon)?

Do you add milk (Hazan) or cream (Claudia Roden, Buonassisi)? And when (milk early, cream to thicken sauce)?

For umami, do you add soaked dried porcini (Hazan), diced mushrooms (Roden), star anise (Heston Blumenthal) or nothing (Giorgio Locatelli)?

Add pancetta (Hazan, Roden) or not (Locatelli)?

Add additional herbs (Locatelli) or not (Roden, Hazan)? Or add nutmeg (Hazan, Vincenzo Buonassisi)?

Add garlic (Locatelli) or not (Hazan, Roden, Buonassisi).

All use a soffrito but I must admit a fondness for adding some additional cooked onion later in the process to give another flavour layer (Blumenthal).

Do you brown the meat or just colour it?

And these are just questions from writers who are from or have researched in Italy, the rest of the world is sure to have other variants.

My 10c worth:

Prepare soffrito (carrots, celery, onion). Cook until translucent

Add beef and cut up pancetta, salt and pepper, tomato paste, garlic. Colour over medium heat, do not brown.

Add milk (and pinch of nutmeg if using), simmer until evaporated.

Add wine, reduce down.

Add passata, slow cook to reduce sauce.

Half an hour before finishing, add some fried, chopped onions and some porcini powder (perhaps a bit of star anise if I'm feeling like it).

Reduce to sauce consistency. Adjust seasoning.

Serve on parpadelle or tagliatelle: you need a broad pasta for the sauce to stick to.


Edited by nickrey (log)

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four.
Unless there are three other people." Orson Welles
My eG Foodblog

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This may be sacrilege, but I may have added a small glug of Thai fish sauce for more umami. I do that quite often with soups and stews, which ragú sort of is. A small enough dose provides a glutamate boost without being detectably fishy.

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Fun topic.

I've yet to arrive at a 'final' recipe. Just like that In Search of Perfection episode, this is a dish I'm always experimenting with. Adjusting this or that. Ramping up or scaling back the tomato content. I don't aim to make something that's authentic as, let's face it, I'm not trying to get a Masters in Italian Cookery--I'm aiming to make something that tastes good. I guess, in short, my bolognese isn't an Italian dish. It's an Australianised version--it's damn near one of our national dishes--that's been bastardised even further with guidance from my father (it was the one thing he knew how to cook) and Heston Blumenthal and others. I find if I feel like something authentic, I call it 'ragu'. If I feel like having my favourite pasta sauce--as much as the name means something very specific and very different to what I make--I use the term 'bolognese' simply because it's what I grew up with.

Some points I consider important in all of my versions of this sauce:

* Cured pork, of some variety, is a must. I've seen people use pancetta, chopped sausages, salami and all manner of cured pork products. I tend to just buy a slab of bacon and cube it. If you want the mild chilli heat of pancetta and salami you could always add a bit of dried chilli or even a diced fresh chilli.

* Vegetables. The trio of onion, celery and carrot are a must. I like to use a lot of vegetables in my sauce--they lend body and sweetness. I cook them until they're soft and almost ready and then add garlic.

* Meat. I've tried various combinations and found that the best sauces always, always, always include beef. I've tried supermarket-grade pre-minced meat (of varying levels of fattiness), diced meat and shredded meat. The best, in my opinion, is freshly minced chuck steak. Get it minced as coarse as possible. Pork and veal are nice additions. I don't think a 50% pork/50% beef sauce is superior to a 100% beef-based sauce. It is just, as Bond said about women from different countries, different. I've experimented with some other meats, such as 'roo, but I've never been impressed.

* Tomatoes and the cooking liquid. Some versions are very tomato-heavy. Some aren't. I'm still trying to find the balance (it also depends, I guess, on how good your beef stock is--if you're using insipid stock, a sauce light on tomatoes is going to be pretty bland). I tend to stick with a roughly equal balance of pasatta and beef stock. It's rich but ... to me, that's what bolognese is.

