Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
124

How To Cook A Bolognese Sauce

I insistBrendan Koerner points us to what he calls "the fluffiest newspaper article ever." It is headlined, "Bolognese a sauce of optimism," so you can kind of see his point. But forget about that. Have I ever shared my recipe for Bolognese with you? I have not? Well, it is a terrific recipe, passed down through an unbroken chain of Italian grandmothers and one of the first things I remember watching my own Italian grandmother make. It is not at all difficult, and is not particularly labor-intensive, unless you find chopping and stirring to be labor-intensive. You ready to learn? Let's do it! Vegetarians will want to go somewhere else about now.

Cover the bottom of a big pot with olive oil. Set the burner to medium heat. Get an onion and chop it up. White or yellow, whatever, it's your call. Just don't use red, because the only thing red onions are good for is salad. Anyway, toss the onion into the oil and stir it around for a few minutes. Two or three should do it.

Chop a carrot and a couple stalks of celery into the tiniest pieces you can. Trim and clean these first, obviously. Actually, if I need to tell you that, stop reading now and go buy a jar of Bolognese from the grocery, because that's all you deserve. Dump 'em in and stir them around for another couple minutes. Everything should be soft and mushy but not exactly brown. You're doing great!

Take a thin slice of ham or roast pork (or prosciutto if you really want to be fancy. Look at you, Mr. or Mrs. Moneybags! You can afford a meat that starts at $25 bucks a pound. Or at least it should. I certainly hope you're not using domestic prosciutto. That's just wrong, and it offends the Italian part of me. Anyway, if this is the way you're going to go, use a couple of slices.) Sliver it and saute for a minute or two.

Now it's time for the ground meat. A word here: Even I, who will put pretty much anything into my body without regard for origin or cleanliness, am extremely cautious about ground meat, because a lot of it is filled with what scientists refer to as "doody." You should probably buy it from somewhere you trust, and preferably somewhere you can watch them actually grind it up. Either way-hey, you want to eat what scientists refer to as "doody," you go ahead, I'm just saying is all-you're going to need about two pounds of it. I'm partial to all beef. You can do a beef/veal/pork blend if you like, but beef should predominate. (If you have problems with veal, I understand. It's terrible what they do to those little baby cows who will never get the chance to grow up to be big cows. Still, I think it's nice when they can all wind up in the same sauce together.) Put the meat in and mix it around for about five minutes or so. Don't overcook, by which I mean you do not want it to look like it is something you are ready to eat right now. Keep it pinkish.

Liquid time. Get a cup of dry white wine (if you don't have any, a cup of dry vermouth will do. Hell, I've used a cup of red wine before and the difference has not been particularly notable.) and pour it in. Stir occasionally, but let the meat "drink" the wine so that it kind of evaporates into the mix. Figure a couple of minutes on this one. Next you're gonna take a cup of milk and do the same thing. Here's the part where the old Italian ladies will tell you that the milk should be hot, but I think this is something they make up just to keep you busy and show that they're in control. It doesn't matter what temperature the milk is, it's all gonna wind up in the meat all the same. You hear that, nonna? It doesn't matter. When the milk is gone (it'll take longer than the wine did) add another cup of wine, same deal as before.

[A NOTE FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO DO NOT LIKE TO COOK WITH ALCOHOL: You've got your reasons, I guess. I'm not gonna judge. You can replace the wine with beef stock. BUT, the beef stock should absolutely be made fresh. Nothing from the store, got it? I would have given you my personal recipe for beef stock had I thought about this in advance, but the idea of a life without alcohol is so alien to me that I only just now remembered that there are some people who swing that way. I'm sure there plenty of good recipes on the Internet. Good luck.]

