A Bolognese Sauce to Appease the Grandmother Within

Editor’s Note: It is with great fondness that we recall the late Marcella Hazan. May she rest in peace, and may her family and loved ones take great comfort in their memories of her. She was an inspiration and a godsend to us all.

I come from stirring stock. That is to say, my people are stirrers. It’s how my grandmother, avó Costa, cooked. She stood, facing the stove, for hours in her pink housecoat and pink slippers, her tiny hand planted on her hip, singing in her thin, reedy voice. She stirred all kinds of Portuguese comestibles: spicy stuffing with chunks of homemade chouriço; her famous pink (of course) chicken, rice, and potato soup; and vats and vats of kale soup. When she grew too old to stir her soups and stews for long, I’d do it for her. By then, age had stolen a few inches from her, but she still managed to peer over the tops of the pots and instruct, “Mais devagar, queirdo, mais devagar.” Slower, sweetheart, slower.

I think it’s genetic. When the temperature outdoors nosedives, all I want to do is hover over a simmering pot and stir. And what I’ve been craving lately is a long-simmered, deeply flavored Bolognese sauce recipe. The kind that takes no prisoners. The kind that makes your guests plead for the secret. (Are you reading this, Kate Jackson?) The kind that leaves you on the couch unable to move because you didn’t have enough sense to stop after your second helping of seconds. I’m certain if vovó had discovered Marcella Hazan’s ragù Bolognese in her lifetime, she would’ve petitioned the Pope to make us Italian. It’s her kind of dish.

So my hunt was on for a Portuguese-grandmother-approved Bolognese sauce–rich, meaty, slow-cooked, constantly stirred–to quench that nagging craving. This narrowed the field exponentially. Anything from a 30-minute-meal proselytizer was clearly out of contention, as were recipes from TV chefs and hosts. I found–and promptly rejected–a recipe in Cook’s Illustrated that got the job done in two hours. (Two hours? I can’t find my way out of our pantry in two hours.) Then, while sitting in front of my cookbook collection, I was reminded of another short, sturdy woman who also comes from stirring stock: L’Imperatrice–The Empress–Marcella Hazan.

I immediately downloaded The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. (Why I didn’t already have a copy is a question for another day.) Flipping through the book revealed a woman who spoke her mind, knew right from wrong, and who, if you disagreed with what she had to say, well, that was your problem. (Not at all unlike Momma Leite.) I knew The Empress wouldn’t let me down. And she didn’t. Her Bolognese sauce clocks in at a whopping six hours. That’s longer than some relationship I’ve seen.

As I leaned against the stove with my iPad in its kitchen condom, a gorgeous sauce burbling down to sweet goodness in the pot, I was connecting to my past–to my stirrers. And to a craving even deeper, to be with my avó just one more time.

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Ragú Bolognese

Marcella Hazan, in her inimitable fashion, offers the home cook plenty of suggestions to create an authentic Bolognese sauce recipe, the kind my grandmother would approve of. First, the more marbled the meat, the sweeter the ragù. The most desirable cut of beef is the neck portion of the chuck. You may have to call up and order it from your butcher. It’s also important to salt the meat as soon as it hits the pan; it extracts the juices and flavors the sauce. Last, use a heavy pot that retains heat. (I use my Le Creuset 5-quart Dutch oven.) Avoid a cast-iron pot, as the acid can interact with the metal and turn the sauce an unpleasant blech color.David Leite

LC Time is Not of the Essence Note

Rush this bolognese recipe from Marcella Hazan, and you’ll miss its most important ingredient: Time. Time to ponder. Time to make lists. Time to sing the entire soundtrack of Evita. Time to reflect on what a godsend Marcella Hazan was to us all.

Bolognese Sauce Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 20 M
  • 6 H
  • Makes 4 cups

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 1/3 cups chopped celery
  • 1 1/3 cups chopped carrot
  • 1/2 pound ground beef chuck
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 1/2 pound ground veal
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or ground if your’re bereft of fresh
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 3 cups reduced homemade tomato purée or canned imported Italian San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand, with their juice
  • As much spaghetti as you wish, cooked and drained
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, at the table

