Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ragù alla Bolognese - What is "Meat Sauce"?

This  entry at Danger! Men Cooking must be forever regarded as a work-in-progress.


Ragù alla Bolognese is as famous a dish as exists. It stands for Bologna in the same way that Dijon stands for mustard, Cheshire stands for cheese, Parma for ham, and Vienna for weiner.

Ragù alla Bolognese is comfort food. This is not haute cuisine, but the cookbook authors would elevate it to that level if they could. That won't happen as nobody can give an authoritative version of this recipe.

I first learned of this recipe watching a Julia Child TV show, I believe. The salient feature of this recipe is that the meat, either chuck or skirt steak, is slowly simmered into -almost a pulp- . I know this doesn't sound appealing as your eye scans these words dear reader, but please don't give up reading until the end. I promise I won't offend, again.

Julia Child's recipe calls for beef, veal and chicken livers. Others use beef and pork. Some (Ada Boni in The Talisman Cookbook) use beef, pork and veal. Some use pancetta, some bacon. What struck me most about this recipe was the long cooking times and the fact that, at the end of the show, the chef said that you could easily double the quantity and freeze some. I'm all over that.

One is likely to believe that the Italians use garlic in, what is called for lack of a better term, spaghetti sauce. I find few recipes for ragù alla Bolognese that list garlic in the ingredients. But, there is garlic in the pancetta. So that is the first point of the true recipe corruption. As the translators of Italian to English have often used terms for pancetta like: raw bacon, fresh bacon, green bacon and slab bacon and even salt pork, I remind the reader that pancetta is available in larger cities of the United States and can always be had by mail order. It freezes superbly so if you must obtain it via the mail, don't scrimp and scrape a penny, here. As pancetta is not smoked, like bacon made in America, it is a very different flavor. If you are foodie enough to be reading this, you can make your own pancetta. It's easy. It's my opinion that smoked bacon cannot be used to make ragù alla Bolognese. Pancetta is typically flavored with garlic, thyme, rosemary, black pepper. Somewhere they may include sage, marjoram and so on. Each maker, whether commercial or home uses a recipe of their own.

As to the term: spaghetti sauce - no Italian would use Ragù alla Bolognese on spaghetti. These types of translation problems have led to the belief in an authentic versus non-authentic sauce. Spaghetti sauce is not Ragù alla Bolognese as pancetta is not bacon. I elucidate that the original difficulty in understanding this recipe is a translation problem. The term for belly in Italian is pancia. So, the translators, not being -thorough good cooks- rendered pancetta di maiale into bacon. Maybe they didn't know that all American bacon is smoked. Or that no Italian pancetta is smoked.

Spaghetti sauce, which I make, has no pancetta in it. I use olive oil exclusively. I add the zest and juice of a lemon to my sauce. I also add chile flakes. And half a teaspoon of sugar. I'm not talking about making this sauce authentically. I'm talking about what I like to eat. What tastes good to me. And I'm not calling my spaghetti sauce Ragù alla Bolognese.

A side trip into the unusual ingredients in Ragù alla Bolognese. To some writers on this subject, it must be red wine, others have chosen white wine. Some have used vinegar in place of either red or white, although that must be from a very old recipe. The milk called for, nowadays, is to be whole milk. I would splurge and get heavy cream. A container of cream weighs 8 fluid ounces. That would give each diner just under 1 fluid ounce per portion. That's not a lot of fat. And the flavor cannot be improved by using ever less fat in this dish. I prefer those recipes that add the cream, after the flame is turned off.

The beef broth or beef stock is another discussion. Some writers insist on homemade beef stock. I find this a ludicrous idea. I believe the original recipe uses the equivalent of beef stock, but not beef consommé. This is a sticking point with foodies everywhere. I will give you my ideas about this ingredient: stock is beef, water and salt. Anything else has vegetables in the pot as well and is consommé or broth. Both taste good. The stock would be more appropriate for the ragù. But it's not critical. If you have consommé and no stock, use it.