Finally, the tomatoes. Figure out how thick you want your sauce. You want it ragu style? Get one can. You want it a little more liquidy? Two cans. Either way, you are REQUIRED BY ME to be using a 28 ounce can (or cans) of whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes. In this matter there can be no dispute. If you find yourself unable or unwilling to use San Marzano tomatoes I refuse to allow you to make my Bolognese. Seriously. Get out of the kitchen and go take a good, hard look at yourself in the mirror. Ask yourself, "Why am I such a fuckhead that I refuse to use San Marzano tomatoes? Am I the sorriest son of a bitch God ever put upon His green earth?" Nod twice to confirm to yourself that you are. Then go to the Olive Garden, because you'll almost certainly love it, and after the realization that you are the sorriest son of a bitch God ever put upon His green earth you could probably use some cheering up.

The tomatoes go in the blender. Pulse them until the consistency is mostly juice, with a few chunks remaining for character. Pour it into the pot and swish everything together. Add a shitload of salt (or slightly less if you're not trying to give yourself an aneurysm like I am) and a couple of bay leaves (don't forget to take them out at the end, because there are few things more unpleasant than getting an errant bay leaf caught in your throat) and drop the heat down to low. You wanna let this simmer for three hours or so. Check back every thirty minutes and give a little stir. You'll probably have a sense of when it's ready. If you're going on 4 hours you're almost certainly done and may have even fucked things up, but it's really difficult to ruin this sauce, so more than likely you can pull it out. Serve over whatever pasta you like (a thick noodle is best) and freeze what you don't use. This also makes a more-than-decent replacement for regular tomato sauce in pizza.

There. Was that so hard? Don't thank me, thank my grandma. Who is dead. (But not from this sauce.) But if she were here I'm sure she would be happy to tell you you were welcome, right before she told you how you were doing it wrong. Old Italian grandmas. Always with the correcting. I guess that's one of the things we love about them. Anyway, enjoy.

124 Comments / Post A Comment

Rollo (#3,202)

What if you like it kind of spicy? Is that OK? (Don't get mad!)

Alex Balk (#4)

The polite chef always has a jar of hot seeds on the table for his guests. If you're eating alone, go crazy.

mrschem (#1,757)

You're Italian?!!!!! No wonder everyone loves you. Now I get it!

hockeymom (#143)

Use half the amount of ground beef. Replace other half with spicy ground sausage. Or live dangerously and replace ALL of it with spicy sausage.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I would try just a little sausage, like one-eighth or one-twelfth of the total meat, IF we only had one of those amazing Pork Stores here in Los Angeles, which we don't. I've never found good Italian sausage here.

This recipe is exactly like the one I use except for the wine-milk-wine part. Mine is just wine-milk so I am going to try this one straightaway. It's for sure wonderful without sausage, though, and I even wonder if the fennel and whatnot wouldn't overpower?

It is true about San Marzano tomatoes but they are a variety of tomato, not a brand, just to clarify. There's tons of brands, like Cento and Strianese and whatnot. In the tin.

Alex Balk (#4)

Mrs. B is indeed correct here and I should have specified, San Marzano is a type. The GREATEST TYPE OF SAUCING TOMATO EVER. So find it.

brianvan (#149)

[1200 words, then...]

"There. Was that so hard?"

//very

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

You say jars of San Marzano tomatoes, but the picture is of a can of San Marzano tomatoes. WHAT DO I DO?

Alex Balk (#4)

Cans! CANS CANS CANS. (Sorry, I should have given one last look before that 4:30 deadline.)

NinetyNine (#98)

The British jogging study really got to you, didn't it?

Annie K. (#3,563)

I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it. Can I use fresh tomatoes? Oh those nonnas! Somewhere I have somebody's nonna's recipe for limoncello. You zest the hell out of the lemons and put them in grain alcohol and leave them until they entirely dissolve.

meerkat (#228)

Sounds great, but… no basil and oregano??

meerkat (#228)

Okay, I'll give it a try (after turning my mom's picture to the wall…)

David Cho (#3)

I would probably do some basil when plating or after you've added the pasta.

