This is a collaborative post with photographer Love Les.
This sauce has a special place in my heart and in my taste memory. It's been a staple in my family's favorite meals for as long as I can remember. The first time I made it, I had graduated from college and was really learning to cook for myself. For Christmas, my mom gave me a copy of her favorite Italian cookbook- Marcella Hazen's The Classic Italian Cookbook. Basically every good Italian recipe comes from this book and there's a reason why. If you google "bolognese meat sauce" every top food blog uses this recipe. It's the gold standard.
Anyway, the first time I made it was as close to a spiritual experience I've ever had while cooking. It's a long process, so anything that slows me down tends to be a pretty significant event for me. It starts with lots of chopping. The mirepoix (onion, celery, and carrot, which form the base of many Italian dishes) must be chopped as finely as you can. I supposed you could throw it all in a food processor, but there's something soothing about chopping it by hand. I like to use a mezzaluna to make it go a bit faster. The sauce itself involves lots of stirring, watching, and waiting. It's a good one to make while you're listening to a podcast or audiobook. Plus, it requires white wine (all the alcohol cooks out), so you almost have to have a glass while you're cooking.
When my first batch finally finished, it was the first time I'd ever made something that really tasted exactly the way my mom makes it. She's an incredible cook, so when I realized I could just follow a recipe and have it turn out as good as hers, I was thrilled. The recipe below is actually doubled because it's so much work, you might as well double it (at least). When my mom makes it, she even quadruples it because it freezes so well.
As with anything you cook, the better quality ingredients you use, the better it will taste. If you can get freshly ground beef, that's definitely a plus. As for the quality of wine? Don't cook with any wine you wouldn't drink.
The question you might be wondering is, what is this sauce used for? I'm so glad you asked. My favorites are over polenta, in pasta al forno, and in classic Italian lasagna. I'll be making these on the blog in months to come, but they all start with this sauce. I highly recommend taking a long Saturday and a glass or two of wine (can't let that bottle go to waste!) to make this delicious sauce.
Bolognese Meat Sauce
Active Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 4-5 hours
Makes: 12 servings, or 4-5 cups
Recipe from: Marcella Hazen's The Classic Italian Cookbook
4 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
6 tablespoons olive oil
6 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoon chopped celery
4 tablespoon chopped carrot
1.5 pounds ground lean beef
2 teaspoons salt (plus more, to taste)
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
4 cups canned Italian tomatoes, roughly chopped, with their juices
1. An earthenware pot should be your first choice for making ragù. If you don't have one available, use a heavy, enameled cast-iron casserole, the deepest one you have (to keep the ragù from reducing too quickly). Put in the chopped onion with all the oil and butter, and sauté briefly over medium heat until just translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook gently for 2 minutes.
2. Add the ground beef, crumbling in the pot with a fork. Add 2 teaspoons salt, stir, and cook only until the meat has lost its raw, red color. Add the wine, turn the heat up to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the wine has evaporated.
3. Turn the heat down to medium, add the milk and the nutmeg, and cook until the milk has evaporated. Stir frequently.
4. When the milk has evaporated, add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly. When the tomatoes have started to bubble, turn the heat down until the sauce cooks at the laziest simmer, just an occasional bubble.
5. Cook, uncovered, for a minimum of 3 1/2-4 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste and correct for salt (If you cannot watch the sauce for such a long stretch, you can turn off the heat and resume cooking it later on. But do finish cooking in one day).
Ragù can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or frozen. Reheat until it simmers for about 15 minutes before using.