Directions

  • 1. Heat the oil and 6 tablespoons butter in a heavy 5-quart over medium heat until the butter melts and stops foaming. Drop in the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until it has become translucent, about 5 minutes.
  • 2. Dump in the celery and carrot and cook for 2 minutes, stirring the vegetables to coat them well with the fat.
  • 3. Add the ground meats, a very healthy pinch of salt, and a goodly amount of pepper. Crumble the meat with a wooden spoon, and stir well the meats have lost their raw, red color.
  • 4. Turn the heat to low. Pour in the milk and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has burbled away completely, about 1 hour. Stir in the nutmeg.
  • 5. Pour in the wine and let it simmer, stirring frequently, until it has evaporated, about 1 1/4 hours.
  • 6. Add the tomato purée or crushed tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat everything well. When the tomato puree begins to bubble, turn down the heat so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface.
  • 7. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. While the sauce is burbling away, there’s a chance that it’ll stat drying out somewhat, and the fat will separate from the meat.To keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot and scorching, add 1/2 cup water as necessary. But it’s crucial that by the time the sauce has finished simmering, the water should be completely evaporated, and the fat should separate from the sauce. Take a spoonful–or two. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • 8. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of butter to the hot pasta and toss with the sauce. Serve with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on the side.
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Testers Choice

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Testers Choice
Kim Venglar

Jan 31, 2012

This is the perfect recipe to make if you are stuck in the house doing chores and can’t leave. A little prep work and a little stir every now and then gives you a wonderful smell throughout your house and a nice, thick sauce for your pasta. I love that there isn’t a strong tomato taste to this sauce, unlike most commercial jar sauces. This is pure, hearty, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food. All you need is some warm bread and you have a meal. The next time I make it I will probably omit the vegetable oil, as I felt there was a little too much oil floating on top when it was ready to serve.


Comments
Comments
  1. I’ve made this recipe about a half a dozen times since my first attempt, and I just made it again tonight. This ragu Bolgonese recipe is everything I was hoping for. The first time I made it, my butcher shop didn’t have veal, so I substituted 1/2 pound ground chuck. I was so skeptical about putting in the milk before the wine, but everything happened according to the recipe…and the flavor? Rich depth, just like the restaurant version I’ve been trying to duplicate for years—but even better. Thanks for sharing the recipe, this one is a keeper. The surprising part was no garlic, and I did not even miss it in the final flavor, as it reads authentic Italian all the way.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Mrs. E, that is wonderful beyond words. Many thanks for taking the time to comment so effusively! Wishing you many, many more evenings spent at the table with family and friends and this keeper of a recipe.

    • Marcella Hazan says:

      You have helped me forget all the media examples of ragù that have bobbed to the surface. I am pleased as well to read that Mrs. E prefers the homemade to the restaurant version. If there is a single recipe that points to the origin of good Italian cooking–the home–it is this one. Where I come from, Emilia-Romagna, a restaurant’s ragù is commendable only to the degree that it approaches what la mamma or la nonna makes in her kitchen. Thank you for this, David. You have made me happy.

      • David Leite says:

        And Momma H., you have honored and graced us with your presence. Thank you for dropping by, and I’m sure Mrs.–and all our readers–will be utterly delighted you responded!

  2. Mrs E says:

    After several failed attempts over the years at making a good bolgonese sauce, I want to express to Marcella Hazan what a boost of confidence and sense of accomplishment her recipe has given me. I would love to start cooking more of her authentic Italian recipes recipes. Now, I can not stop thinking about purchasing her book and trying to make my own fresh pasta for the first time. Marcella has truly inspired me. Her passion for cooking and sharing these authentic recipes has definitely rubbed off on me. Thank you, Marcella, for sharing your knowledge, secrets, and love of cooking, and David thank you for posting this recipe on your blog!.

    • Kevin says:

      I’ve been making this for many years, and the original recipe from The Classic Italian Cookbook calls for cooking the meat/vegetable mixture with wine before adding the milk. Marcella changed this when she published her first two cookbooks in combined form as Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I’ve made it both ways and prefer the original.

      • David Leite says:

        Kevin, fascinating. What do you see as the difference?

      • Joan Maslin says:

        I, too, prefer the original way. I made it yesterday.

        • David Leite says:

          Joan, as I asked Kevin, what do you see as the major flavor difference? I’m curious.

          • Joan Maslin says:

            I originally made this from Marcella’s first book. When I “retired” first book for Essentials I noticed the difference and tried it that way. Seems it took lots longer to get it started with milk first than wine first. Don’t get me wrong. I cook this sauce for a minimum of 4 hours (yesterday 5) but don’t take as long with the simmering wine and milk as you do. I don’t cook it rapidly but don’t simmer until dissipated. As far as taste… honestly did not notice difference. ALSO, in first book she uses 1/2 cup of milk instead of 1 cup which, to me, is enough. Hope I am clear!!!

            • David Leite says:

              Joan, you are indeed. What I was after, and you provided, was how it was different so that curious readers could make it, too. So, thanks!