Annie K. (#3,563)

I get so impatient. Also sidetracked by limoncello. Can I use fresh tomatoes? or not?

Alex Balk (#4)

I would not advise it. It fucks with the consistency and acidity.

Go to Olive Garden. Do not pass go.

Annie K. (#3,563)

I'm banished because I said "fresh tomatoes?" Not fair. I won't use them. Not fair.

Alex Balk (#4)

Sauce away! These are all merely guidelines! Guidelines which MUST BE FOLLOWED TO THE LETTER.

Leon (#6,596)

What if I grew San Marzanos in the garden this year?

egad (#1,355)

I use them… my recipe is similar to Balks (but I add dried chillies with the onion). Just make sure that you gash the tomatoes and blanch them in boiling water first to remove the skins (this also pre-cooks them a little). When you add them to the meat, add them whole… don't smash them up until after an hour or so of cooking. Apparently this helps with the acidity as it is the seeds that are acidic.

But then again, I am not Italian.

shudder (#5,913)

Best: blanch, remove skin, then remove seeds. It's pretty easy. Cut the skinned tomatoes in half, and rip the seeds out with your fingers. Result: that's a spicy meataball!

We need to be told what vices to indulge in while cooking this sauce.

Alex Balk (#4)

I'm sorry, was booze not implied?

mrschem (#1,757)

Vino Rosso if it is summer and a god-damned Cognac if it is winter.

cherrispryte (#444)

I'm coming over later with my boxing gloves on, remember?

iantenna (#5,160)

i like red onions on pizza and hamburgers, as well as in marinades and salsas, and i use them when roasting potatoes, am i still allowed to make this recipe?

mrschem (#1,757)

Trust me because I am speaking from experience; do not violate the red onion rule.
Signed,
Red Onion Lover

iantenna (#5,160)

don't worry, i would never use them in this context, that would be ludicrous. i was just arguing that they have use beyond salads, but boy howdy are they great in salads. especially a nice spinach salad, with some goat cheese and candied pecans. mmm…

mrschem (#1,757)

Red onions on pizza was my discovery of the year! Unbelievably sweet and tasty! And now I will try that spinach salad, thanks!

garge (#736)

I have a good recipe for red onion relish that has both wine and liquor (so it could possibly be a contender to receive the Awl seal of approval).

mrschem (#1,757)

Awl the Recipes!

egad (#1,355)

Um… red onions sliced roughly and thrown in a hot pan with good olive oil, olives, chilli, capers, cherry tomatoes and tuna. And then over pasta with fresh arugula. It is my favourite 'lazy cook' meal.

It can be done in the time pasta cooks. Those little tomatoes go all squishy and the red onion caramelises and adds sweetness that brown or white wouldn't.

Sorry Balk!

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

True story. Growing up, my mother told me that bay leaves were poisonous. She'd ladle out some soup and warn me and my brothers to watch out for the bay leaves, because they're poisonous. Eighteen years hence, I'm shooting the shit with some pals, talking about some recipe or another, when someone brings up bay leaves. "You have to be careful about them," I said, "they're poisonous." And everyone laughed at me. "If they were poisonous, why the hell would you put them in food," everyone seemed to ask at the same time.
So that moment, in front of everyone, I called my mother. "Ma, are bay leaves poisonous?"
"Of course they aren't. Who told you that?"
"You did! Why would you say that!"
"Oh, because it sucks to get one caught in your throat. I didn't want you kids to choke. If they were poisonous, why would I put them in your food?"

Point being, I'm an idiot. Second point being, parents should keep track of the lies they tell their kids, lest they grow up to look like idiots.

gumplr (#66)

You, sir, are not alone.

Rollo (#3,202)

Dang – my mom told me the same thing, which I believed until I forgot about it. Is this a thing moms do? Strange!

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

And yet she didn't have to tell me that chicken bones, buttons, or small rocks were poisonous. Odd!

