The perfect ragù
After all the research, writing, cooking and tasting I had done to better understand Italy’s favourite export, I decided I wanted to add my own chapter to the bolognese story.
It’s a risky decision to make. I’ve seen too many others make interesting tweaks to a bolognese, only to be shot down by narrow minded “traditionalists”, usually on dubious grounds of authenticity. For this reason, I decided to call my ragù:
It is authentic because I say it is.
This dish is an epic cook and certainly not for the fainthearted! The ragù takes several days to assemble but I thoroughly recommend giving some real thought to your perfect ragù and trying to build it with all the craft and equipment available to you. I hope this dish will inspire you to add your own chapters to the bolognese story.
The full details and analysis can be followed through the bolognese story. Here I will explain the highlights.
Leaning on luminaries
Several world-renowned chefs have unknowingly contributed to this recipe. Two of the more influential are Heston Blumenthal, with his Spaghetti Bolognese from the series “In Search of Perfection” and Massimo Bottura, with his Tagliatelle al Ragù from the book “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef”.
When you look at the recipes from these top chefs it becomes apparent that you are actually creating two dishes - a rich meaty stew for the base and a tart tomato compote for balance.
The difference with my approach is that I wanted both components to be able to stand alone. The rich meaty stew closer to the ragùs I would prepare today and the tart tomato compote closer to the bologneses I grew up with.
For my meat base I side heavily with the cow. The personal preference became apparent as I prepared the pork rich spaghetti bolognesi. I also wanted to preserve the flavours of the fabulous cartella di manzo learned through the official ragù alla bolognese.
One of the only constants through the centuries of bolognese recipes is pancetta and this fantastic ingredient also makes the cut.
One of my most important learnings from the bolognese story is that moisture is the enemy of a good ragù! A good ragù will be rich with meat and fat with very little in between. This is an easy position to take with the meaty base, using stewing cuts of oxtail, ox cheek and beef shin, with the addition of pork lardo for increased silkiness.
For the tomato compote this is a little harder to achieve so I opt for the addition of rapeseed oil which is almost flavourless but nicely gets us closer to the salad dressing taste of oil + acid.
There’s a few advanced kitchen techniques required to get the final finish. The sous vide water bath comes into play to ensure the meats are broken down to perfection without giving up too much moisture.
I also give the flesh of fresh tomatoes an afternoon in a dehydrator to get the ideal texture to my tomato chunks.
These steps can be swapped out for more traditional cooking techniques if required!
Throughout the centuries, Italians have remained adamant that herbs have no place in a ragù. My “ragù all’inglese” throws this preposterous position on its head! The dish is loaded with herbs - rosemary, thyme and bay leaves form a solid base with basil and coriander topping the final pasta mountain.
It is also important the dish carries a spicy kick! My spice mix is a combination of Kashmiri chilli, sweet smoked paprika, cayenne and the explosive ghost chilli pepper. It certainly packs a punch!
The final dish is my own taste of heaven. Perfectly balanced between the meat base and tomato compote. Deeply meaty and tart. Herby and spicy hot. Lacking any moisture but not being dry. The reassuring bite of al dente spaghetti.
The combination really is the food of the gods!
Click here now to read the full The Bolognese Story!
Can be refrigerated or frozen.
Pork brodo (for 500ml condensed brodo)
- 1.35kg pork rack of loin ribs
- 250g celery (equivalent to 3 full stalks)
- 400g onion (equivalent to 2 large)
- 350g carrots (equivalent to 3 large carrots)
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2.5 litres water
Meat base (for about 2.2kg)
- 1.1kg oxtail (equivalent to 8 medium to large sections)
- 850g ox cheek (equivalent to 2 cheeks)
- 750g rolled beef shin, bone removed
- 750g beef bone marrow (6 rounds)
- 350g reserved condensed pork brodo
- 250g Italian lardo
- 390g celery (6 full stalks)
- 550g onion (3 large)
- 650g carrots (6 large)
- 3 tablespoons rapeseed oil
- 500ml Mud House sauvignon blanc white wine (or wine with equivalent acidity)
- 10 bay leaves
- 3 sprigs rosemary
- 200g beef harami (aka cartello di manzo, aka outside skirt)
- 250ml Fuller’s London porter
- 1 teaspoon Marmite
- 1 teaspoon dried Cornish dulse seaweed flakes
- 1 teaspoon demerara brown sugar (+more to sprinkle)
- 1 teaspoon salt
Dehydrated chopped tomatoes
- 1.8kg Sainsbury Jubilee tomatoes (equivalent to 4 packs)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 2 stalks thyme
- Olive oil (enough to cover the tomatoes as a preservative)
- Flesh from 900g dehydrated tomatoes
- 300ml dehydrated tomato juice
- 150g pancetta
- 75g unsalted butter
- 120g onion (1 small)
- 2 anchovy fillets
- ¼ teaspoon citric acid
- 200g reserved marinated harami
- 200ml rapeseed oil
- 1 dried Bhut Jolokia (Ghost chilli pepper)
- 1 dried Kashmiri chilli
- ½ teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon cayenne chilli pepper
Assembly (per portion)
- 120g good quality dried spaghetti
- 135g reserved meat base
- 135g tomato compote
- 30g parmesan
- 4 basil leaves
- 8 coriander leaves
- ⅛ teaspoon spice mix
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and roast the pork ribs in a roasting tin or ceramic dish for 30-40 minutes until browned.
