The great debate continues on the ideal balance of beef and pork in a good ragù. We’ve seen beef dishes mixed with a bit of pork and pork dishes mixed with a bit of beef. Today I’m aiming straight down the middle with an equal mix of both, in an attempt to understand what this composition adds and what it takes away.
I’m deliberately avoiding cured pork. Throughout the centuries long evolution of Bologna’s favourite dish, the only constant in ingredients has been pancetta. It is more “bolognese” than beef, the three vegetable medley of a soffritto or even tomatoes - so ubiquitous to the mental image most non-Italians have of this dish.
Using cured pork, though, feels like cheating as its place on the plate can’t be questioned.
This ragù will be a mix of pork shoulder and beef rib - two arguably equivalent cuts once the meats have been slowly stewed and prized apart with a fork.
Before cooking I’ve drawn up my list of ingredients and my spidey-senses tingle that this dish could be considered “too meaty” by many in northern Italy. That’s fine by me. The exercise here is to better understand the meat composition, not canvas for a dubious vote of “authenticity”.
That said, I will be pairing this meaty mix with a thick and wide handmade egg pappardelle that should be able to carry this quantity of animal flesh, as would be recommended by bolognans.
Casserole at the ready
There’s not a great deal of preparation required for this dish. I’ll be using a casserole so have the oven ready on a low heat as I initially fry the ingredients on the hob.
Beef rib and pork shoulder are fried in batches after a good dusting of flour. The flour encourages the Maillard reaction, maximising the seared taste without asking the meat to pretend it is prime for too long.
The meat leaves quite a mess. A good mess, it has to be said. Anything that sticks to the base of the casserole will eventually be deglazed by what’s coming.
Soffritto follows, then the wine. I’m opting for red, which should complement both beef and pork. Tinned tomatoes and tomato paste completes my sauce, whilst thyme and bay leaves inject a subtle fragrance.
Just one word of warning about the meats - I’d braised them as I’d found them, in large chunks. As I hit the two hour mark I decided to pull all the meat out of the ragù and break it down gently with a fork. This ended up being a rather time consuming exercise, and although I’d recommend this approach - particularly prizing off with the gristly parts of the beef ribs - make sure you allow yourself up to thirty minutes of fork time.
Whilst the meat was cooking, I had plenty of opportunity to contemplate the finishing touches.
When I was researching my recipe for spaghetti al ragù all’inglese, I leaned on Michelin starred experts for an opinion on how to prepare the perfect ragù. Massimo Bottura was an obvious choice.
At Bottura’s three starred restaurant Osteria Francescana you can order tagliatelle al ragù for a mere €80 per serving. If you ever have the pleasure of eating ragù at Bottura’s establishment, be sure not to ask for a sprinkling of parmesan. According to the man himself the Italian hard cheese changes the complexion of this dish in a way he does not feel is warranted.
Instead of parmesan, diners are treated to a dusting of very finely milled black pepper. It is worth dissecting this choice of finishing.
While reading through the tagliatelle al ragù recipe Bottura pens in his book “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef”, it became clear that his sauce would be epically rich. He doesn’t mention which white wine he is using for his sugo, but I suspect it was a sharp and acidic one to cut through the meats and animal fats present in his masterpiece.
It was only after creating my rich vegetarian ragù that it occurred to me Bottura could be using pungency as a means to further break up the richness monopoly.
Pepper has a mild spice to it, in the same way as watered down chilli. The spicy feeling is a reaction felt not by taste receptors, but good old fashioned nerves. When your mouth feels like it’s burning during a hot vindaloo that’s actual pain in your mouth!
The piquance from the pepper gives you the sensory overload which can lift the flavours that might otherwise be considered too rich.
Sprinkling the pepper over the ragù with a fine chinois ensures a light and even dusting.
The taste for this ragù was good but I have to say didn’t fall into the category of “great”. It was a real voyage of discovery for the perfect beef and pork balance.
The main quality I’d always loved about beef ragù was the rich meatiness. Since making my pork and mushroom ragù I’d learned to appreciate the mildly sweet and sour savouriness that pork can bring. I now feel like a mixture of the two meats satisfies neither craving completely.
