Have you ever had a traditional Bolognese sauce? Not just tomato sauce with ground meat mixed in, but one that involves milk and wine and hours of simmering. Just a few ingredients, but when they’re combined just right, the result is a complex, rich blend with incredible depth. Served over a bowl of creamy polenta with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese and a glass of good red wine on the side, there can be no more comforting, warming food.
The first Bolognese I made was Marcella Hazen’s recipe. She is to Italian food what Julia Child is to French food; certainly a trusted source. In her method, a class mirepoix (or, technically, “soffritto” in Italian) of carrots, celery and onions is lightly cooked in butter, then ground meat is added and cooked just until it loses its pink. Stir in milk and let it bubble until only its delicious fat is left in the pot, then pour over some wine and let it simmer away, and only then, finally, after an hour of slow simmering, are the tomatoes (whole, canned) added – and simmered for 3 more hours.
After all that, however, I found Hazan’s recipe to be a little too vegetably. But Cooks Illustrated’s recipe for classic Bolognese is identical except for a smaller amount of vegetables. With only a couple tablespoons each of onions, carrots, and celery, it almost seems like they’re not worth adding, but there isn’t a thing I would change about the recipe.
Bolognese sauce takes a lot of time, yes, but it isn’t a lot of work. It’s my favorite type of recipe, in that it’s undemanding, but if you do happen to be in the kitchen (and I always am) you can stir to your heart’s content. But I suppose the long simmering time intimidates people, because there are a crop of supposedly weeknight friendly Bolognese sauce recipes popping up. In general, I’m not a fan of these types of recipes, because what they save in cooking time they make up for in ingredient prep.
Then I kept seeing another type of Bolognese with great reviews. This one uses only tomato paste as its source of tomato flavor. And if anything can be identified as authentic in a recipe like Bolognese, it’s the tomato paste version, with a heavier meat influence and just a hint of tomatoes.
Authenticity aside, I wanted to know which was best. So I baked up three batches – my favorite version from Cooks Illustrated, their weeknight version, and Anne Burrell’s annoying (please don’t yell at me in the recipe, thank you) but well-reviewed tomato paste-based recipe.
The quicker “weeknight-friendly” recipe was, as I expected, the most work, with more ingredients and dishes necessary to mimic the slow-cooked flavor of the other two recipes. However, after all that and a shorter cooking time, its flavor did nicely mimic that of the other, more tomato-rich Cooks Illustrated recipe. I don’t believe Dave could tell the difference. My only complaint was that the meat was slightly tough.
Dave had a few interesting comments about Burrell’s Bolognese. The sauce is simply a classic mirepoix, beef, wine, tomato paste, and herbs, yet Dave detected flavors of mushrooms and possibly Worchestershire sauce in it – two ingredients high in umami, the fifth basic flavor that is best described by “meaty”. In fact, mushrooms are added to CI’s quick Bolognese to increase the meaty flavor that doesn’t have time to develop through a long simmer. One thing that was obvious to both me and Dave was the unusual texture of Burrell’s sauce; to me, it seemed slightly mealy, but Dave was kinder with “fine-grained”.
Dave couldn’t choose a favorite, with his usual “different but good” response, but I’m still stuck on my classic, tomato-heavy slow-simmered method. It’s intensely rich and meaty, but it has a bright balance from the tomatoes. Burrell’s meatier sauce was delicious too, and maybe all those tomatoes aren’t quite as traditional, but, frankly, I like tomatoes. And since Bolognese – any version – is one of those dishes that improves by being made in advance and will suffer no ill effects from being frozen, I see no reason to spend extra time cooking a supposedly quicker “weeknight-friendly” version. Besides, I like watching ingredients bubble away, increasing in intensity as they decrease in volume until they settle into something delicious.
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Classic Bolognese (from Cooks Illustrated)
Enough to top 1 pound of dried pasta
If you double this recipe – and considering how well it freezes and reheats, you should – the simmering times will need to be extended.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons minced carrot
2 tablespoons minced celery
¾ pound ground beef chuck
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes, packed in juice, chopped fine, with juice reserved
1. Heat butter in large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat; add onion, carrot, and celery and sautè until softened but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add ground meat and ½ teaspoon salt; crumble meat with edge of wooden spoon to break apart into tiny pieces. Cook, continuing to crumble meat, just until it loses its raw color but has not yet browned, about 3 minutes.
