Monday, May 31, 2010

Matt Plays Food Blogger: Bolognese Sauce

I'm probably the world's biggest fan of sauce. I don't even care what it's on--sometimes I'll make pasta just as a vehicle for eating sauce. Even as I type this post, I'm eating chips and salsa and realizing that the chips pretty much don't matter at all next to the salsa. And one of the world's great classic sauces is Bolognese sauce.

This is another dish that translates very well to the use of a slow cooker; authentic Bolognese is usually simmered over an afternoon and sometimes for an entire day. But here's the problem: "authentic" Bolognese seems to be ill-defined. Even worse, while some dishes (like tagines) accept or even encourage variation, there's a lot of touchiness about what makes a "real" Bolognese. I scoured the internet to try and reach some reasonable consensus.


  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 lb. pork sausage
    The general consensus was 1-2 lb. of some combination of ground beef and sausage. Some sites also suggested ground lamb or even veal as well. I'm sure those would be delicious, but they're not exactly compatible with the grad student budget. I think that shredded chicken thighs would be an excellent substitution, perhaps with a lighter wine. Finally, if you're going health-conscious, you could probably substitute turkey sausage and it would be just fine.
  • 3 slices bacon, chopped
    This one is optional for a "real" Bolognese, and usually it's pancetta instead. I didn't exactly have any pancetta sitting around the house, but I did have some bacon that looked like it needed to be used or thrown away... and besides, bacon is the best food in the world.

  • 29-oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 14-oz. can tomato paste
    The internet was indecisive on this one. Depending on who you listened to, I was supposed to add tomato sauce, or diced tomatoes, or imported Roma tomatoes that I was supposed to chop myself, or just tomato paste and no tomato at all. Using tomato sauce seemed sort of like cheating, so I went with the diced tomatoes, with a bit of paste as a thickener.
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
    I don't really understand the culinary purpose of adding celery--it has no flavor, and it loses its distinctive texture when it's slow-cooked for hours. But it seemed like every recipe I saw included a stalk or two of celery, so I added it anyway.
  • 2 (small to medium) carrots, chopped
    Apparently these are to increase the sweetness of the sauce, which makes sense. Most of the recipes I saw had carrots and sugar in various proportions ranging from 2 large carrots and no sugar to no carrots and 1/4 cup of sugar. I decided to go somewhere in the middle.
  • 1 carton (I think it was 1/2 lb.) "baby bella" mushrooms
    Another "optional" ingredient in "real" Bolognese is mushrooms. Porcini are recommended, but I couldn't find any of those.
  • 1/2 cup onion, choppped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
    Suggestions here were all over the place, ranging from 1 to 6 cloves. I decided for a more modest 2.

Herbs and Spices
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
    I had both of these handy in my awesome balcony garden! The basil was a little sketchy--we've had an unusually cool May, and basil thrives in hot, bright conditions, so it didn't have a very strong basil flavor. The oregano was fantastic, though.
  • 1 bay leaf
    Most of the recipes didn't tell me to add a bay leaf, but bay leaves are cool, so I decided to use one anyway.
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (see the carrot comment above)
  • Salt and pepper, added to the meat while browning

  • 1 cup half and half
    One of the most surprising consistencies among Bolognese sauce recipes is the use of some (relatively high-fat) dairy. The thought is that dairy enzymes break down some of the meat proteins. Recipes I found suggested volumes from none (which were instantly criticized as "not really Bolognese, just some meat sauce") to a pint, milk fat from whole milk to heavy cream. Once again, I decided to go somewhere in the middle.
  • 1/2 cup Zinfandel
    Some recipes suggested no wine, some suggested white, some suggested red. As this recipe was leaning toward "when in doubt, throw it in" anyway, and because wine is delicious, I decided to go with the wine. I didn't find out until after I made it that "most authentic" Bolognese uses dry white wine, and I thought that using Chianti in Italian cooking was too cliche, so I went Zinfandel.

Preparation and Cooking

Throw the meat in a pan with some of the garlic and onions. Sprinkle salt and pepper over it, and brown the meat. Drain and dump into a crockpot. Cook up the bacon (or pancetta if you have it), chop it up, and throw it in the crockpot. Now, throw the celery, carrots, and the rest of the garlic and onions (snazzy cooking tip: this is called soffritto in Italian) in a pan along with some olive oil and cook them. Dump that into the crockpot.

Add the herbs and spices, the rest of the vegetables, and the liquids. Turn the crockpot onto low, and cook for several hours. It doesn't matter, really, because you've already cooked everything that needs to be cooked. You're just getting the flavors to meld together.


This sauce was pretty delicious. It wasn't as salty or savory as I thought it might have been, and I think there are a few easy ways to remedy that. First, add a bit more salt to the crockpot in the "add the herbs and spices" phase. Second, add some more garlic--the garlic flavor wasn't really noticeable at all, which is a shame in an Italian dish. Finally, Zinfandel might not have been the best choice of wines--there's a reason that Chianti is a cliche for Italian cooking, or if I wanted to take the suggestion of using a white, I imagine a Pinot grigio or Pinot bianco would be good.

I should have chopped the carrots and mushrooms finer--they're meant to impart some flavor and character to the sauce, not to impose chunks of vegetable in the sauce as you're eating it.

I'm pleasantly surprised at how tomatoey the sauce turned out. I was a little unsure if tomato chunks plus tomato paste plus a bunch of less viscous liquid would turn into a real "sauce" consistency, but the diced tomatoes broke down enough and the paste thickened the liquid enough to get the consistency exactly what I wanted it to be.

Finally, I'll skip the added sugar entirely next time. The sauce didn't need it, and the carrots were plenty sweet enough on their own.

Currently listening: "Sleeping Lessons", the Shins

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