It is an interesting realisation, as I think through the many ragù recipes I’ve seen. I often find, particularly with American interpretations of the Italian favourite, that an equal mix of minced (or ground) beef and pork is suggested.
If you are ever faced with this instruction again, it is important to ask the recipe’s creators “why?”. What are they hoping to achieve with this mix? My hunch is they won’t have given it any thought.
One thing my “good” beef and pork ragù did excellently was to deliver the peppery tang inspired by Bottura. It really did add a new dimension to the dish, and when combined with such a large quantity of meat and a generously thick homemade pappardelle, I had found no chore in eating every last mouthful.
I will certainly look to incorporate these experiences in future ragùs. Just don’t be too surprised to see a return to ragùs that allow one meat to stand out!
- 1 onion
- 2 carrots
- 2 ribs celery
- 500g pork shoulder
- 1.2kg short rib
- 100g plain white flour for dusting
- 60g butter
- 250ml beef or pork stock
- 500ml red wine
- 60ml red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 bay leaves
- 6 sprigs of thyme
- 400g tin of plum tomatoes
- 4 tablespoons creme fraische
- 1 tablespoon of peppercorns for dusting
- 320g homemade fresh pappardelle (rolled to the ‘4’ setting on a pasta machine)
- 3 litres boiling water
- 30g salt
- Slice the onions, carrots and celery into small chunks. We’re making a fairly robust and chunky ragù so there’s no need to aim for very finely sliced soffritto. Set aside.
- Place the flour in a large bowl and mix over the beef ribs until well covered.
- Add 25g of the butter to a large casserole and heat over a high flame. Once the butter is foaming, add the beef rib and allow to cook until the flour is browned all over. Do this in batches if your casserole is too small - everything should be on a single layer. Once browned, transfer the ribs to a bowl
- Place the pork in the bowl containing the flour and mix to cover on all sides.
- Keep the heat on the casserole and add a further 10g of butter. Once the butter starts to foam add the pork and cook on all sides until brown. Transfer to the same bowl as the browned ribs.
- Reduce the heat under the casserole and add the final 25g of butter until it starts to foam. At this point there is likely to be browned flour stuck to the bottom of the casserole. Scrape the brown bits into the butter and around the casserole with a wooden spatula.
- Add the soffritto ingredients and cook for 15 minutes.
- Add the stock, thyme and bay leaves and stir to incorporate.
- Add the wine, tinned tomatoes and tomato puree, stirring well.
- Transfer the casserole to an oven pre-heated to 160 degrees with the lid off. The ragù will be very loose and so we want to lose a lot of the moisture in the over, but you may want to place the lid back on the casserole at some point during the cooking, depending on the consistency you’re aiming for.
- Cook in the oven for two hours, stirring every so often.
- Remove the casserole from the oven and fish out the meat using a slotted spoon. Break down the pork and mash with a pair of forks. Prise the meat from the beef ribs and discard the bones. Remove any of the larger gristly parts of the rib meat with a fork and return all the meat back to the casserole.
- Cook for a further 30 minutes. If you want to remove more moisture, boil the casserole on the hob with the lid off. If you are happy with the consistency, return to the oven with the casserole lid on.
- Stir in four tablespoons of creme fraische and keep on a very low heat as you prepare your pasta.
- Drop the pappardelle in the salted boiling water. If using fresh pasta, cook for 2-4 minutes or until al dente.
- Drain the pasta in a colander until most of the moisture has been lost, return to the pasta pan.
- Using a spice grinder, grind the tablespoon of pepper to a fine powder and transfer to a small pot.
- Add a ladle-full of ragù per portion of pappardelle to the pasta pan. Stir well.
- Serve up the pasta. The ragù meat will be thick and the pasta will not combine well, so ladle leftover meat and sauce on top of the pasta in each serving bowl.
- Carefully transfer the ground pepper to a fine chinois and sprinkle over each bowl from about 60cms away, to your liking.