- Tender, moist meat
- Deeply savory flavor
- Sauce that clings well to noodles
Six years ago we published a recipe for ragu alla Bolognese, the lavish, long-cooked meat sauce named for the northern Italian city from which it hails. It’s an “ultimate” version, loaded up with not just ground beef but also ground pork, veal, pancetta, mortadella, and chicken livers. The meats simmer gently with a soffritto (softened chopped onion, carrot, and celery), broth, wine, and a goodly amount of tomato paste for about 1½ hours, by which time the sauce is silky, deeply savory, and thick enough that a wooden spoon leaves a trail when dragged along the bottom of the pot. When tossed with eggy ribbons of tagliatelle or pappardelle, it’s about as satisfying as a bowl of pasta can get.
Because Bolognese is a long-cooked sauce, it’s a perfect project for a winter weekend when I don’t mind lingering in the kitchen. But often I don’t have the time or patience to make a proper version. That’s when I wish I could whip up a streamlined sauce that would closely approximate the meaty depth and richness of the real deal. In fact, I’ve tried a few recipes called “quick” or “simple” Bolognese that cut the number of meats down to just one (ground beef) and come together in no more than an hour, but none was worth repeating. The most common flaw of these recipes was that they were too tomatoey and acidic—more like meaty marinara than true Bolognese, which actually contains relatively little tomato. Most also lacked the traditional sauce’s velvety consistency and ultrasavory flavor; in other words, they tasted like the shortcut sauces they were.
Was it possible to have it both ways—a rich, complex-tasting meat sauce that didn’t require half a dozen meats and an afternoon of pot watching? I was about to find out.
I wanted to use ground beef—and only ground beef—as the meat in my sauce. But instead of searing it hard to develop deep color and flavor, which would turn it dry and pebbly, I tossed 1 pound of 85 percent lean ground beef with a little water and baking soda. Odd as it sounds, this has been our routine first move when braising ground beef since we discovered that the alkaline baking soda can raise the meat’s pH, helping it retain moisture (without affecting the sauce’s flavor).
While the beef soaked, I sautéed finely chopped carrot, onion, and celery in a Dutch oven with a little oil and butter until much of their moisture had evaporated. Then came the tomato component—paste, not canned tomatoes, since I wanted to add savory depth to the sauce and not bright, fruity acidity. I cooked the paste until it developed a rusty hue, an indication that it had caramelized, and then added the meat, which I cooked just until it lost its raw pink color. In went some red wine to deglaze the pot, followed by a cup of beef broth. Some cooks would add dairy at this point; depending on who you ask, it’s either an essential component, lending further richness and supposedly tenderizing the long-cooked meat, or it has no place in the sauce whatsoever. I opted not to, lest the dairy mute the meat’s flavor. Instead, I simply simmered the mixture briefly to evaporate some of the liquid before reducing the heat and letting the sauce gurgle gently for about 30 minutes until it thickened up a bit; I then tossed it with the boiled pasta.
This sauce, while not bland, wasn’t nearly as meaty-tasting as Bolognese should be. It was also greasy, but that was an easy fix: I switched to 93 percent lean ground beef. Ordinarily, such lean meat can be tough, but the baking soda treatment kept the beef moist and tender.
But what could I do to beef up the flavor? I was still reluctant to brown the ground meat, so I tried another unusual technique we’ve used in recipes for gravy and shepherd’s pie: deeply browning the aromatic vegetables. I sautéed the carrot, onion, and celery for about 10 minutes, which gave me a visibly dark, rich flavor base, and then I finished building the sauce. It was meatier for sure—but still not meaty enough to be called Bolognese.
At this point, I reconsidered my initial ban on other meats. I didn’t have to go whole hog, but it would be easy enough to add back something like pancetta, which is widely available and often used in small quantities to flavor Italian braises and sauces. The key would be chopping it very fine so that there would be a lot of surface area for browning and so it could thoroughly integrate into the sauce. I processed 6 ounces in the food processor, and while I was at it, I threw in the aromatic vegetables, too, again to maximize surface area for browning and to save myself the knife work. Once the mixture was paste-like, I spread it into a thin layer in the pot and cooked it.
This was the best-tasting sauce to date, but I had one other ingredient to try: Parmesan cheese. Garnishing each serving with a couple of spoonfuls is the classic way to season Italian pasta dishes with an extra jolt of salty, tangy richness, so why not add some directly to the pot? Sure enough, when I stirred a generous ½ cup into the sauce along with the broth, the final sauce was complex and seriously savory. It wasn’t no-holds-barred Bolognese, but it was a convincingly close second.
Here’s how we gave our shortcut Bolognese as much depth as the real deal.
AROMATIC FLAVOR BASE
Instead of searing the ground beef, which renders it dried out and pebbly, we create a savory flavor base by browning finely chopped pancetta, aromatic vegetables, and tomato paste.
CONCENTRATED BEEF BROTH
Reducing 4 cups of broth to 2 cups adds meaty depth to the sauce without adding too much extra liquid.
LOTS OF PARMESAN
In addition to passing grated Parmesan for serving, we stir ½ cup directly into the sauce to take advantage of its umami richness.
The sauce tasted great and boasted a thick, velvety consistency that I thought would coat the tagliatelle beautifully. But instead the noodles sucked up all the liquid, leaving the sauce dry and scant.
The problem was that the rough surface of tagliatelle soaks up a lot of liquid. I needed to make the sauce looser so that by the time the tagliatelle absorbed the liquid, the sauce’s consistency would tighten up just enough. I would need to scale up the liquid volume without diluting the sauce’s now-meaty flavor. I was able to easily accomplish this by reducing 4 cups of beef broth down to 2 cups, which took just 15 minutes and could be done while the beef soaked in the baking soda solution and the vegetables browned.
Our recipe calls for dried tagliatelle, an Italian egg pasta that’s the classic choice for Bolognese. Dried pappardelle, a wider Italian egg pasta, is a fine substitute. Do not use short egg noodles, such as those from Pennsylvania Dutch or Manischewitz, in this recipe. Their smooth surfaces are far less effective at gripping sauce than the rough-hewn, porous surfaces of good-quality Italian pasta (from brands such as De Cecco and Bionaturae). Only such traditionally made pasta will soak up enough liquid from our sauce to give it the right consistency.
When I added the concentrated broth to the sauce, I feared I had increased the amount of liquid too much: The sauce looked thin even after cooking for 30 minutes—not a consistency I’d equate with Bolognese. It wasn’t until I tossed the sauce with the noodles and they soaked up just enough of the liquid that the sauce looked appropriately thick and clung beautifully to the pasta.
Barely an hour had passed before I was sitting down to a bowl of tagliatelle Bolognese with a savory depth and richness that rivaled long-cooked versions but came together in about half the time.
Tender, moist meat
Briefly treating the ground beef with a baking soda solution helps it stay tender. Browning the vegetables instead of the meat prevents the meat from drying out and toughening.
Deeply savory flavor
Browning the aromatic vegetables, along with pancetta and tomato paste, creates a rich, flavorful fond. Adding a reduction of beef broth, as well as lots of Parmesan cheese, boosts savory depth; the cheese also adds richness.
Sauce that clings well to noodles
Intentionally making the sauce thin allows the absorbent egg noodles to soak up the liquid so that the sauce coats the pasta nicely.