If you are looking for what can officially be called the original and authentic bolognese recipe your expectations may be too high. What we consider “authentic”, “original” and “official” are often conflated to mean the same thing, when in fact, they can each tell their own story.
No globally recognised dish creates greater confusion in this regard than ragù alla bolognese. As you will understand through the Bolognese Story, Italians are fiercely protective over the “right” way to prepare their cuisine. They will treat recipe ingredients and preparation as sacrosanct - unchanging, eternal and not to be inteferred with.
The truth, however, is that ragù alla bolognese has been subject to evolution, outside influence and modernisation since its early inception - just like with any other dish on the planet.
Rather than encourage this natural evolution, one notable attempt has been made to lock down the recipe of this Bolognan favourite for good. L’Accademia Italiana Della Cucina (or The Italian Academy of Cuisine) is the national institute responsible for safeguarding the country’s culinary heritage through their official cookbook. In 1982 l’Accademia finally initiated ragù alla bolognese into their hall of fame.
The recipe wasn’t the instant hit you might expect - through the centuries of evolution of the many variations of our favourite dish, no one within the boundaries of Bologna could agree on what flavours should be delivered. Despite this resistance l’Accademia stood firm and their dish was anointed at the highest levels of the Italian establishment.
There’s no doubt that l’Accdemia’s ragu is the closest thing we have to an “official” version of ragù alla bolognese. “Authentic” is a harder one to argue, as even the inclusion of tomatoes has, until more recently, been considered somewhat controversial. One thing this ragù is not is “original”. The Cardinal’s Ragù probably carries this mantle.
Successfully recreating an officially recognised and recorded dish sounds like it should be a formality. However, after immersing myself in a warm bath of bolognese (metaphorically at least), I decided the internet could not offer a single satisfactory English language translation of this dish that captures all the subtleties required to recreate exactly what l’Accademia had in mind.
The full analysis is available through the Bolognese Story. In this recipe lead-in I will provide the highlights.
I make no apologies for building this dish from hard-to-find ingredients. If you want a taste of the “official” version of this famous dish, you’re going to have to work a little harder to attain it!
The two meat components are really what makes ragù alla bolognese such a success. First in the pan is pancetta, the Italian salt-cured and dried pork. Don’t confuse pancetta with the northern European or American bacon equivalents. It has a very distinct taste and texture. The fat is soft and almost buttery and is prepared to have a peppery finish.
If you’re able to successfully import the real thing you still have work to do. The official recipe for ragù alla bolognese requires the pancetta to be minced with a mezzaluna. It is an important step and results in a fat that renders perfectly with tiny crunch crumbs of bacony flavour dispersed through our sauce.
The hidden star of the dish, however, is the beef. The official ragù alla bolognese calls for “cartella”, and although this could be interpreted in a couple of ways, the request is for us to use a cut of beef which is seldom seen on the plates of English-speaking carnivores.
Cartella di Manzo is equivalent to outside or thin skirt and is a cut most British butchers will have a hard time describing. It is from a similar area of the cow as bavette or onglet but is neither of these. The taste is intensely beefy and almost gamey. It has the taste of beef fat without being too fatty.
Finding cartella di manzo is hard work but Japanese beef specialists are your best bet. In Japan this cut is called Harami and is a well-respected meat for use with the yakiniku barbecue.
It is worth going the extra mile to find this meat. It adds the country rustic flavour that I now associate with ragù alla bolognese.
Mix together chopped carrots, onions and celery and you have an Italian battuto. Slowly cooking this mix in olive oil or butter gives you a soffritto. All very simple and straightforward by the sounds of things but there is a twist to this story.
The official ragù alla bolognese recipe demands we use the hard-to-find yellow variety of carrot. The distinction will make no difference to the final taste but does change the appearance (the tiniest bit). If you’re dogmatic about making this recipe “right” you’re going to have to go searching for the unicorn of root vegetables.
Be sure to use butter over olive oil. Bolognan cuisine has a long heritage of French influence and butter has a longer association with the region than olive oil.
The sugo (or sauce) is built with passata, red wine, brodo (or stock) and finally milk.
The final inclusion of milk is one this is rarely found in English language recipes of a bolognese. The justification is that the milk tempers the acidity of the tomatoes, although there’s really not much of a tomatoey taste going on in ragù alla bolognese.
One thing the milk provides is moisture. After you’ve had this sauce on a low bubble for 2 hours you’re left with meat & fat but not much else in between.
It is worth sampling the ragù prior to the addition of milk. Make a decision about whether you prefer the dry and oily “salad dressing” style of ragù, or would lean towards the saucier finish the milk adds. The comparison is likely to influence all subsequent attempts you make at a bolognese.
If you want to seriously antagonise the Bolognans, your best approach would be to go to all the effort of preparing ragù alla bolognese, then pour it over spaghetti. This is the ultimate travesty in the eyes of many in northern Italy.
The official way to serve ragù alla bolognese is over tagliatelle (although the rebels amongst you may want to skip ahead to the very unofficial but equally valid spaghetti bolognesi recipe).