- Meanwhile, create a soffritto by roughly slicing the onions, carrots and celery.
- Once the pork is cooked, transfer to a pressure cooker1 with the soffitto and 3 garlic cloves.
- Deglaze the roasting tin with a little boiling water, scraping away any pork and adding to the pressure cooker.
- Fill the pressure cooker with water until the combined mix makes up 2.5 litres.
- Pressure cook the ingredients on a high heat for 1 hour.
- Allow the brodo to cool then pass through a colander to remove the pork bones and soffritto.
- Transfer to a large pan and cook on a medium heat until the brodo has reduced2 to a rich stock of about 500ml.
- Pour into a bowl and allow to cool before transferring to the fridge. Leave in the fridge for 12 hours allowing the pork fats to rise to the top. Scrape off the fat and reserve3.
- Finely slice the onions, carrots and celery, following up each separately with a mezzaluna for very small finish.
- Start cooking your carrots in one tablespoon of oil in a pan on a medium-low heat, until the carrots become a deep orange and moisture is reduced. Stir regularly. This could take up to an hour1. Set the cooked carrots aside.
- Lower the heat and add the onions and celery to the pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Cook until the onion is browned, and the celery is starting to look shrivelled. Stir regularly2. This could take 30 minutes.
- Add the white wine to the pan and deglaze any remaining soffritto. Reduce the wine over a medium heat until about 200ml remains.
- Slice the beef shin into 5cm steaks and fry over a high heat until brown on both sides. Set aside.
- In the same pan, fry the ox tail sections until brown on all sides. Set aside.
- Place 4 of the bone marrow rounds into a bowl and pour in enough boiling water to cover. Blanch for 30 seconds, then remove the marrow and dry with sheets of kitchen paper. When the marrow has cooled force the flesh out of the bone and into a bowl with a knife.
- Finely slice ⅔ of the lardo and melt in a pan over a low heat. Set aside.
- Weigh out ⅔ of the brodo, ⅔ of the soffritto, ⅔ of the reduced wine, the melted lardo and the bone marrow3 and place into a small pan on a low heat.
- Divide the sauce between equal parts beef shin and oxtail. Fill as many sous vide bags4 as needed with the combined mix adding 7 of the bay leaves and 2 sprigs of rosemary.
- Heat the water bath to 74 degrees and submerge each of the sous vide bags. Leave for 24 hours.
- Remove the meat and sauce mixture from the bag and separate the meat. Pour the sauce into a pan and cook over a medium heat until all moisture has evaporated and all that remains is fat and bulk from the soffitto.
- In the meantime, separate the oxtail from the bone using a serrated knife and finely slice with a sharp knife5.
- Finely slice the beef shin and continue to slice to a similar consistency as your oxtail. No piece should feel “stringy” on the palate, so keep cutting until you have a texture that does not need chewing.
- Combine the meat and the sauce in a bowl and cover in the fridge.
- Fry the beef cheek over a high heat until brown on both sides. Remove from the heat and combine with the remaining ⅓ of soffritto, blanched bone marrow, reduced wine, melted lardo, brodo, bay leaves and rosemary.
- Transfer the meat and sauce mix to sous vide bags and place in a preheated 69 degree water bath for 24 hours.
- Remove the meat and sauce mixture from the bag and separate the meat. Once more, pour the sauce into a pan and cook over a medium heat until all the moisture has evaporated and all that remains is fat and bulk from the soffritto.
- Finely slice the beef cheek into small pieces as with the previous meats6.
- Combine the meat and sauce mix in a bowl and refrigerate until needed.
- Combine the porter, marmite, dulse and brown sugar in a pan and bring to a light simmer before turning off the heat and stirring to ensure the ingredients are well dispersed. Allow the contents of the pan to cool to room temperature.
- Add the marinade to a sous vide bag with the harami and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
- Place half the tomatoes in a bowl and cover with boiling water, making sure to reserve the stalks. After 30 seconds, transfer the tomatoes to a bowl of iced water. Once cooled, drain.
- Score the tomatoes with the butt of a knife then peel away and discard the skins.
- With each tomato, scoop out the pips and membrane and place in a separate bowl and place the tomato flesh on the plastic layers of a dehydrator1.
- Dehydrate tomatoes at 60 degrees until the tomatoes are a deep red, but stop short of turning them into “sundried” tomato dryness. This could take 6-12 hours depending on how ripe the tomatoes were.
- While the tomatoes are dehydrating, transfer the pips and membrane to a pressure cooker.
- Place the remaining half of the tomatoes in a bowl and cover with boiling water, making sure to reserve the stalks. After 30 seconds, transfer the tomatoes to a bowl of iced water. Once cooled, drain.