  3. Irene Seales says:

    Thanks for the great ragu inspiration. Only modifications I made were to omit the veal (using a 50/50 mix of lean beef and pork ground to order) and add a bit of julienned carrot to the pasta water a minute or two before draining. Love the long cooking and warm oven in a January kitchen.

    Bolognese Sauce Recipe

  4. Dawn says:

    After learning of this recipe through this site, I became a believer after making this delicious sauce. Soon after trying the recipe I purchased Marcella Hazan’s book and I love it! I received a pasta maker as a gift and I have already experimented with fresh pasta. I have also made the green spinach lasagna with this sauce, it was delicious! Thank you David for posting this recipe!

    • David Leite says:

      Dawn, your comment was 100% perfect because 1.) You found the recipe, 2.) You liked the recipe, 3.) You bought the book, and 4.) You made even more from it. What more can a publisher ask?!

  5. David- you always touch my heart when you talk about your grandmother. You make me think of my own and how I too enjoyed cooking in the kitchen with my grandma. Best, Dana

    • David Leite says:

      FoodieGoesHealthy, thank you. Thanks very kind. It’s always amazing to me that so many of us have this deep connection to food through our grandmothers. I hope that continues as many people step away from the stove….

  6. It is so wonderful to know that the Hazan version of ragú is still being made, enjoyed, and adored. In 1980, her book “Classic Italian Cooking” was published and its ragú has been a recipe to which I return again and again. Her instructions on risotto and polenta are also impeccable and should be followed precisely. I never make the Bolognese unless I can obtain veal and have even used cream once instead of milk, though my cardiologist has to be kept in the dark. Thanks to both of you!

    • David Leite says:

      Dennis, yes, her sauce is alive and well and living in my kitchen–and the kitchens of many. Her risotto recipe is one of my favorites, too–really a master class in patience.

  7. Marilyn says:

    I wish you could send a copy of this recipe to Prince William and Kate. Parade magazine printed his favorite recipe of ground beef and pasta and I decided to make it…it was completely tasteless. I don’t think the Brits do much flavoring. This would warm William, Harry, and Kate’s evening with a good bottle of their favorite wine.

  8. JuneC says:

    I am always troubled when a recipe calls for wine. Yes, I cook with it but I never know what “flavor” to buy when a recipe calls for “dry white wine” or a “hearty red.” What dry white do you think was used by MH?

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      JuneC, while I don’t know for certain what the lovely Marcella Hazan used in terms of a dry white wine for cooking, I dare say she would have used a pinot grigio. (If not sticking to Italian whites, a sauvignon blanc would also work well.) In response to the larger question, you don’t want to uncork an amazing bottle of wine to pour into a pot, but you do want to use the same quality wine that you’d pour into a glass for yourself.

      • JuneC says:

        Thank you for the information, I have the heavy pot to cook this in so now I will get the wine.

        • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

          Wonderful, JuneC. Would love to hear what you think of the Bolognese—and the wine, of course.

        • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

          JuneC, one of our recipe testers who’s made this Bolognese several times just mentioned to me that she purchased a Gruner Veltliner 2012 from Trader Joes and used it in the sauce and in her words, “it was absolutely delicious…and the best part about it..the bottle was $4.99 and it was very easy drinking as well.”

          Perhaps for the next time you make it, JuneC?

  9. MariaC says:

    rest in peace Marcella Hazan

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Yes, MariaC. May she rest in peace, and may her loved ones take comfort in their memories of this lovely, lovely lady.

  10. Martha in KS says:

    I toasted MH over a big bowl of Ratatouille. RIP

  11. Alex De Vivo says:

    A great loss to all of us who value great….and simple…..Italian food….I took five days of courses with her at the old Peter Kump School….will never forget those classes…or the great teacher…riposa in pace, Marcella cara

  12. Vivien Martin says:

    Ahhhhhh! You have found the recipe for the only sauce Bolognese I ever make. Have a good rest Mrs. Hazan.

  13. Stu Borken says:

    This recipe is a true bolognese. It is a meat sauce. Not a tomato sauce. It is rich, very rich with the oils of 3 meats, whole milk and butter. It is cooked slowly for many hours to meld flavors. This recipe is classic and wonderful. It must be made slow. It must not be rushed. You do not want to crank up the heat to get it done more quickly because of a busy schedule. Make it only when you have the time to dedicate to it.

  14. VCM says:

    I love how we need ‘kosher salt’ and then have minced meat with milk! Why ‘adapt’ these recipes when their strength is in their simplicity?

    • David Leite says:

      VCM, the Kosher salt is simply because I use it. Marcella calls for salt. And in the her recipe, she calls for ground meat and milk. No adaptation there.