Bittersweet (#765)

Holy crap, my mom told me that too. But she also told me I'd get a stomachache from blowing bubbles in my Coke at restaurants, so I should probably know better.

Bittersweet (#765)

Than to listen to her, I mean. It's 5.30 and I need a drink.

ejcsanfran (#489)

My sister once asked my mom (a registered nurse) what the uvula was for. Mom's answer? "Nothing – but don't touch it or you'll go on fire."

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

All this bay leaf talk is on the verge of compelling me to eat one with dinner tonight, JUST TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS.

If you don't see me commenting tomorrow, avenge me.

aSaltySalute (#293)

The meat doesn't get drained at some point? Is the resulting sauce oily?

TroutSavant (#1,990)

I was wondering the same! My very not Italian mother always drains the beef on paper towels.

Also how about Italian sausage instead of ground beef?

Alex Balk (#4)

The oily is the best part! And I wouldn't recommend doing this with sausage, but then again I never have. Give it a whirl and report back.

jolie (#16)

I don't have time to read this but someone emailed me in a tizzy and I *did* take note of the alt text, so:

YOU GUYS. DO NOT LISTEN TO BALK ON THIS. REDPACK. REDPACK REDPACK REDPACK.

I have an Uncle Vinny, which one of us are you gonna trust??

wb (#2,214)

No two nonnas can ever agree on a sauce recipe–its an established rule of Italian cooking. And every Italian's nonna's sauce is the best in the world.

NinetyNine (#98)

I guess we're never doing our red sauce IM now, huh? My grandmother would second the Redpack argument. I've moved onto the hippie shit (Muir Glen? Whatever. They line their cans, so you can keep it forever). I find that brand doesn't make that much difference. But I also don't do Bolognese.

Alex Balk (#4)

San Marzano. That is all.

jolie (#16)

@Balk: My Pop-pop is beating up your Nonna in heaven is all I'm sayin'

jolie (#16)

@self: "Italians. Always with the violence."

wb (#2,214)

I love nonna-style measurements/instructions: "add in some wine." "how much?" "enough."

Alex Balk (#4)

"Eh, you'll know."

wb (#2,214)

EXACTLY

Jared (#1,227)

Look, I may be the sorriest son of a bitch God ever put on this green earth, but why the hell would I want to buy whole tomatoes and then put them in a blender instead of just buying crushed tomatoes in the first place? And why is this more of a dealbreaker than alcohol?

Alex Balk (#4)

Enjoy the bottomless pasta bowl!

roboloki (#1,724)

+10

spanish bombs (#562)

The argument for whole tomatoes over crushed is that the canned crushed tomatoes are likely to come from tomatoes that were not up to snuff for being canned whole, so they are of a lower quality. In my opinion, this is a fairly weak argument, as I think that most of the crushed tomatoes probably come from perfectly good whole tomatoes, especially in the case of specialty tomatoes like the San Marzano. However, you would probably still need to blend the crushed tomatoes, so who cares.

I'm not sure on why he insists on San Marzano tomatoes, perhaps they are sweeter, and since he insists on them even over fresh tomatoes, perhaps less acidic. You would probably do fairly well with cherry tomatoes if you insist on fresh yourself.

propertius (#361)

What is the sauce of pessimism – the wine without the rest of the ingredients?

That sounds more my speed, actually.

HiredGoons (#603)

A bubbe and a nonna in the same kitchen is a fierce and marvelous spectacle.

mrschem (#1,757)

Oy.

I call shenanigans. There is no garlic in this recipe.

mrschem (#1,757)

Actually, I have never made gravy with garlic. Ever. And I am second generation Guinea-American. In my experience, garlic is a French thing.

cherrispryte (#444)

oh lordy, you call it gravy. it's like i'm home.

mrschem, maybe it's a mob thing. Though not Italian, I am from Chicago.

mrschem (#1,757)

I'm gonna pretend I didnt read that.

mrschem, please pardon my ignorance of Italian cuisine and of all things Italian in general. If it were not for the casual mob presence in Chicago growing up I would know nothing of Italy. The only mainstream presence of Italy in today's pop culture is The Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey. So I may have lucked out.

mrschem (#1,757)

Kitten, I am totally kidding. I was trying to sound mob-menacing.;/

MattP (#475)

I fucking love these cooking guides. I kind of wish the post wasn't in the category of opinion, given the tone and all.