The Talisman Cookbook, or in Italian: Il talismano della felicità, which means: The Talisman of Happiness by Ada Boni (1891-1973) comes an early printed recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese. Boni's 1927 cookbook is as influential then as Julia Child was (and is) on American food and foodways, today. While I cannot know without some uncertainty, I believe that it is from this crude translation that the Ragù alla Bolognese became first corrupted for use with spaghetti. For in 1927 America, pasta was spaghetti. At least to non-Italians and non-Italian speakers and they would be the people most in need of the translation.

Ada Boni's recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese

3/4 pound beef, chopped
1/4 pound pork, chopped
1/4 pound veal, chopped
1/4 pound salt pork, chopped
1 medium onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
1 stalk celery, cut in small pieces
1 clove - [a spice and NOT garlic - SI]
1-1/4 cups stock or water
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon
1/4 pound mushrooms, cut into pieces
2 chicken livers cut into pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 small truffle, sliced thin (optional)

Place meats, onions, carrot, celery and clove in saucepan and brown slowly but thoroughly. Add stock or water and continue cooking slowly until it evaporates. Add tomato paste, salt, pepper and enough water to cover meat; cover pan and cook slowly 1 hour. Add mushrooms and chicken livers and cook 15 minutes longer. Just before serving add cream and truffle. The gravy may be used on rice, ravioli, spaghetti or noodles. Serves 6.

So, in translation, Ada Boni's recipe does put this sauce or gravy, as she (or her translator) term it, on spaghetti.

Most other writers on the subject say sauté the soffritto until the onions wilt or soften or become transparent. Only Ada Boni ask you to brown the soffrito ingredients. She cooks all the main ingredients at the same time. She uses no wine. I wonder if anyone can taste 1 tsp. (5 grams) of tomato paste in nearly 2 1/2 pounds (1134 grams) of other ingredients? To further complicate the authentic recipe: Horror Of Horrors, the translator says to use this sauce on spaghetti. The English language editor, knew little of Italian food, only of the Italian language.

Total yield of this gravy is roughly 2 1/2 pounds. Notice the absence of lots of tomatoes for the same amount of meat. Many modern recipes call for a 28 oz. can of Italian San Marzano Plum tomatoes. I can find no reason for the inclusion of tomatoes into the ingredient list. At worst, it's an extender and at best it is unwarranted recipe innovation. It is to be a meat sauce, not a tomato sauce.

Having delved into the ingredients a little, I will now approach the subject of cooking times.

It would be unfair of me to say that Ada's recipe calls for long cooking, her's cooks 1 hour and 15 minutes. Most other recipes take quite a bit longer. Marcella Hazan is quoted as saying: "3 hours or more" or "the longer the better"; even though Ada Boni uses less time. Yikes! It's no wonder that this recipe need codifying. Not to put to fine a point on it, Ms. Hazan's version does use 12 ozs. of tomatoes.

Even more difficult to reconcile is the fact that on Saturday, 26-March-2011, I searched the Accademia Italiana di Cucina webpage for Ragù alla Bolognese and all they give is an outline sketch of a recipe, as follows:

Ragù Alla Romagnola (which is not the same as Ragù alla Bolognese)

Persone: nd

carne di manzo e maiale, salsiccia, pancetta fresca, carota, sedano, cipolla, sale, pepe, pomodori maturi (oppure pelati o concentrato), vino bianco secco (che ha preso il posto dell'aceto di una volta), olio d'oliv

[ My rough translation of the ingredient list in the order they give it:

beef, pork belly, sausage, uncured bacon, carrot, celery, onion, salt, pepper, ripe tomato (or peeled or tomato paste), dry white wine, olive oil ]

Soffriggere gli odori in olio d'oliva (eventualmente burro), aggiungere la pancetta, la salsiccia e il resto della carne tritata. Sfumare la carne con vino bianco e lasciare evaporare. Aggiungere i pomodori schiacciati e cuocere a fuoco basso per un'ora circa.

[A brief diversion - I found a most wonderful website: 

written by Paolo Rigiroli, a native Milanese, Lombardy Province. I won't hold that Lombardy* stuff against him, as he is doing Yeoman's work in trying to help foodies and academics "get" Italian Food and Foodways correctly. He and I are going to collaborate on some stuff and as soon as it's ready, you dear reader, will be the first to know.

* To be from the Culinary Heart of Italy, he should have been born in Emilia-Romagna, but, then again, we all should have been born there.]