2. Add milk and bring to simmer; continue to simmer until milk evaporates and only clear fat remains, 10 to 15 minutes. Add wine and bring to simmer; continue to simmer until wine evaporates, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Add tomatoes and their juice and bring to simmer; reduce heat to low so that sauce continues to simmer just barely, with an occasional bubble or two at the surface, until liquid has evaporated, about 3 hours. Adjust seasonings with extra salt to taste and serve. (Can be refrigerated in an airtight container for several days or frozen for several months. Warm over low heat before serving.)
Enough to top 1 pound of dried pasta
1 large onion or 2 small, cut into 1-inch dice
2 large carrots, cut into ½-inch dice
3 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch dice
4 cloves garlic
Extra-virgin olive oil, for the pan
3 pounds ground chuck, brisket or round or combination
2 cups tomato paste
3 cups hearty red wine
3 bay leaves
1 bunch thyme, tied in a bundle
1. In a food processor, puree onion, carrots, celery, and garlic into a coarse paste. Heat a large pan over medium heat; add a slick of oil. Add the pureed vegetables and season generously with salt. Bring the pan to medium-high heat and cook until all the water has evaporated and they brown, stirring frequently, about 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Add the ground beef and season again generously with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, 15-20 minutes, until browned.
3. Add the tomato paste and cook until brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the red wine. Cook until the wine has reduced by half, another 4 to 5 minutes.
4. Add water to the pan until water is about 1 inch above the meat. Toss in the bay leaves and the bundle of thyme and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally. As the water evaporates you will gradually need to add more, about 2 to 3 cups at a time. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 3½ to 4 hours. Adjust the seasoning with salt and serve immediately.
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Weeknight Bolognese (from Cooks Illustrated)
Enough to top 1 pound of dried pasta
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1¼ cup white wine (Riesling, gewürztraminer, white zinfandel, xx)
½ small carrot, peeled and chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces
½ small onion, chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces
3 ounces pancetta, cut into 1-inch pieces
28 ounces whole tomatoes with juice
1½ tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small garlic clove, pressed through garlic press or minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1¼ pound meatloaf mix or equal amounts 80 percent lean ground beef, ground veal, and ground pork
1½ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons tomato paste
⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Cover porcini mushrooms with ½ cup water in small microwave-safe bowl; cover bowl with plastic wrap, cut a few steam vents with paring knife, and microwave on high power for 30 seconds. Let stand until mushrooms have softened, about 5 minutes. Using fork, lift porcini from liquid and transfer to second small bowl; pour soaking liquid through mesh strainer lined with paper towel. Set porcini and strained liquid aside.
2. Bring wine to simmer in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat; reduce heat to low and simmer until wine is reduced to 2 tablespoons, about 20 minutes. Set reduced wine aside.
3. Meanwhile, pulse carrot in food processor until broken down into rough ¼-inch pieces, about ten 1-second pulses. Add onion; pulse until vegetables are broken down to ⅛-inch pieces, about ten 1-second pulses. Transfer vegetables to small bowl. Process softened porcini until well ground, about 15 seconds, scraping down bowl if necessary. Transfer porcini to bowl with onions and carrots. Process pancetta until pieces are no larger than ¼ inch, 30 to 35 seconds, scraping down bowl if necessary; transfer to small bowl. Pulse tomatoes with juice until chopped fine, 6 to 8 one-second pulses.
4. Heat butter in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat; when foaming subsides, add pancetta and cook, stirring frequently, until well browned, about 2 minutes. Add carrot, onion, and porcini; cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and sugar; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add ground meats, breaking meat into 1- inch pieces with wooden spoon, about 1 minute. Add milk and stir to break meat into ½-inch bits; bring to simmer, reduce heat to medium, and continue to simmer, stirring to break up meat into small pieces, until most liquid has evaporated and meat begins to sizzle, 18 to 20 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook until combined, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, reserved porcini soaking liquid, ¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper; bring to simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until liquid is reduced and sauce is thickened but still moist, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in reduced wine and simmer to blend flavors, about 5 minutes.