In search of perfect...ragu alla bolognese


If you’re looking for an authentic ragu recipe, good luck. Depending on which “authority” you decide to consult, and the birthplace of their own mamma and pappa, you’ll find something different. Just think about the meat - minced beef surely? Well, actually, no. In Venice you’ll get duck, in the north wild boar and in the south you’ll find various mixtures of veal and pork. Then there’s the sauce - some recipes insist on wine, others stock and some just pure unadulterated passata. To be honest the only real constants seem to be that ragu must include meat, tomatoes and be cooked for hours on end. So, I’ll give you my views on the perfect ragu but you’ll have to accept that there isn’t an Italian alive that will agree…

The meat

  • As I said, this is a matter of preference, although I think that the mince should include a mixture of beef and pork for flavour and texture. Try to get tougher cuts of meat as these are more flavoursome but will break down deliciously during the long slow cooking.
  • To this I would add pancetta, which helps to season the dish, and some finely chopped liver. Don’t be afraid by the offal, it’s imperceptible, I promise, but adds an amazing richness and depth of flavour to the sauce.

The vegetables

  • All great Italian stews start with “soffritto” - the holy trinity of carrot, celery and onion. Finely chopped and cooked until caramelised, ideally almost burnt, this adds a delicious sweetness to offset the richness of the pancetta and liver.
  • Unless you’re making your ragu in the height of summer I would recommend tinned tomatoes. Of course, this won’t satisfy the food snob, but let’s be honest you’d rather have tomatoes picked at the height of their season and then canned, than insipid “fresh” tomatoes with the flavour of used dish water.

The herbs

  • According to Antonio Carluccio, adding herbs breaks every rule of traditional ragu making. I’m sure he's more of an authority on such things, but the reality is they make the final sauce taste better. This means that a little basil or oregano is to be applauded – so please accept my permission to go ahead and break the rules.

The rest

  • Some half decent red wine is really the only other thing needed for an amazing sauce. However, if you’re really going for something special, then a small amount of my favourite ingredient, umami paste, is an absolute must.*

The cooking

  • This is the one area that everybody seems to agree, low-and-slow is the only route to an amazing sauce. I like to cook mine for 4 hours at a lovely low temperature, so that the sauce barely bubbles. This is the only way to guarantee the richness of flavour and meltingly soft meat that is the holy grail of pasta sauces.

If you think I’m a ragu philistine then please let me know, otherwise try my perfect ragu alla bolognese and decide for yourself.

*this is not traditional in any way whatsoever. Oh well…