Have you had the pleasure of tasting a bolognese sauce? If you are a meat eater, bolognese sauce was made for you. I’m going to explain what it is, why it is so delicious and how I have transformed the classic recipe by using ground duck instead of beef.
WHAT IS BOLOGNESE?
First and foremost, Bolognese is a meat sauce, not a tomato sauce. The French term “alla Bolognese” seen on a menu is a pasta dish served with a ragu, a meat-based sauce. Bolognese is always a meat-based sauce, not a tomato sauce. When reading the ingredients and directions of any bolognese sauce, you may be a little confused – what actually makes this meat dish into a sauce?
As with just about every dish I research, I find controversy not only in the ingredients but with what the dish means or even the word itself. Some say there is no such thing as a Bolognese, as it is truly called a ragu sauce and can be created any which way. Ask any Italian and you will hear 5,000 different versions of Bolognese, all made by their grandmothers and will claim to be authentic.
What you can understand is that the city of Bologna in Italy has just as many recipes for bolognese sauce as Southern Americans have for fried chicken or Canadians have for poutine. Instead of arguing over the most authentic, we can all agree that it is one damn good sauce you should try in your own kitchen.
Read any bolognese recipe and you’ll find these basic ingredients in any number of quantities or styles:
- A soffrito of finely diced carrots, onions, and celery
- Lots of ground meat – could be beef, pork or veal (though I am using duck today)
- Red or white wine
- Stock, beef or vegetable
- Tomatoes, usually paste but sometimes diced
- Salt and pepper, but no other seasonings
- Whole milk hot or warmed through to prevent curdling once added to the hot sauce. Cream is also found in place of milk in some recipes. This gives the dish it’s orange color and warm flavor.
- Served over pappardelle or tagliatelle pasta noodles, the thickest of the bunch
- Freshly grated parmesan for serving
I decided to consult Lidia Bastianich, whom I’ve been watching on PBS as long as I can remember, to see how one Italian chef makes this controversial yet delicious sauce. Of course, Lidia didn’t make it easy for me, because she offers several options for making bolognese, some short cooking and some long. The ingredients list is just what I thought – tomato paste – not diced tomatoes, milk – never cream, and salt and pepper only, though her addition of nutmeg is a suggestion I may take in the future. It’s quite fascinating and I suggest you read the entire recipes here, along with picking up a copy of her book Lydia’s Family Table. 3 seasons of her show Lidia’s Italy are available for streaming on Hulu+.
Mario Batali, just because I was curious, makes a lasagna bolognese similar to Lidia’s – milk, tomato paste and pork and veal. Find his recipe here.
Bon Appetit has an easy to follow Classic Ragu Bolognese recipe that uses red wine, ground beef, and veal, beef stock, tomato paste, and milk. Though 12 ounces total of meat just doesn’t seem like enough to me!
Here is how I decided to build my Bolognese recipe based on these interpretations:
- A soffrito of onions, celery, and carrots, diced in a food processor to save time and energy. It’s hard to argue with the use of these three ingredients!
- 2 pounds of ground duck instead, though as a test run I used ground duck and ground beef. I liked it, but using 2 pounds of ground duck seemed to taste a little better and the texture was more consistent and even throughout the dish. You can read more about why I am cooking with duck more often here and here. Purchase it from Maple Leaf Farms, an Indiana company!
- Red wine seems more basic to me and would enhance the color of the sauce, though the white wine may be a bit more authentic. I used a Cabernet Sauvignon from Oliver Winery. I plan on creating this exact same recipe with white wine to see if I can taste a difference.
- I prefer beef stock over vegetable stock any day.
- Tomato paste all the way here. Diced tomatoes would change the consistency of the sauce and detract from the meat.
- Salt and black pepper only.
- Whole milk, warmed through to prevent curdling.
- Pappardelle noodles, because the thick noodle makes it easier for the hearty sauce to stick to than thin spaghetti noodles.
- Freshly grated parmesan for serving.
Browning the meat is essential to this sauce. If you add all of the meat at once, you will end up boiling the meat and not browning it. Instead, just add the meat a little at a time until all is browned and you will be good to go. As Chef Anne Burrell said once, browning your meat until it is almost burnt brings much more flavor to any dish than just the meat itself.
Like chili or soups, bolognese sauce tastes great when cooked low and slow on the stove. I devote an entire afternoon to this dish, but a good 2-3 hours is recommended to give the flavors time to meld together and for the ground meat to break down completely. Just grab the wine you didn’t use for the recipe and kick back with a book while you occasionally stir the sauce (and grab a taste or two, or three, or four…).
- 1 1/2 cups finely diced carrots
- 1 1/2 cups finely diced celery
- 2 cups finely diced onions
- 2 tablespoons duck fat or olive oil
- 2 pounds ground duck
- 1 cup red wine
- 3 cups beef stock
- 1/2 cup tomato paste
- 1 cup whole milk
- Freshly grated parmesan
- 8 ounces pappardelle pasta
- Salt and black pepper throughout the dish
- Create the soffrito of carrots, celery, and onions by pulsing your vegetables in a food processor until finely diced.
- Heat the duck fat in a large dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the sofrito with a little salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft, about 5-8 minutes.
- Begin to brown the ground duck a little at a time. Do not overcrowd the pan or else you will end up boiling the meat and not browning it. It will take longer this way, but I promise it’s worth it.
- Once all the meat has browned, add the red wine, beef stock, and tomato paste. Season with salt and black pepper, about a 1/2 teaspoon of each. Turn the heat up to high and get the sauce boiling, then bring the heat back down to low and simmer, covered with a little gap for heat to escape, for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Stir occasionally and taste the sauce for seasoning.
- Heat the whole milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until the milk is steaming. Slowly pour it into the sauce, stirring to incorporate throughout. Let the sauce simmer for another 30 minutes.
- Boil your pasta in lightly salted water per the package directions. Ladle the sauce over your cooked noodles and top with freshly grated parmesan cheese.