To be faithful to l’Accademia’s recipe it should be made with fresh egg pasta dough. Once cooked, combine the sauce and pasta before serving.
Tagliatelle al Ragù alla Bolognese is a wonderful dish. Hats off to l’Accademia - a job well done!
It is, however, somewhat different to the Italian flavour I thought I understood. The rich meat and buttery sauce, lack of herbs and modest tomato content leads to a taste to you may find more French than Italian.
I highly recommend faithfully recreating this version of the dish at least once in your life. It will enrich the experience of preparing all future bologneses in your life!
Click here now to read the full The Bolognese Story!
The ragù can be refrigerated or frozen, the pasta can be stored in a cool place for a couple of days or refrigerated or frozen as pasta dough. You will end up with a lot of leftover brodo, which can be frozen and kept for months.
- 2 racks of pork loin ribs
- 2 beef bones (cut lengthways)
- 2 beef short ribs
- 1 small chicken, butchered (we will be jointing this to get the leg and carcass, feel free to use pre-cut chicken portions)
- 2 large carrots
- 1 onion
- 2 stalks of celery
- Enough water to fully submerge the non-floating ingredients
- 1 nutmeg seed, grated
- ½ to 1½ tablespoon salt
Ragù (serves 4)
- 300g harami (cartella di manzo or outside or thin skirt)
- 150g pancetta
- 50g butter
- 50g yellow carrot
- 50g celery stalks
- 50g onion
- 300g Cirio passata
- 125ml (½ large wine glass) Di Cavallo Sangiovese Rubicone 2018 red wine
- 250ml (1 large wine glass) whole milk
- 50-125ml reserved brodo
Tagliatelle (serves 4)
- 4 medium eggs
- 400g ‘tipo 00’ white flour (+ extra for dusting)
- Pinch of salt
Assembly (serves 4)
- 100g Waitrose No.1 30 month Parmigiano Reggiano (or equivalently aged)
- Joint the chicken into a double breast, 2 portions of leg & thigh, wings and a carcass1. Put one of the leg & thighs, the double chicken breast and the wings back in the fridge2 and transfer the carcass and remaining leg & thigh to a stock pan.
- Add the beef bones, pork loin ribs and beef short ribs to the stock pan
- Peel the outside of an onion and smash what remains with a rolling pin, halve the carrots and celery stalks and add this soffritto to the stock pan
- Fill the stock pan with enough water to submerge the meat, leaving a couple of inches space at the top3.
- Grate the nutmeg into the mix4.
- Bring the pan to heat gradually and when it starts to boil reduce the heat so that it settles to a bubble5. Cook for at least 4 hours.
- Remove the stock from the heat. Pick the larger solids out of the pot with tongs and discard. Pour the stock into another large pan6, straining through a sieve7 to remove the remaining solids.
- Bring the new pot of brodo to a light boil and reduce by about a half, this will take a couple of hours.
- Season with salt, being careful to add the salt in increments of ½ tablespoon, tasting each time8.
- Allow the brodo to cool. When it is at room temperature, transfer to the fridge for a couple of hours.
- Once the brodo is reduced to fridge temperature the meat fat will have settled on top of the congealed broth. Scrape most of this off, leaving a little behind.
- Create a flour crater on a large wooden chopping board, or clean kitchen surface. Crack 4 eggs into the crater and whisk with a fork and add a pinch of salt.
- Once the egg mix begins to stiffen up, start kneading the dough with your hands1, pushing the dough ball into all the flour so that it is eventually part of the dough ball.
- After 5-10 minutes of kneading, wrap the dough ball in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge.
- Roll the ball into a single rectangular sheet with a rolling pin2.
- Pass the sheet through the pasta machine on the ‘0’ setting3, then pass the sheet through once more on the ‘1’ setting. Fold the dough in half lengthways and pass the dough back through the machine on the ‘0’ setting from the folded end. Repeat this 3 or 4 times4.
- Go through each of the settings of the pasta machine, from ‘0’ to ‘7’. The dough will lengthen each time and you may need to slice it in half to make it more manageable5.
- Cut the sheets into 30cm long sections and loosely fold these into 5cm folds. Cut the folds widthways at 7mm intervals6. Once a section has been cut unravel the pasta and lightly dust with flour to prevent it sticking to itself as it dries7.
- Store in a cool dry place. The tagliatelle can be used immediately, but I like to leave it overnight so I get a firmer pasta for my sauce.
- Remove the harami from the packaging, being sure to preserve the juices1. Cut the meat into small squares using a sharp knife, transferring to a bowl. Once all the harami is finely sliced, mince with the mezzaluna in batches2 and set aside.
- Slice the pancetta into lardons3, then cut across the lardons for a smaller cube. In batches, mince the pancetta with the mezzaluna4 and set aside.
- Finely chop the onion, yellow5 carrot and celery stalks and set aside.