Here is a screenshot of the results of searching the Accademia Italiana della Cucina website for Ragù Alla Bolognese.

Even more confusingly, there is a website, in both Italian and English. The site: The Italian Taste gives the recipe in Italian and English 

The Italian site gives the recipe with reasonable care, but the site corrupts the recipe with the use of bacon (as in smoked bacon).

Queen Victoria like the meats in her sausages minced by hand and not by machine. She correctly thought that the texture was better. It was during her reign that commercial (although hand powered) meat grinders came into existence.

So, after an exhaustive investigation into the ingredients and cooking times does that leave us? In need of examining why the cooking times differ so radically. For this I had to turn to science. Yet, I do not wish to bore my reader, so rather than make a lot of technical distinctions, I will limit the science to a bare minimum.

Meat reaches 3 stages of cooking. The earliest stage is at a temperature of 120° F. (50° C.). At those temperatures the meat fiber shrinks and that causes some liquid to exude from between the fibers. The next temperature, 140-150° F. (60-65° C.) causes even more liquid and this is best described to the cook as meat cooked medium rare. In the last temperature range of 160° F. (70° C.) the meat gelatinizes. This is know to the cook as brawn. The Scots would say: "a fine brawny soup".  Chile con Carne and beef stews should be brawny. The cooking technique here is: braising, crock-potting and slow cooked meats.

My guess is that the addition of the large quantities of tomatoes is to color the meat, which, if not browned would look unappetizing. Actually the meat isn't colored, the ragù has the tomatoes superimposed on it. And in trying to understand the sublimity of this recipe, I think that's cheating. If the meat is cooked to stage 1, liquid is thrown off, but the meat is not going to get saucy. If the meat is cooked to stage 2 even more liquid is given off and while more flavor is in the liquid, the meat would be a state of brownish-red. Still not appealing to the eye. At stage 3, the meat is beautifully browned, but the liquid is mostly evaporated. All the flavor in the meat has gotten lost in the cooking process. And don't get me started on the US government's guidelines for safe meat cooking practices. Nothing will work in this recipe if those methods are followed.

It would seem as there is no happy medium here. The meat is either too rare or too well done. Yet, I have what I believe is the solution and it involves what I call a two step cooking technique. This technique is used in two other culture's recipes. One is Mexican the other Chinese. The Mexican dish is known as Carnes en Su Jugos and is a speciality of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. I have written that recipe up in another post at this weblog. The second, Chinese dish, is Szechuan (or Sichuan) in origin. I won't try to give it a name, as I've no knowledge of Chinse. One recipe is on the web, here. It involves cutting the beef, in julienne, cooking it at a low temperature until the liquid is exuded. Next the beef is removed from the wok, the liquid is removed from the wok and reserved. More oil is added to the wok and the beef is deep fried at high temperature. Then the beef is removed, the oil removed and the remainder of the dish is prepared, with the beef cooking liquid added near the end of the cooking time. This give the flavor of the beef to the whole dish, while the beef julienne has a wonderful chewyness about it. The Mexican dish is somewhat different, the meats are cooked on low temperatures until the liquid is thrown off. Then water is added. The Carnes en Su Jugos is a braised dish, but the beef is never browned on high heat, only the bacon. The browned bacon gives both color and flavor to the dish.

I have proposed this two step technique as a way to resolve the problem of making a meat gravy. The chuck steak should be chopped as finely as possible by hand. Then the cooking should be done at first over low heat until the liquid is thrown off. Next remove the beef and liquid, return the beef to the pot and brown the bits over high heat. Proceed with the recipe as usual. Yes I would make the beef first and then the sofritio, removing the meat until the sofrito is browned, too.

Ragoût, the French word, from which the Italian ragù derives, means to open the tastebuds. But I think that there are no words to adequately describe the dishes effect on the eater. The reader may have eaten some dish that one can never seem to eat enough of. A dangerous thing for certain. I can recall only a few times in my life eating something that I did not want to stop eating. There is a candy known as Turkish Delight and my first taste of that fits the description. You just cannot stop putting more in your mouth. And then there was that BBQ'd beef sandwich in my hometown, that sauce was dark and rich and smokey . . . and I couldn't eat enough of it . . . and once in Washington D.C. some Indian curry dish . . .

