Of all the Italian recipes Americans bastardize, Bolognese is the one that seems to inspire the most contention in the comments section. That said, I get it. I have seen people call some truly horrifying things "Bolognese" when they objectively are not. (Whole30 bolognese was the most personally offensive: it has coconut milk, no butter, and yet somehow processed smoked bacon is totally fine? GTFO.)
I wanted to figure out why this was such an issue for people, and tbh, now I wish I hadn't. As if there's not enough needless disagreement among unqualified people in this country, what you find when you search "authentic bolognese" is a bunch of extremely self-righteous home cooks who went to Florence for a week once and therefore feel licensed to tell you that you have either too few or too many tomatoes, that your dairy product is wrong, that your red wine is too aggressive and you should've used white, that your chicken livers should be pancetta and vice versa.
After researching this topic, here were my 5 learnings I took to bolognese development:
- I'm not emotionally equipped for chicken liver prep yet and took solace in pancetta. Sorry.
- Tomato puree gives a sliiiiiightly fuller texture that I like better than the paste-broth combo, which feels greasier and drier to me somehow.
- White wine - which is only slightly brighter and lighter when cooked than red - tends to be the wine of choice in the bolognese recipes I like the most, so I used that here.
- You can use either milk throughout the prep to "baste" the meat, or hit it with cream at the end, but I prefer the "cling" from cream. Either way will taste very similar.
- No herbs here. Tiny bit of nutmeg, salt, pepper. Period.
The other thing that also seems to inspire a lot of debate is the pasta shape. Having had "the famous bolognese" of whatever restaurant at like 5 different restaurants this year, here are my pros and cons to shapes for your consideration.
Tagliatelle. Pro: lighter and more manueverable than any other shape. Actually traditional in the Bologna region. Con: sucks unless you make it fresh and I usually don't.
Pappardelle. Pro: really satisfying to cut into, like meaty and thick and chunky. Con: too much pasta to sauce ratio for this dish. All you taste is pasta.
Rigatoni: Pro: comes pre-built with a perfect hiding space for meat bits. Ridged for your pleasure. Sturdy and also fun to chew. Con: it takes up more space, so you can eat less of it before you are forced to consider whether you hate yourself.
Spaghetti: it's a lie told to you by Olive Garden and on the back of Ragu jars. Don't do it.
If you're going to start anywhere in life, start with bolognese. Do it next Sunday. Think of the Instagram story you'll get to post. Imagine the chef-y anecdotes you'll get to tell on your next Tinder date. Consider that your mom will be proud, Italian or not. And then freeze whatever's left because come January, it will be the best not-takeout you've ever had the privilege to defrost on the world's worst Monday night.
Effortful time: 30 minutes
Total time: 3 hours
- 4 ounces pancetta, cubed
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 rib celery, diced
- 3/4 lb ground chuck — at least 20% fat
- 1/4 lb ground pork
- 1 1/4 cups dry white wine
- 28-ounce can tomato puree, preferably San Marzano (look for one that only contains tomatoes and salt!)
- Tiny pinch nutmeg
- 1/4 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 10 oz pasta of your choice — I recommend fresh tagliatelle, or dried rigatoni
- Parmigiano reggiano, for serving
Heat a large dutch oven over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook until fat starts to render but before the pancetta begins to crisp, about 4-5 minutes.
Dice your celery, onion, and carrots — that's your soffritto. Add the soffritto to the pancetta and stir, coating with the pan fat, until soft (but NOT browned).
Add the beef and pork; break up with a spoon and stir until just the lightest touch brown. Spoon off any excess fat that collects. Reduce heat to low, add the wine, and simmer for about 30 minutes, until most of the wine has cooked down.
Pour in the tomato puree and bring to the laziest possible simmer, not the lowest setting but close to it on most stoves, for 2 hours more. Make sure to check it periodically. As much as I advocate for catching up on showering while letting something long-cook, you do need to make sure it's not too dry. If too much has boiled off, add a little water.
Around the 2 hour mark, set salted water to boil for pasta.
When pasta is flawlessly al dente, stir in heavy cream, 1/4 cup of Parmigiano, and (if you like) add a pinch of nutmeg. Turn your burner down just to keep things warm while the pasta cooks.
Season the finished sauce with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. The reason for doing this at the end is that long-cooked sauces tend to concentrate whatever salt you add originally, so resist the temptation to do it earlier. Add hot cooked pasta to sauce and gently toss to combine until the pasta is evenly coated.
Serve in shallow bowls and shower in a fresh grating of Parmigiano. Too much if you're me.
For regional theme's sake, this is a great time to go pick up a low-to-medium-priced Montepulciano, but as a medium-bodied sauce, anything that falls into the medium-bodied wine family — maybe a Chianti, Nero d'Avola, some Primitivo — will be delicious and amazing. Better yet, go make friends with your wine guy. If you're cooking bolognese now, you can the kind of person who has a wine guy I think.