David Cho (#3)

They won't be, soon.

zidaane (#373)

THE MACHINES Bolognese recipe is pretty straight forward without the nonna guilt. The meat can also be locally sourced if you have roommates.

Bittersweet (#765)

But…but…the nonna guilt gives it that extra zing!

Rod T (#33)

I made my own (slightly lazier) version of this the other night, with peppers (green and red) and yellow squash thrown into the sautee at the beginning and I can completely attest for your recipe. In fact it sounds great!

A couple notes:
– I'm completely unfamiliar with San Marzano. Is it an "everywhere" thing or some Whole Foods bullshit?
– I'm in complete agreement about the ground meat (having been hospitalized for food poisoning before, I obsess!). If you're a "but I don't even know where my local butcher is" person, then HERE YOU LAZY FUCK.

Alex Balk (#4)

You can find them in most A&Ps, I think.

badthings (#1,903)

I must point out that the pictured tomatoes are San Marzano "brand", grown in NJ, not San Marzano DOP tomatoes; San Marzano is both a variety and a region. Of course San Marzanos from San Marzano taste better than those grown elsewhere (possibly because of the heavy metals in the trash strewn about the Campanian countryside by the Camorra).

I must also point out that your recipe is almost identical to Marcella's.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I might not be smart enough to not take this bait, but here goes…

Heavy metals? Trash? If these things make tomatoes good, then surely New Jersey's tomatoes are the best! Or maybe you just meant "Camden" when you said "Campania."

Alex Balk (#4)

Marcella ripped off my grandma?!?

David Cho (#3)

They sell San Marzano tomatoes at Whole Foods.

Rod T (#33)

Yuppy. (The Whole Foods backlash is pretty much in full force in my corner of the Internet.)
I'll check Trader Joe's tomorrow.

Lisa Pizza (#6,981)

No, she uses way less tomatoes than your grandma. If you're going to be snobby about canned tomatoes at least specify DOP for the San Marzanos. The ones pictured here taste no better than regular canned tomatoes. All that said, people bitching about no garlic or basil, this is Bolognese sauce not regular old tomato pasta sauce, big difference. And a good Italian doesn't mix garlic and onion it's one or the other.

badthings (#1,903)

Heavy metals + doody?

mrschem (#1,757)

For your meats go to Espositos, Court Street, Brooklyn. San Marzano? Depends on the neighborhood, I am sad to say. In Manhattan, you may be forced to go to Whole Foods. D'Agostinos used to have San Marzanos. Are they still around?

alison (#14)

Fairway has them! (If you are so fortunate as to live near one.)

Russo's in Park Slope, FTW.

Leon (#6,596)

+1 (lb of capicola) Clarence

ljndawson (#6,914)

Coluccio's in Bensonhurst. They're a restaurant supply house that does retail as well. I get a Zipcar and buy CASES of San Marzano tomatoes. Also cases of everything else.

Jubilee Market (Financial District and UWS) carries San Marzanos, as well.

mrschem (#1,757)

I think they built one on my old apartment. :(

This actually made me tear up. For multiple reasons.

hman (#53)

Now do 'gravy'!

Matt (#26)

This is not Young Philadelphiaite.

cherrispryte (#444)

THIS IS GRAVY, DEPENDING ON YOUR PARTICULAR TYPE OF ITALIAN EXTRACTION.

NinetyNine (#98)

DO YOU HAVE PRINCE WILLIAM IN A CAN?

Tuna Surprise (#573)

I think if you are going to spend time in the kitchen on spaghetti you get more bang for your buck making fresh pasta rather than fresh sauce.

