What Makes Bolognese Different Than Pasta Sauce or Sunday Gravy?
And what is it about this rich, meaty sauce that makes it so universally beloved?
Though loved by many, Bolognese is understood by few—at least outside of Italy. What surprises many non-Italians is that tomato takes a backseat in Bolognese, and the sauce has a nutty, russet color. This is not the same as the tomato ragú with braised beef and/or spicy sausage that's considered the "Sunday sauce" of so many Italian-American families. That sauce, gutsy and red, hails from southern Italy with the many émigrés from those regions. An authentic ragú Bolognese, on the other hand, is from the North.
How Is Bolognese Made?
The ragú from the city of Bologna is usually made a combination of pork and beef (and sometimes veal) and often contains cured pork, such as pancetta, to help season it. The meats are cooked in a heavy pot with softly cooked carrots, celery, and onions. There is a hint of warm spice from freshly grated nutmeg. Milk—yes, milk—coats the meat and adds a mellow sweetness to the sauce. In The Classic Italian Cookbook ($41.16, amazon.com), which introduced authentic, regional Italian ingredients and cooking to a wide American audience when it was published in 1973, Marcella Hazan insists, "The meat… must not brown or it will lose delicacy." What's more, the milk must be added before the tomatoes are added. She was famously a purist, but there are many variations you can prepare at home. Acclaimed cookbook author and former chef of Chez Panisse, Cal Peternell, has made it a tradition to cook pasta alla Bolognese for his eldest son's birthday. In his cookbook 12 Recipes ($22.94, amazon.com), Peternell uses chicken stock to give "an especially luxurious texture" to his ragú, adds his milk at the very end, and, perhaps best of all, gives instructions for cooking the sauce in the oven.
In our luxurious treatment of the classic, which we call Grandma's Bolognese, cream is added at the end instead of simmering with milk, and we include porcini mushrooms for umami. Using Marsala in place of the traditional white wine deepens the flavor of the sauce. Long, slow cooking is always essential to ragú Bolognese, and the whole thing is cooked for about three hours—though five is best, according to Marcella. Simply put, making a pot of ragú is an investment of time and a sign of love, and who wouldn't want this rich, delicious, and gently cooked sauce made for specially them?
Pair Bolognese with the Correct Noodle
Ragú Bolognese is rich and savory, but gentle and silky, too—it's perfect for coating tender egg pasta. In Italy, this sauce is most often served with tagliatelle, and it clings to the noodles seductively. It reaches peak deliciousness when it's layered between sheets of fresh spinach pasta in lasagne verdi al forno. In the baking dish, the ragú melds with creamy béchamel sauce and finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, creating the most comforting, pillowy, warming dish—it's the Italian dinner many dreams are made of. If you can't find or make egg pasta, ragú Bolognese is best served with a rounded shape that has a hole to catch the sauce, like rigatoni or ziti. This might be news to you, but spaghetti is not a good match—the sauce slides right off.