I’ve been going Bolognese crazy this past month. It started when I was at a christening and my friend had alluded that her friend who also lived in the same suburb as I was a bolognese expert. Immediately I challenge her to a bolognese cook off.
Spaghetti bolognese is claimed to be the most widely cooked dish in the world. Just Google “spaghetti bolognese recipes” and a million recipe variations will pop up claiming to be the best. Even the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (Italian Academy of Cuisine) came up with an ‘official’ recipe in 1982.
I don’t claim to be the world’s best cook but in my opinion, everybody should have a couple of dishes as their “go to” dish, and bolognese should be one of them. And what I mean is not something that can be created in 5 seconds by heating up a jar of sauce laden with preservatives and chemicals. A great bolognese takes time and and injection of itme and looooove.
Since moving to the big smoke, I’ve cooked countless bologneses and have never been able to stick to the one recipe, choosing to adapted it over time and to suit whatever mood that I’m in or who I am cooking for. I even went through a phase of including lettuce experimenting with boosting the texture levels. Bolognese for me is a personal thing
Below are my thoughts on what to consider when making a bolognese for you.
Pork? Veal? Beef? We’ve all been brought up to use beef. The modern day obsession with lean meat, has resulted in a lot of meat based meals being void of any flavour. Fat is flavour! My preferred combination is pork and veal. If you can’t get veal then use beef. Preferably chuck or skirt steak. These cuts are the cheapest and when cooked slowly over a low heat, you’ll find yourself swimming in flavour country. Pork adds rivers of richness and veal will ensure that you don’t drowning in a food coma by the end by the meal. Try to use pork mince that has some fat in it. When in doubt, throw in the mince from an Italian sausage into it. Regardless of what meat you use, the critical step is to caramelize the meat properly. It needs to be properly brown. What I do is brown the meat in batches, otherwise the pan becomes overcrowded and the meat ends up stewing, preventing it from frying and developing that sweet flavour. Brown half of the meat very well to dark brown and the rest medium brown so that you get a good mix of flavour and texture.
I always put in bacon or pancetta. Who doesn’t enjoy this heavenly smokey cured gift from the gods? It adds richness and saltiness to the bolognese. If I have an entire afternoon to simmer the mixture, I add oxtail ensuring the collagen in the bones make the the sauce extra sticky.
Vegetables in a meat sauce?
This is a must. I love my meat but you need the ‘Holy Trinity’ of onions, carrot and celery. It lifts the dish so you’re not bogged down in meatiness and adds a touch of sweetness. Make sure you sweat down the vege before adding the meat.
Thyme and bayleaf boosts the meaty notes. Before serving, add parsley for extra boost of freshness and lift.
I use mushrooms for flavouring rather than for texture. If you can, rehydrate a handful of dried porcini mushrooms in warm water and chop them up before throwing them into the bolognese mixture early on, including some of the water the mushrooms were soaked in. If you want to use fresh mushrooms then you need to cook the water out. Mushrooms are high in water content so to intensify the mushroom flavours you need to saute them until they are golden brown. If you throw them in fresh then you’ll have a watery bolognese and slimy mushrooms.
Red Wine or White?
There’s so much richness going on in my bolognese, so I prefer white wine when using a pork mince. If you use a beef mixture then use red wine. The rule of thumb is use wine you would drink, not one from a cardboard box.
The liquid – Tomatos or stock/milk?
There’s no right or wrong with about 98% of people I know preferring the tomato option. Traditional ragus use stock and milk. As there’s no acidity in the tomatos to cut the richness, I find that the use of milk balances the flavours out. Otherwise when the liquid reduces, you’d end up with a concentrated salty meat soup.
The pan/pot – cast iron or stainless steel or non stick
Yes, even the cookware can affect the end result. Heavy base pans retain heat better than the $2 pan you picked up at Woolies. They can also be used as weapons against burglars. Stainless steel pans enable easier caramelisation as the meat ‘burns’ and collects on the bottom. This sugary goodness adds an intense colour and sweetens up the sauce as it simmers.
Wheat vs Egg pasta
If you want to impress somebody and make it extra special then you can’t go past egg pasta. The yolks in the pasta give the pasta a silky texture. I’d use egg pasta on special occasions as it can be more expensive and doesn’t keep its texture the next day as much as wheat pasta does. If you’re using wheat pasta, make sure it has a rough surface area as it’s this texture that allows the sauce to stick to the pasta.
Spaghetti vs Tagliatelle
Most egg pasta comes in tagliatelle form. The wider surface area allows it to get a good coating of sauce and the meat hangs off the pasta. The best analogy I would use is, if you were skateboarding, would you be more likely to stay in one piece skating on a skinny 1980’s skateboard or go cruising on a wide longboard?
Pasta to meat ratio
Italians and purists would say minimal sauce to pasta ratio. I would tend to agree as long as it gets a good coating of sauce on the pasta. To my previous point, if you have good pasta, all the sauce will stick to the pasta and not sink to the bottom of the bowl.
How long to cook it for?
No longer than 4 hours otherwise the flavours start to mutate into something more bland than grand. Before simmering, be sure to spend a good amount of time browing the mince and sauteing the vege. Otherwise everything will be taste shit and no amount of slow cooking will fix it. You can’t polish a turd.
How much to make?
Make more than you need. you can always freeze it or take it into work lunch. Some say it tastes better the next day. Sometimes I use what’s left over to turn into a chilli con carne.
- Dried chilli flakes of you prefer it spicy
- A few knobs of butter to finish it off to give it a nice glossy coat
- Maggi seasoning and anchovies – Without getting too technical Maggi seasoning rocks, it with anchovies boosts the meaty flavours. trust me on this.
- Livers – if you dig ofal, then why not?
- Star anise – Heston Blumenthal uses it in his “perfect bolognese”. Obviously the Chinese were onto something here.
As you can see, I haven’t included any recipes. I think we all have at least one particular way of making a bolognese. The above is a range of things I consider when preparing and cooking a bolognese. I mentioned before that bolognese is a personal thing. What I would make for myself won’t necessarily be what others would enjoy so trial a few combinations and find one that works for you and others who may try it. The only thing that should remain consistent is that you shouldn’t have to slave or stress over it for too long and most important, that you spend quality time with your friends and a few bottles of red.
So tell me. What works for you what other variations have you experimented with when it comes to the ‘perfect bolognese’?