That being said…I'm so exicited summer is almost over. Time to cook again!

mrschem (#1,757)

I only make fresh tagliatelle. I cant help it.

roboloki (#1,724)

i would like to thank balk for a great recipe. i would like to thank you all for giving me a case of the chuckles on an otherwise crummy day. wednesday kicked me in the balls and took my lunch money.

mrschem (#1,757)

Sit down. Eat something.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I will be adding garlic (lots of garlic), basil (moderate amounts of basil), oregano (nur ein bisschen), and red pepper flakes to this. Hope your grandma doesn't freak too much.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

yeah I mean…? no garlic?!

Basil in any sauce that is not pesto IS AN ABSOLUTE TRAVESTY. DONT cook the basil!

garge (#736)

There is some kind of Internet law that mandates all of the best things to happen while I've been disappeared.

egad (#1,355)

Tell me about it. You go to Europe for one month and the time difference fucks with everything.

This the guy who shoved a carcass dripping with ammonia into a sulfurous pan and called it a steak?

Alex Balk (#4)

The ammonia kills the doody!

look_lookatme (#2,056)

Sweet.

This is basically how I roll, but I don't do ground meat. I use chopped veal and pork necks. The pork neck falls off the bone and oozes fat. I've read a lot of people do it that way, but I dunno. No substitute for pancetta.

hockeymom (#143)

Where's the part of the recipe where you yell about the low class neighbors from Sicily who probably still keep chickens in their basement? Or was that just my Nonna?

wb (#2,214)

I want neighbors with chickens in the basement! To paraphrase Woody Allen, I'd need to live next to them for the eggs.

Alex Balk (#4)

True story: My grandma once discouraged my dad from dating a Sicilian girl because "Sicilians eat dead chickens." It took him a long time to figure out that we all do.

Alex Balk (#4)

Which is to say that everyone thinks Sicilians are "the dumb Italians," but we're all pretty much the dumb Italians.

hockeymom (#143)

Ha!
Did your grandma also obsessively check your head for "nits"…"No grand-daughter of mine is going to school with nits in her hair like a no-class Sicilian."

wb (#2,214)

I can only imagine what my girlfriend's Sicilian grandmother was saying about you Northern Italians. Probably that you eat dead cows.

mrschem (#1,757)

Basta!

awlsome (#706)

marry me.

My WASPy grandmother, who died a very long time ago, encouraged her grandkids to be seen and not heard. She never mentioned bolognese. My other grandmother (also dead) was Russian and had a tiny refrigerator with little deli containers. I never learned any of the basics.

My grandparents are English. So, same effect.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

Don't need to worry about all this, because Ms.Y cooks an epic Bolognese, and now she's armed with a huge LeCreuset. Don't remember the Size #.

This recipe sounds pretty damned good, though. Of course I like the alcohol part!

mrschem (#1,757)

take up a collection for my creuset and you will have bolognese comin out your ears.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

I can't believe I just bookmarked a recipe on this bird site.

Fair warning to future dinner party attendees, if you invite as your plus 1 petjayhawkasoid or Dick Belldick I will pee in it after I take out my portion.

theGoldenAss (#4,853)

Excellent recipe. I clicked through half expecting some American — or worse, British — version of the king of all Italian sauces.

May I suggest adding some nutmeg to the sauce? It sounds gross, but it really does fit well.

MikkiRI (#7,094)

Hi, everyone, first timer here…not sure how I ended up on this site, probably the promise of a great bolognese! However, my friends in Bologna always add fresh grated nutmeg…comments?

Martin White (#7,323)

Hey this sounds great. I'd like to see your cooking live. Maybe you'll want to broadcast it, I would bee 100% there to watch it :)

there are many platforms which offer a live broadcasting service… try livestream or http://www.tvmad.com or choose something else.

I hope you have time to do it =)

Cheers,

Martin

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