* Umami. I was never entirely happy with the results of my bolognese for many years. It was never as good as my dad's. I wasn't being nostalgic or anything. He wasn't and isn't the world's best cook. I remember watching the man trainwreck frozen pies and oven fries by attempting to slow cook them (i.e. the packaging said 30 minutes at 180 degrees so he put them in the oven for a hour at 150 degrees, figuring he'd end up with a more flavoursome product). He did, however, use a dab of Vegemite. He was using supermarket-grade mince--often frozen for a fair amount of time--and still ended up with something meatier and richer than what I did, even when I used expensive cured pork products and freshly ground meat. Then Blumenthal taught me about umami. I stopped caring about being authentic the moment I first said, 'What the hell?' and dropped a teaspoon of Vegemite into my bolognese. It changed everything. Ever since then, I became less precious about the sauce and have experimented with umami boosters including Maggi seasoning. Vegemite is a staple. In fact, the only reason it's in my pantry is for red meat braises. It's much too ... assertive to start the morning with. I've yet to mess around with anchovies.

* Time. This isn't a quick sauce. You want quick? Go buy some eggs and make carbonara (a sauce I don't fuck around with--the cream-laden versions make my stomach churn). Let the sauce simmer for at least 2 hours.

* Pasta. I tend to buy pasta rather than make it. I always buy decent pasta, looking (and feeling, if possible) through the packaging to see that it's got a nice rough texture that'll help it grab onto the sauce.


Chris Taylor

Host, eG Forums - ctaylor@egstaff.org

 

I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

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I'm in!

I use Rossetto Kasper's recipe as a base/guideline, but skip the dairy, which gives it a mouth feel that I find kind of repulsive, as well as sort of muffling other flavours. I use about a litre and a half of stock (often chicken, since it adds another dimension), instead.

The November/December 2011 issue of Cook's Illustrated presents a recipe for Bolognese that has some interesting points to it, including the use of chicken livers (which I'm seriously considering) and powdered gelatin (which sounds both iffy and kind of intriguing).

Any thoughts on the use of gelatin?

Also, I'd be curious to hear from anyone who's experimented with cooking bolognese sous vide. It seems like a dish that might benefit from gentle cooking.

My biggest issue with bolognese is that it's an involved enough process that you probably want to make a large batch and yet evaporation and concentration of flavors seems integral to the process. When I scale a bolognese recipe, I usually try to do some out of band reduction, reducing the red wine down by 1/2 in a separate pot for example, to try and mimic the concentrated and reduced flavors of a true bolognese.

Because of the reduction involved, it doesn't seem like making Bolognese sous vide would work out, while reducing just some of the ingredients is going give quite different results from reducing everything together. Might still make an interesting experiment, though.


Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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I love Heston Blumenthal's bolognese episode of 'In search of perfection'. For those interested it can be viewed on Youtube in 3 parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

It's a great introduction to this thread and covers both the traditional and the cutting edge. I think it's worth watching just to see Massimo Bottura's modernist interpretation of spaghetti bolognese - a hen embryo that has had the yolk extracted via syringe, and replaced with a meat ragu. This is also something that others may be able to clarify, as I think the term 'embryo' isn't an accurate translation. My understanding is that the 'hen embryos' that Massimo refers to are actually unlaid/immature eggs that are recovered from chickens that have been butchered for their meat. I don't think they have anything to do with the English concept of an 'embryo', as in a germinating chicken. Assuming this is correct, hopefully you'll feel less squeamish during their discussions about embryos if you remind yourself that they're just talking about eggs...

I've adopted many of Heston's techniques demonstrated in this show and the bolognese I make at home is a dumbed down version of his recipe.

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star anise (Heston Blumenthal)?

Half an hour before finishing... (perhaps a bit of star anise if I'm feeling like it).

My understanding was that caramelizing the onions with the star anise was the key to getting whatever compound is produced that enhances meaty flavors. He tosses some whole star anise in the cooking onions and removes them after the onions are caramelized. I'm not saying adding a bit of star anise at the end doesn't taste good, I haven't tried that, but I don't think it does the same job that he's describing.


It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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I'm in!

I use Rossetto Kasper's recipe as a base/guideline, but skip the dairy, which gives it a mouth feel that I find kind of repulsive, as well as sort of muffling other flavours. I use about a litre and a half of stock (often chicken, since it adds another dimension), instead.

The November/December 2011 issue of Cook's Illustrated presents a recipe for Bolognese that has some interesting points to it, including the use of chicken livers (which I'm seriously considering) and powdered gelatin (which sounds both iffy and kind of intriguing).

Any thoughts on the use of gelatin?

