Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Ragu alla Bolognese

Pay attention because this is important: It only looks like a pasta course you have seen me prepare here a couple hundred times before.

But it isn't. Until a few weeks ago I didn't even know such a thing as this existed. I swear.

What you have here is the official, government-sanctioned recipe for Ragu alla Bolognese, commonly referred to as Bolognese Sauce. The recipe was "notarized and deposited" in the Chamber of Commerce of the City of Bologna on October 17th, 1982, by "solemn decree" of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (the Italian Academy of Cuisine).  

Who knew?

Turns out, not many. My friend Biancamaria is from Bologna and she never heard of any "official" Ragu alla Bolognese recipe. Which is saying something because, as she tells me, "when I was a child every Sunday we had ragu." 

I didn't catch up with Bianca on a recent visit to Bologna (she's living in the English countryside now with Massimo and their daughter Delfina) but on at least four occasions I got to sample authentic Ragu alla Bolognese. And it's nothing like many of the so-called Bolognese sauces you'll come across elsewhere. 

For starters, a lot of "Bolognese" sauces are basically tomato sauces that have meat in them. A real Bolognese is a meat sauce that has only a touch of tomato. The earliest examples of Ragu alla Bolognese didn't include any tomato at all. And forget about using pasta shapes like spaghetti; nobody in Bologna would even think of pairing their ancient ragu with anything but a flat, fresh pasta such as tagliatelle. Just ask for tagliatelle at a restaurant in Bologna and watch what you get. Same thing if you ask only for ragu.

Anyway, and as you no doubt have surmised, I just had to give the "notorized" recipe a shot. I've reprinted it in its entirety below, but here is the link as well. Just a note about the ingredients: My quantities are not exactly those shown in the recipe. I have, however, made the necessary adjustments to follow the recipe as closely as possible.

Start out by finely chopping equal amounts of onion, carrot and celery. Here we've got just under 3 ounces of each.

Finely dice around 1/2 lb. of pancetta and then brown in a Dutch oven that's large enough to accommodate all the recipe's ingredients.

Add the onion, carrot and celery to the browned pancetta and saute until the vegetables are nicely softened.

Okay, about the meat. The recipe calls for ground skirt steak, but skirt wasn't available and so I went with tender hanger steak instead. Rather than grind the meat I decided to very finely dice it, as I have seen both approaches taken. This is one pound of beef.

Once the vegetables have softened add the beef and allow it to brown.

Then add 1/2 cup of wine (I went with white but red is also approved) and, here's the tricky part, a small amount of tomato. The recipe calls for either tomato sauce or highly concentrated tomato paste. I made a small quantity of very simple tomato sauce and added around a cup here. I also added a little homemade beef stock, as this is also mentioned in the recipe.

At this point things are supposed to simmer for two hours, at a low flame. But don't expect to make yourself scarce for these couple hours. Because little by little you'll need to stir in very small amounts of whole milk, at fairly regular intervals, until you've gone through one full cup.

Speaking of milk, an "optional but advisable" addition to the sanctioned recipe is panna di cottura. Basically that means whole milk that has been slowly simmered to half its original volume. That's around 1 1/3 quarts of milk you see in the pot there. While the sauce was slowly simmering so was the milk, until it was halved. 

After two hours of simmering (and only a slight addition of salt and pepper to taste) this is what the ragu looked like. But we aren't finished yet.

The next step is to slowly stir in the panna di cottura (the reduced whole milk). Since this step was "advisable" I decided to throw caution to the wind and use up all the milk.

I know, this looks awfully cream sauce-like, doesn't it. I was nervous too.

But it turns out I didn't need to be. This was a damned fine ragu that I'll be working on until it tastes like I'm back in Bologna. 

If that doesn't work, there's always Alitalia.

The Official Ragu alla Bolognese
Reprinted from Accademia Italiana della Cucina. 


300 gr. beef cartella (thin skirt)
150 gr. pancetta, dried
50 gr. carrot
50 gr. celery stalk
50 gr. onion
5 spoons tomato sauce or 20 gr. triple tomato extract
1 cup whole milk
Half cup white or red wine, dry and not frizzante
Salt and pepper, to taste.