  15. Barbara says:

    Here in the U.S. the meat is fattier – I’d probably only use oil if I were making this in Italy – the meat, both pork and beef, in Italy is much, much leaner.

    • David Leite says:

      Barbara, thanks for writing. Actually, the pork in the U.S. is leaner than Europe. I can’t speak for Italy, but in Spain, Portugal, and some part of France it’s fattier. I can see our beef being fattier for sure.

  16. Mrs. Dawn E. says:

    When I prepare Marcella Hazan’s recipes, I almost feel as if she comes along right beside me with her nod of approval, guiding me through the cooking process with her descriptive recipes and anecdotes. I feel truly blessed to obtain success and inspiration in the kitchen with each every recipe I’ve made. Through her cookbooks, she, in fact, teaches much like a grandmother would, passing her recipes and methods down to future generations. This Bolognese recipe in particular is what lead me to discover and take notice of the LC site. I am reminded of many reasons to be ever so grateful for Marcella Hazan and her contributions of helping promote proper Italian home cooking.

    • David Leite says:

      Mrs. Dawn E., I think you have expressed the feelings of many, many cooks from around the world. Marcella will be missed but her work and spirit live on, every time you heave a pot an the stove and begin sautéing onions.

  17. John says:

    No garlic? Pffff.

    • David Leite says:

      John,

      Careful there….you’re pffff-ing Marcella Hazan. Plus there is no garlic is classic Bolognese sauce. In fact, garlic isn’t used that much (or at all) in dishes from the region.

      • Amanda says:

        I read about this recipe in the New York Times obituary of MH. I want to try it but my husband doesn’t eat red meat…can I make it with ground turkey?

        • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

          You certainly can, Amanda. It won’t have quite the same taste as the original, but then, you already knew that. But I think it will still be quite lovely. Hope you feel the same. And we look forward to hearing what you think.

          • Amanda says:

            I’ll try it! I have long since let go of the idea of the same taste, rats, but I try whenever possible to make things like this because I love them and won’t give up!

  18. Jenna Olson says:

    I have a pot of this simmering on the stove right now. It smells wonderful, and it has 2 hours or so of simmering to go still. While there’s no garlic in the sauce, some garlic bread would taste pretty good with it. We’ll have some green beans on the side. Mmmm… it’ll be worth the wait.

    I also ordered Ms. Hazan’s book. Can’t wait for that to arrive also!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Jenna, how fabulous to hear! We can (almost) smell it now. We’re vicariously excited for you to experience more of Marcella’s loveliness via her book. And do, please, let us know what you think of the Bolognese…

  19. Peter Yeong says:

    I don’t know what to say. It all started in London in 1986. Wet afternoon. Went into a bookshop. Saw a book that had won the Glenfiddich. Whatta I really know about Italian food, apart from the occasional pizza and shag bog? Got reading. A whole new world unfolds. She makes it easy. More, she respects her readers. I hate when some guru tells me to do this and that. Why? Marcella will tell you if you do this, this is the result. If you don’t, well…

    Ciao, Marcella.
    Peter Yeong

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      I think you do know what to say, Peter. And you just said it. In quite lovely fashion.

  20. Kat says:

    just made the Marcella Hazan Tomato Sauce with onion and butter for the first time last night. I don’t know how I missed Marcella but I’m a devotee now. Have the book on my wish list for Christmas and will probably make this recipe in the coming weeks. Love the idea of it taking hours – especially in winter! I also read another version that called for adding the wine first somewhere on the internet… Reminded me of one of my favorite paella recipes with sherry… Thanks for posting this!

    • David Leite says:

      Kat, Marcella Hazan was a treasure. Please let me know how it turns out once you make it. Happy saucing.

  21. Caleb says:

    Thanks for sharing. It looks delicious.

  22. I’ve been eyeing this recipe for awhile and was always put off by the amount of time needed for the simmering. But my curiosity got the better of me, and, being a blustery day outside, I decided to just get on with it. I’ve made other bolognese sauces before but even though they seemed nice and thick in the pot, I would get a bit of watery juice at the bottom of my pasta bowl. But this?! Uh uh. Nice and thick and delicious and wonderful and yummy and I could go on! Even my husband, who’s always impatient when it comes to something like this, had no complaints. His memory of, “Just open a can of sauce and throw some meatballs into it” had completely faded. This is definitely going to be part of my recipe rotation. Thanks again for your wonderful site. I look forward to my next discovery!

    • David Leite says:

      Judy, music to my ears! Thanks. And I hope you snoop around more, because you’ll definitely find a lot more keeper recipes here.

  23. Susan says:

    Anyone tried freezing this?

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