Also, I'd be curious to hear from anyone who's experimented with cooking bolognese sous vide. It seems like a dish that might benefit from gentle cooking.

My biggest issue with bolognese is that it's an involved enough process that you probably want to make a large batch and yet evaporation and concentration of flavors seems integral to the process. When I scale a bolognese recipe, I usually try to do some out of band reduction, reducing the red wine down by 1/2 in a separate pot for example, to try and mimic the concentrated and reduced flavors of a true bolognese.

Because of the reduction involved, it doesn't seem like making Bolognese sous vide would work out, while reducing just some of the ingredients is going give quite different results from reducing everything together. Might still make an interesting experiment, though.

I'm not sure about gelatin, but using a thickener doesn't seem out of the question. As you'll see when I post my photos of my cooking process, my sauce was just too thin for my tastes and that was after about 1 1/2 hours of cooking. I added a slurry of about a tablespoon of Wondra Flour stirred into the Bolognese and it tightened up quite well.

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I am definitely no expert as I have only used one Bolognese recipe ever, and not done extensive research as to its authenticity; but, I did just make a big batch last week. I usually do it about once a year, freeze it in 1 cup portions, which I find to be enough for at least three servings, and then pull out throughout the winter. The recipe I use if from Mario Batali and uses meatloaf mix (ground veal, pork & beef), white wine, milk, and tomato paste, as well as the celery/onions/carrots and a bit of garlic. But no herbs and spices - is that normal? It cooks for three hours total and I love the way it smells and the flavors change and deepen as cooks. Yum!

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. . . . no herbs and spices - is that normal? . . . .

The recipe has a medieval feel to me, so I usually toss in a bay leaf, and often a clove/a little cinnamon. Most of the recipes I've seen don't call for herbs or spices, and I'm not certain whether that is because it doesn't really need it, if done properly (the flavours are so depp and complex), or because it is something that has varied so much over time, it just seems wisest to leave it to the taste of the cooks.


Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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. . . . no herbs and spices - is that normal? . . . .

The recipe has a medieval feel to me, so I usually toss in a bay leaf, and often a clove/a little cinnamon. Most of the recipes I've seen don't call for herbs or spices, and I'm not certain whether that is because it doesn't really need it, if done properly (the flavours are so depp and complex), or because it is something that has varied so much over time, it just seems wisest to leave it to the taste of the cooks.

While looking through old cookbooks on Italian cuisine I found that most of the Bolognese recipes did not call for any herbs or spices, just salt and pepper. The main flavor elements in the old recipes appears to come from the main ingredients of meat and vegetables, layered with the flavor of wine and tomato. The pancetta seems to be the "unique" ingredient in the old-style Bolognese. When I start posting photos, you'll see that I add a bit of chicken liver in my Bolognese, and that added a very nice livery element to the sauce.

My recipe didn't call for garlic, which I couldn't understand as I thought it probbably went into most Italian meat sauces. I added about three cloves of garlic. After hours of slow cooking, the sauce tasted like it needed something more so I added some dried basil and dried oregano which gave it a more balanced flavor.

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Did anyone else notice that Wikipedia is quite good on the subject of bolognese ? I expect too that a wetter/thinner sauce can be redeemed by a fresh pasta that will soak some of it up.


QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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Shopping list:

1 kg (≅2.25 lbs) beef/veal/pork

150 g (≅5 oz) chicken livers

200 g pancetta (maybe half mortadella?)

packet of gelatin (I might give this a try, can't hurt to have it on hand)

Already on hand are stock, carrot, onion, celery, tomato paste, and, possibly, wine.

But red wine or white?

Rossetto Kasper's recipes for Bolognese use white wine, the CI one uses red; I've typically used whatever I have lying about, and have even used port (which made for a sauce that was a bit extreme).


Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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Did anyone else notice that Wikipedia is quite good on the subject of bolognese ? I expect too that a wetter/thinner sauce can be redeemed by a fresh pasta that will soak some of it up.

But in cooking, the pasta has absorbed about as much water as it can; a thin sauce is just an indicator that the the cook ran out of time/patience (or is taking a too-brief cooking time in a recipe too literally); the only way to fix this is to put it back on the stove, and keep reducing.


Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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But you don't have to finish the pasta in the water: and even at al dente, fresh absorbs more liquid than factory.


Edited by Blether (log)

QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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