An Authentic Bolognese Sauce is luxurious, deeply flavorful and something everyone should try at least once in their life! Made from humble ingredients, this traditional Italian meat sauce is completely different from the tomato heavy sauce we think of as Bolognese!
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The “Best” Bolognese Sauce
This recipe is, hands down, the BEST Bolognese sauce… and I don’t say that lightly. Although I grew up with America’s version of this Homemade Meat Sauce (my mothers is still a family favorite) I hadn’t had a true Italian Bolognese sauce until I went to Italy. It was, to put it mildly, a complete game changer!
When most of us think of Bolognese sauce we think of ground beef in a thick tomato sauce. But a classic Bolognese sauce bears no relationship to America’s version. It’s subtle and surprisingly light.
I became a little obsessed with this sauce during my travels in Italy and tried various versions in a number of trattorias.
However, I learned the true “secret” to this classic sauce from a group of Italian “Nonna’s” who set me straight on what makes an authentic bolognese sauce (and what doesn’t!) – time and ingredients!
What is Bolognese sauce?
A traditional Bolognese sauce is an Italian pasta sauce made with meat – generally beef but it can be a mix of beef, pork and veal and flavored with carrots, celery onion, and white wine. Italian meat sauces are known as ragus and almost every region of Italy has its own version of this sauce.
So, all meat sauces are ragus…. but not all ragus are Bolognese sauce!
What’s the difference between Bolognese and meat sauce?
What makes Bolognese, (named for the city of Bologna) different from other Italian meat sauces, is that the main sauce ingredient isn’t tomatoes! Although a small amount of tomato is included, the sauce is flavored with both milk and wine. And it doesn’t include herbs or garlic!
Bolognese sauce ingredients:
As I mentioned, this sauce is “all” about the ingredients! But let’s be clear – this sauce isn’t made with Italian sausage, garlic, stock, tomato paste or herbs. so here are the only things you’ll need:
- Ground beef – ground beef or ground chuck is the best choice. You need ground meat with at least 20% fat for this sauce.
- Ground Pork – Pork adds a wonderful flavor to the sauce but you can make it with all beef OR substitute the same amount of ground veal.
- Canned Tomatoes – whole tomatoes are the best choice and authentic San Marzano tomatoes are the clear winner here- and what I recommend. Fortunately, lots of grocery stores are now selling Italian canned tomatoes. I get mine from a small Italian market and they are actually cheaper than the ones I buy in the grocery store. If you can’t find them, Muir Glen Organic tomatoes are a good substitute.
- Whole milk – I know milk is a strange ingredient to see in a pasta sauce, but the milk proteins help tenderize the meat and add a silky texture to the sauce.
- Dry white wine – A medium-priced Pinot Grigio is what I usually use, but Sauvignon Blanc works as well. You don’t need an expensive bottle of wine, but it should be one you would enjoy drinking.
- Salt and pepper
- Nutmeg – you only need a small amount so ground nutmeg works fine. However, if you’ve never tried freshly grated nutmeg you definitely should give it a try!
- Olive oil
- Unsalted butter
How to make Bolognese Sauce
Homemade Bolognese sauce isn’t hard but it will take time! Although there are many recipes that say you can make this in 30 minutes or use an Instapot or a slow cooker – you simply can’t.
Or rather, you can, but you can’t get the same flavor and texture – and it is that flavor and texture that makes this sauce truly special.
- Sweat the vegetables. Sweating draws out the moisture and mellows the onion flavor.
- Add the meat and cook until the meat is browned. Like the onions, you don’t want to caramelize the meat.
- Add the milk and simmer. Adding milk not only adds richness, but the proteins in milk help to tenderize the meat. While it’s really tempting to turn up the heat to reduce the milk, don’t! You want a nice lazy simmer… and yes, this will take time! Stir the mixture frequently to keep the milk from sticking to the bottom of the pan. It will separate and not look very appealing, but that’s how it is supposed to look!
- Add the wine and simmer some more. Wine enhances flavor – alcohol acts as an amplifier of flavor and also adds a bit of acid which helps to balance out the other flavors in a recipe.
- Simmer – LOW AND SLOW is the name of the game and essential for making the best bolognese sauce.
The best pasta to serve with Classic Bolognese Sauce
Shape matters! Although all pasta is made from virtually the same ingredients, what makes them different is their shapes. For this Italian meat sauce, you want a pasta that the sauce will cling to.
Tagliatelle is the traditional pasta served with beef bolognese sauce. But if you can’t find it, here are some other choices that are more widely available.
- Reginelle – this is the pasta I used. It’s similar to tagliatelle but with a ruffled edge.
- Rigatoni – the ridges on these pasta tubes really help to hold the sauce!
- Fusilli – the curly nature of this shape is also really good at holding the sauce.
Want more Italian Recipes? Don’t miss these!
- Pork Ragu – succulent pork ragu over polenta will have you swooning!
- Chicken Contadina – a simple one-pan supper with tomatoes, veggies and fresh herbs
- Chicken Scarpariello – this Italian American one-pan supper combines chicken, sausage and peppers!
- Parmesan Risotto – made in the Instant Pot, you may never make it on the stove again!
- Fettuccine Alfredo – the ultimate, creamy Italian classic!
If you enjoyed this recipe, I would LOVE for you to give it a 5-star rating! Cheers! Nancy
Authentic Bolognese Sauce
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ½ cup unsalted butter divided
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 ⅓ cups chopped celery
- 1 ⅓ cups chopped carrots
- 1 lb ground beef with at least 20% fat
- ½ lb ground pork
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaaspoon black pepper
- 2 cups milk whole
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 3 cups whole, canned tomatoes cut up
- 3 lbs. pasta
- freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- In a large dutch oven or soup pot, add the olive oil, 6 Tablespoons of butter and the onions.
- Heat over medium heat and cook the onions until they are translucent. Do not brown the onions. If the onions start to brown a bit around the edges, reduce the heat.
- Add the carrots and celery and cook for a couple of minutes.
- Add the beef and pork. Season with salt and pepper.
- Cook until the beef and pork are no longer pink, crumbling the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula.
- Add the milk and let simmer until the milk has evaporated, stirring frequently for about 30 minutes.
- Add the nutmeg and stir.
- Add the wine, stir and simmer until the wine evaporates, about 30 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes and their juices and stir to combine., Increase the heat until the mixture begins to bubble. Turn the heat to low, simmer (i.e. a bubble only breaks the surface every so often).
- Cook, uncovered for approximately 3 hours, stirring occasionally.
- If the sauce begins to dry out, add about ½ cup of water and stir, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan.
- Cook and drain the pasta and toss with the sauce and the remaining butter.
- Divide between low bowls and top with grated parmesan if desired.