- Once again, score the tomatoes with the butt of a knife then peel away and discard the skins.
- Slice the tomatoes into eighths and add to the pressure cooker with the garlic and herbs. Cook on a high heat for 30 minutes.
- Pour the contents of the pressure cooker into a fine chinois, remove the herbs and force the tomato sauce through into a bowl with the back of a spoon until all that remains is the pips2.
- Allow the tomato sauce to cool and transfer to a freezer bag with the reserved tomato stalks and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
- Once the first set of tomato flesh has dehydrated transfer to a jar and cover completely with olive oil to preserve.
- Prepare the panceta by slicing into lardons, then mincing with a mezzaluna. Set aside.
- Finely slice the onion then mince with a mezzaluna. Add to a pan and cook on a low heat with 1 tablespoon rapeseed oil until translucent and starting to brown.
- Add the pancetta and slowly increase the heat as the fat renders. Once the panceta is starting to crisp remove the tomato juice from the fridge, discard the stalks and add to the pan.
- Add the butter and rapeseed oil and allow to reduce on a low heat3.
- As the tomato sauce slowly boils away, finely slice the anchovy fillets and add to the mix, ensuring they disintegrate and disperse amongst the liquid.
- Sprinkle in the citric acid and allow to slowly reduce until the oil on top covers a very thick paste, about the same consistency as thick soup. This could take an hour.
- While the sauce is reducing, remove the marinated harami from the fridge and place it in a preheated 54 degree sous vide water bath for two hours.
- Discard the marinade and lay the harami on a cake rack above an old baking tray. Sprinkle with a little demerara sugar and blast with a welder’s blowtorch4 until each of the harami pieces starts to char. Transfer to a chopping board and finely slice.
- Transfer the harami to the tomato sauce and bring to a very low heat5.
- Drain the dehydrated tomato6 from the oil and gently stir into the tomato compote.
- Place the Bhut Jolokia and Kashmiri chilli into a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder.
- Transfer to a small bowl and add the sweet smoked paprika and cayenne pepper. Set aside.
- Have a stock pot1 of boiling water ready for the spaghetti.
- Grate the parmesan and finely chop the basil and coriander, reserving each element in their own dishes.
- For each serving, bring a portion of meat base and tomato compote to heat, being sure not to allow either to boil. Combine the meat base and compote2.
- Cook the spaghetti for 9 minutes, or until al dente.
- Drain the spaghetti in a colander and ensure as much moisture has been removed from the spaghetti and colander as possible. Return to the pan.
- Sprinkle the parmesan and spice mix into the spaghetti and combine well before adding all coriander and half the basil. Continue to stir.
- Once incorporated, spoon over the meat base and compote mix and stir vigorously until well combined.
- Serve into bowls using tongs and a ladle to shape the spaghetti into a nest. Cover with any remaining ragù.
- Sprinkle with the remaining basil and serve3.
- You can make this brodo without using a pressure cooker but it will take a lot longer.
- Moisture is the enemy of a good ragù! The more of it you get rid of at this stage, the less you will need to reduce in later steps.
- The pork dripping is not used in this recipe - we will later count on the more refined tastes from lardo. However, the pork dripping will add a roasted pork flavour to other dishes.
- This is likely to be the longest you’ve ever fried carrots and is probably the most nurturing the dish needs. Stick with it!
- The onions and celery are harder to manage and patches are likely to slightly caramelise and overcook. Stir as regularly as you can and manage the heat carefully.
- The bone marrow may need to be squashed to disperse.
- I’m using freezer bags rather than vacuum packing, which I find a more sensible approach to saucey mixes as you can guarantee there will be no air in the bag and can easily monitor the progress of your meat by opening the bags and closing when you’ve had a look.
- At 74 degrees it should be relatively easy to tease the meat away from the bone but I still prefer to use a steak knife as it can slice stubborn pieces with a low risk of cutting yourself.
- The ox cheek will come out on the firmer side compared with the other meats so it is more important that these are sliced into finer pieces for the overall finish of the dish.
- You can do this without a dehydrator but it is harder to get right. Preheat an oven to 200 degrees, turn the heat off and place the tomatoes on a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Keep the tomatoes in the oven as it cools and leave for 20-30 minutes. You may need to do this a couple of times.
- The garlic will also press through the chinois after being pressure cooked. Be sure to scrape the tomato flesh off the outside of the chinois as it collects.
- Condensed tomato is sweet and will caramelise pretty easily. Low and slow is the best way to reduce the tomato.
- You may be able to achieve the same effect with a creme brulee torch but it is likely to take a long time.
- You want to maintain the same contrast between crispy outside and soft outside, so be careful not to overheat or over stir this mix.
- You can reserve this tomato oil, it makes for a great salad dressing.
- Sticking to the 10:100:1000 rule, depending on how many servings you are preparing you may not need such a large pan.
- Feel free to mix this up. If you want a more meaty or more tomatoey ragù, play with the ratios.
- Congratulations for making it this far! Enjoy your meal.