- Using a medium pan, fry the minced pancetta on a medium-low heat, stirring regularly. The pancetta should cook to a slightly crunchy texture at which point the rendered oil will begin to slowly bubble. This should take about 10 minutes.
- Add the soffritto mix to the pan, along with the 50g’s of butter6. Cook for at least 10 minutes, the soffritto should slowly poach in the fats.
- Add the minced harami and reserved meat juices7. Brown the meat and reduce the liquid for 10 minutes8.
- Pour in the wine and reduce this further for another 10 minutes9.
- Add the passata and cover the pan. Cook for 2 hours, adding stock as required10.
- Remove the ragù from the heat and stir in the milk11.
- Fill a large pan with at least 2 litres of boiling water. Add the tagliatelle and cook for 60-120 seconds (depending on how dry the pasta is), until al dente.
- Pour the boiling water and tagliatelle into a colander and drain the water, tip back into the large pan you used for the tagliatelle. Transfer the pan of ragù into the large pot and mix well.
- Twist the tagliatelle into a ladle with a large carving fork and serve into 4 equal portions. Any left over ragù should be ladled back onto each portion.
- Sprinkle each serving with a generous pinch of parmesan1.
- If you’ve never jointed a chicken before, I’d recommend this video. Your first attempt might be a mess, but for a brodo it will be just fine (as long as you don’t cut yourself). If you’d prefer to skip this step some supermarkets offer the full thigh and leg already cut and you could use two of these instead of the carcass (Sainsbury for example).
- Don’t waste this, obviously.
- This is going to require a large pan, mine is 5 litres.
- I initially used half a nutmeg, but this made absolutely no difference to the final stock so I’m doubling the quantities in the hope it will leave something behind. It may be advisable to add the nutmeg after the solids have been discarded.
- Getting to heat will take a while, we are aiming to heat the mix to a bubble but not a boil. Once you get to the right temperature the brodo can be left for hours but does take a little tinkering to first heat then simmer the pot.
- I am lucky enough to have 2 large pots, the smaller of the two is 3.5 litres. If you don’t you can juggle the stock in bowls and recycle your first pot.
- I place my sieve inside a colander so that I don’t have to hold the sieve.
- I didn’t follow my own advice here and poured in 2 tablespoons of salt before reducing the brodo. After reduction this ended to be perfect - just at the upper end of salination for the quantity of stock I had produced. This was more luck than judgement and I would recommend adding the salt with more care.
- Make sure your hands are well floured so the dough doesn’t stick to them. There’s no particular method required for kneading, just that the dough gets a lot of work.
- It is more important to have a perfect rectangle with variable thickness than a flat rectangle with rough edges, so fold the edges over on themselves to ensure a perfect (but lumpy) rectangle.
- You can ensure a smooth roll by cranking with one hand and guiding the dough to go through straight with the other hand.
- This may seem pointless but will make the pasta sheets smoother and more uniform.
- The better you get at this, the more likely you are to be working with metres of pasta sheets without the need to cut it down to size.
- I made a combination of tagliatelle and pappardelle, as mentioned in the tasting notes, I think pappardelle is a better shape for the ragù. Pappardelle should be 2-3 cm wide.
- I have a small bowl of flour on the side and drop the tagliatelle bundle into the bowl working flour into the strands. Shake off any excess, you don’t want it to be over-floured.
- There’s a lot of blood in the pack of harami I bought, I was left with half a cup.
- Harami is thin and quite soft, which makes mincing with a mezzaluna very straightforward. In the end, it probably won’t make a huge difference as the meat will melt away in the final mix, but I would still follow this step to be sure you have the right consistency of sauce at the end of cooking.
- Contrary to the expectation I set in the main article, I had no struggle working with the pancetta - it sliced without any effort, straight from the fridge. Another of the properties which confirms that Italian pancetta ≠ UK bacon.
- This is an important step, I’ve eaten pancetta in lardons and minced and they result in a completely different finish. The fat from minced pancetta renders completely and leaves a slightly crunchy bacon with a sand-like texture.
- There is absolutely no need to buy yellow carrots, orange carrots are just fine.
- In the end I didn’t need to transfer this to a smaller pan, the mix was well submerged in oil in my medium pan.
- Savour this smell, it is a buttery, rich meat smell and is exceptional.
- L’Accademia’s recipe instructs us to brown until the meat “sizzles”. This didn’t happen for me. The harami has a lot of moisture to give up and the added meat juices left me with a very wet consistency. The dry meat effect you are used to seeing with store bought mince isn’t going to happen with this cut.
- Again, the meat continues to release moisture. I give the mix 10 minutes and will reduce further as a long game.
- At no point did I feel that the sauce needed the brodo to prevent it drying out. You will end up with a sauce which is luxuriously oily, so the addition of brodo should be done for taste and seasoning. I used about 50ml in the end.
- I actually reserved half the ragù without the milk in order to compare the tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese to a pappardelle al ragù alla romagnola.
- Seriously though, don’t hold back on my account. Parmesan is magic fairy dust!