The pancetta, cut into little cubes and chopped with a mezzaluna chopping knife, is melted in a saucepan; the vegetables, once again well chopped with the mezzaluna, are then added and everything is left to stew softly. Next the ground beef is added and is left on the stovetop, while being stirred constantly, until it sputters. The wine and the tomato cut with a little broth are added and everything left to simmer for around two hours, adding little by little the milk and adjusting the salt and black pepper. Optional but advisable is the addition of the panna di cottura of a litre of whole milk at the end of the cooking.


Pam said...

Oh my goodness but this looks good.

Fred said...

Love this. Brings to mind, however, many thoughts: First, what had Biancamaria and so many other Italians--Bolognesieri or otherwise--been eating prior to 1982?

And, if this notorized, file-it-in-town-hall business is really a thing, rather than yet another wacky Italian fetish (there will always be an Italy), might we expect to find the officialal recipes for dirty water hot dogs in NYC; Philly Cheesteak in the city of Brotherly Love; Boston Beans in Beantown; Rice-a-Roni in SF? Just sayin.....


Mister Meatball said...

Fredo, Fredo, Fredo... Okay, so I can't speak to cheesesteaks, beans or roni, but on the dirty water question I am knowledgeable. The official version resides at a location in Queens; I'll take you there one day--if you're nice to me. Very nice.

As for any wacky Italian fetish: I can't imagine what you're talking about.

Lemme know how the ragu turns out.

Bruce B said...

I've been making this recipe for years, following the adaptation that appeared in Saveur magazine:

'Classic' Ragù alla Bolognese

MAKES 2+ CUPS, enough for 3-4 adults

On October 17, 1982, the Bolognese chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, "after having carried out long and laborious investigations and conducted studies and research", decreed the following recipe to be the official one for classic ragù alla bolognese. We're not necessarily convinced of that, but it's a fantastic recipe nonetheless.
1  5-oz. piece pancetta, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1⁄2 small yellow onion, finely chopped
3⁄4 lb. ground skirt steak
1⁄2 cup dry white wine
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 1⁄2 cups milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. heavy cream
1 lb. pasta

1. Put the pancetta into a heavy-bottomed medium pot (preferably terra-cotta) over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until its fat has rendered, about 10 minutes.

2. Add the celery, carrots, and onions and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

3. Add the skirt steak and cook, stirring occasionally, until broken up and lightly browned and beginning to sizzle, about 5 minutes. Add the wine to the pot; cook until evaporated, about 4 minutes. In a small bowl, stir together the tomato paste and 2 tbsp. water; add to the pot and stir well to combine. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally and adding some of the milk, little by little, until all the milk is added and the sauce is very thick, about 1 1⁄2 hours.

4. Season the ragù with salt and pepper and stir in the cream. Toss with farfalle, fresh tagliatelle, or the pasta of your choice. Serve with grated parmigiano-reggiano.

Maureen B. Fant said...

Thanks for this. You make many important points, and I hope everybody listens. The most important aspect of ragù bolognese is indeed the near total absence of tomato.

Another important point: The designation is widely used as a synonym for meat sauce, but that is wrong. It is a very specific kind of meat sauce.

I do take exception to the penultimate sentence of your recipe. "The pasta of your choice" my eye! Nothing says "don't know/care squat about Italian food" like pairing a good ragù with spaghetti. Tagliatelle or lasagne only please.

I'd love to know where you actually found the official recipe. Codifying a recipe is not really an Italian thing -- quite a bit of flexibility is usually allowed, though everyone reserves to right to say whether a given result deserves the name it pretends to. But it is definitely a bolognese thing. The bolognesi just love to codify, and they have even deposited with the local chamber of commerce the official size of the tagliatelle, which is a fraction of the height of the Torre degli Asinelli (see "Encyclopedia of Pasta" by Oretta Zanini De Vita, trans by moi, for details).

Mister Meatball said...

Maureen, I know the encyclopedia well. Thanks for checking in. As for where I found the recipe, you can thank Signor Google, albeit with some help from a bit of tenacity on my part. As for "your pasta of choice." I don't recall saying that, nor would I, but I am with you on the tagliatelle, of course.

Bruce B said...

That was Saveur's adaptation of the recipe that said "Toss with farfalle, fresh tagliatelle, or the pasta of your choice."