Lynne Kasper, writing in her Splendid Table cookbook, follows the Italian Culinary Academy for the most part. She gets a little prissy for my taste going on about the right-sort-of-wine, but she means well. She says to reduce the cream by heating it. That's a chore! I improve her idea by doing this work in a bain marie or double-boiler. I find her idea of diluting the tomato paste into the stock very good. As for the double or triple concentrated imported tomato paste: skip that imported stuff. Paste is paste. (Mrs. Kasper, any day you want to do a blind taste-off of two identical recipes, one with imported paste and another with non-imported paste, just leave a comment in this 'blog for me.) - Lastly she adds not even 1/4 tsp. of sugar. I'm not sweetening the dish here, I'm balancing the tomato's sourness with a pinch of sweetness.

More to come as the inspiration comes to me.

25 July 2011
I finally obtained a copy of Mabel Earl McGinnis' seminal cookbook: Simple Italian Cookery. Writing under the pseudonym of Antonia Isola and published in 1912, this cookbook would be funny but for the serious flaws in the recipes. For instance, one chapter is titled: Macaroni and Other Pastes. (again, pasta translated too literally to mean paste). And her "Meat Sauce" recipe, I shudder to think of it. She ignores the classic sofrito of carrot, onion and celery and then quashes the recipe further, by saying: "Stick a fork into the meat from time to time to allow the juices to escape." While I'm guessing, it seems as though her meat sauce is made with a solid piece of meat. And nowhere in the recipe does she call for it to be chopped, ground or made sauce-able. Instead, she has the meat simmer an hour, whence it is sliced and served with macaroni. Below are images of her cookbook, for historical reference only.
Mabel Earl McGinnis

Meat Sauce bottom right

I apologize for the bad graphic layout of these images. I'm not a 'hand' at graphics.

Click on any image to enlarge enough to make readable.

May 29, 2013 UPDATE 

While shopping at an Argentinian market today, I saw in the meat case, the word: Entrana. Underneath that are the words: outside skirt steak.

What is meat for the sauce is goose for foie gras?
I had a vague recollection of skirt steak and had never seen it for sale at a market before. So, I was forced to buy it. Forced!, I say. Here I will say that the Wikipedia article on skirt steak is better that I thought it would be. The most salient point here is that the meat is tough but flavorful. This seems to me to point back towards the need for a long braise of some hours. My guess is three to four hours. This meat is best braised. Use as little liquid as possible to start and add more beef broth if the ingredients start to make a sizzling noise in the pot. According to the Wikipedia page on "Bolognese sauce", the Italians call the outside skirt steak the cartella di manzo. But this may be a misnomer as I read it as brisket flank, which would definitely be flank steak (from near the brisket) and not skirt steak, unless this translation is a big mess. To further muddy the waters, an author at Serious Eats writes that skirt steak should be seared at 700° F. Maybe it would work both ways, I haven't tried it and the piece of skirt steak I bought will be grilled and served over a bed of salad greens. But at least I feel as though I have narrowed the field as to the choice of meat for the Ragù alla Bolognese.

What I felt when I learned why I have not seen skirt steak for sale at the market will shock you as it did me. According to a wonderful story at the Houston Press (newspaper), skirt steak was classified as offal in 1988. That reduced the 200% tariff on skirt steak. The Japanese have been importing it ever since and now 90% of skirt steak grown in the USA is exported to Japan. To make this seemingly stupid idea even stupider, the USA now imports skirt steak from Latin America. So, it's difficult to find it at a market, expensive all out of proportion to it's actual value and it's no small wonder that modern food writers on this most Italian of sauces cannot even give a good recipe, the main ingredient isn't available.

While ever attempting to codify this dish in a way understandable to an English speaking audience, I want to clarify the above about Italian cuts of meat. In Bologna, where this recipe was developed, the name of skirt steak is finta cartella. In other parts of Italy it is known by a different name. It could be that even Italian authors, not knowing the name of the cut of meat in Bologna gave an approximation of what meat to use.

And por fin (for now), the Accademia Italiana della Cucina has a Ragù alla Bolognese recipe, which follows:

Regione di appartenenza: Emilia Romagna
Categoria di appartenenza: Salse e sughi

300 g di polpa di manzo (cartella o pancia o fesone di spalla o fusello) macinata grossa,
150 g di pancetta di maiale,
50 g di carota gialla,
50 g di costa di sedano,
50 g di cipolla,
300 g di passata di pomodoro o pelati,
½ bicchiere di vino bianco secco,
½ bicchiere di latte intero,
poco brodo,
olio d’oliva o burro,

½ bicchiere di panna liquida da montare (facoltativa) 

Preparazione: Sciogliere, in un tegame possibilmente di terracotta o di alluminio spesso, di circa 20 cm, la pancetta tagliata prima a dadini e poi tritata fine con la mezzaluna. Unire 3 cucchiai d’olio o 50 g di burro e gli odori tritati fini e far appassire dolcemente. Unire la carne macinata e mescolare bene con un mestolo facendola rosolare finché non “sfrigola”. Bagnare con il vino e mescolare delicatamente sino a quando non sarà completamente evaporato. Unire la passata o i pelati, coprire e far sobbollire lentamente per circa 2 ore aggiungendo, quando occorre, del brodo, verso la fine unire il latte per smorzare l’acidità del pomodoro. Aggiustare di sale e di pepe. Alla fine, quando il ragù è pronto, secondo l’uso bolognese, si usa aggiungere la panna se si tratta di condire paste secche. Per le tagliatelle il suo uso è da escludere.Questa è la ricetta ”attualizzata” del vero Ragù alla bolognese, depositata il 17 ottobre 1982 dalla delegazione bolognese dell'Accademia italiana della cucina presso la Camera di Commercio di Bologna.

Google's translation of the above:

Region of belonging: Emilia Romagna
Category: Sauces

300 g lean beef (or folder fesone belly or shoulder or spindle) coarse ground,
150 g pork belly,
50 g of yellow carrot,
50 g celery,
50 g onion,
300 g of tomato sauce or peeled,
½ cup dry white wine,
½ cup whole milk,
a little broth,
olive oil or butter,
½ cup of cream to mount (optional)

Preparation: Melt in a pan preferably earthenware or thick aluminum, about 20 cm, the bacon cut into cubes first and then finely chopped with the crescent moon. Combine 3 tablespoons of olive oil or 50 g of butter and the chopped herbs purposes and let dry gently. Add the ground meat and mix well with a wooden spoon until brown making it "sizzles." Add the wine and stir gently until it is completely evaporated. Combine the past or peeled, cover and simmer slowly for about 2 hours, adding, when necessary, broth, towards the end add the milk to soften the acidity of the tomato. Season with salt and pepper. Eventually, when the sauce is ready, according to the custom of Bologna, is used to add the cream if it comes to flavor pasta dry. For the noodles its use is escludere.Questa is the recipe for "discounted" the true Bolognese Sauce, tabled on 17 October 1982 by the Bolognese delegation of Italian cuisine at the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna.

Chapter 2?

Working with Italian Culinary Perfectionist Paolo Rigiroli has been something of an inspiration. I saw a recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese at SeriousEats and though to myself: "This is the worst one yet". So, when action seems necessary to avert kitchen disasters, I have decided to keep copies of this not-just-mistaken recipes. I'll never to be able to collect all of them and you, dear reader, are welcome to submit them to this page as you find them. (Please make sure you are not duplicating links/recipes first.)

The SeriousEats recipe is so bad, that I'm briefly essaying the two major flaws I found. One is the use of gelatin and the other is the use of Thai Fish Sauce. The gelatin is there to make the meat stick to the pasta and the fish sauce is for umami. Both point to not buying the proper cut and not cooking the beef long enough.

I have saved the link at and as I see these travesties, will continue to put them at as some culprit may remove them from the web too soon for the evidence to be presented.


  1. Mark, I very much enjoyed your post and appreciate your investigative approach in discovering the true Italian meat sauce. I can surely see the difficulty. With the lack of official Italian sources, and North American adaptations deriving, at best, from mistranslation, your analysis is likely the best and most exhaustive available! Thanks for the kind mention of my website, BTW - looking forward to our collaboration!