Slow-Cooked Shredded Beef Ragù alla Bolognese

Ahhh… the good old trusty ‘spag bol’. Spaghetti Bolognese has been a staple for many families all around the world, but it seems like many of us have heavily corrupted the supposed ‘authentic’ recipe, despite the fact that there are many questions about what it takes to make an authentic ragù alla Bolognese: Is the sauce made with pork, or beef? Red wine, or white wine? Butter, or oil? Do you add any cream, or milk? There does not seem to be a real consensus. Well, there actually are some things we can be sure about…


First of all, this meat sauce should not be served with spaghetti in the first place, but it should really be served with tagliatelle according to Antonio Carluccio and many others, including the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (they’re even more strict in saying that tagliatelle needs to be exactly 6.5-7mm at the time of cutting, and 8mm wide when cooked). If not served with tagliatelle it should at least be served with some other strong flat pasta such as the pappardelle I am using (even though ‘papp bol’ sounds a bit odd, I am doing it anyway), or even lasagna. The flat noodles simply hold up better against this meaty companion and the almost creamy sauce sticks better to the larger, flat surfaces. Some say it’s best to get these noodles fresh instead of dried, but I am guilty of unpretentiously grabbing a box of dried pasta most of the time. It’s fine. As long as it’s not spaghetti.


Secondly, another common mistake is using very finely ground beef (or abominations such as chicken mince…) and trying to cook it as quickly as possible. Remember that this is a meat sauce more than it is a tomato sauce, so the meat should really be present (yet very soft). Now, I am not claiming my version of ragù alla Bolognese here is better, or more authentic than any other, and in some way it might be more like a Neapolitan ragù, but while both the Accademia and many cooks list ground beef as their main protein, I suggest you use beef chuck, or brisket chopped into small chunks if you want to make a really tasty meaty ‘ragù alla Bolognese’

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Beef chuck and brisket are some of the more flavorful, yet, tougher cuts, so they heavily benefit from being braised at a very low temperature for a substantial amount of time until they can easily be pulled apart and shredded to make a sauce of incredible beefy intensity. Try to get some cuts of meat with some nice fatty parts stuck to it if you can, or ask for some small pieces of beef fat, or a piece of beef bone with bone marrow to add into your sauce. For an even fuller, meatier flavor it’s common practice to add some pork in the form of a bit of chopped pancetta to the sauce as well (either cured pancetta, or chopped up pieces of fresh/untreated pork belly). 


Sure, I totally understand if you don’t want to bother with slowly braising larger chunks of beef. I mean, that’s why most people use ground beef in the first place, right? If you really don’t have the time to slowly braise chunks of beef, or just can’t be bothered, you can always to go to the local Butchers and ask for a very coarsely ground (or even better coarsely chopped) chuck with a nice amount of fat inside. It definitely cuts down on the cooking time (but also a little on texture and flavor) and it will save you some time on cutting beef, browning it and shredding it. However, whatever you decide to do, please don’t use very finely ground beef thinking you will very quickly get a nice ragù; the meat still needs a substantial time on the stove, or else you will never achieve that soft meaty texture and flavor you really want for this sauce.


But let’s move away from the topic of meat for now. Equally important for a good ragù is to start off with a simple soffritto made with more-or-less equal amounts of finely chopped onion, finely diced carrot, and finely diced celery sticks. A soffritto can really make or break your sauce. To make a good soffritto you really need to sauté it for a good amount of time – at least 10 minutes – until the vegetables start to soften and caramelise. Do not try to skip time on browning the vegetables as this will get the most flavor out of them; take 20 minutes if you have to. 


As for the tomato part, I simply use a bit of tomato paste, or half of a can of San Marzano tomatoes, since this is not really a tomato sauce and good tomatoes are not available all year round. The canned products dilute the flavors of the meat sauce the least while still adding a nice bit of tomato-y acidity and umami. Naturally, in summertime, when tomatoes are full of flavor, you could add some peeled and deseeded tomatoes to the sauce if you’d like, but don’t use too many as you don’t want to water down the ragù too much.


Speaking of ‘watering down’: I do add a glass of dry white wine to the sauce together with a bit of beef stock, or water. I can hear you ask: “What? White wine with beef instead of red?”. Well, yeah! Many cooks (though definitely not all) opt for adding white wine here, instead of red, as it will keep the sauce relatively light while centering more on that meatiness. I suppose that’s also the logic behind most cooks not including any other aromatics, herbs, or condiments apart from some salt and pepper in their ‘authentic’ recipes. Garlic in particular seems to be a no no in a ‘true Bolognese’ and it is obviously absent in most recipes. I didn’t add any other aromatics, or garlic in my recipe either and they were really not missed at all. I do like to add a little splash of milk near the end of cooking to achieve a softer, velvety texture and to slightly reduce the acidity of the tomato and wine, but some purists might say this is a bad bad thing to do as well *shrugs*.


There you have it. That’s about all it takes to make an ‘almost-authentic ragù alla Bolognese’! Well, almost. As you can see, it doesn’t take a lot of fancy ingredients to make a good ragù alla Bolognese. What it does take is a good chunk of your day (remember I mentioned it takes a ‘substantial amount of time’ earlier?): for the best sauce-consistency you will have to simmer your ragù on very low low heat for at least 3.5 hours (up to 4.5 hours if you’ve got the time) when using cubed chuck, or brisket. When using that ‘quick-and-easy’ coarsely ground beef you will still need about 2 hours in total of hands-off simmering… tough luck. Seems like the real key ingredient to a good ragù is patience. It’s totally worth it, though, once you taste and feel the difference with a quickly cooked ground beef sauce. And don’t forget about that (fresh) tagliatelle, or pappardelle! 


Tip #1: Since this recipe takes quite a long time to prepare, it may be convenient to double the recipe and freeze the extra sauce for future use to save some time the next time you want to make this dish. 

Tip #2: This ragù is not just great with tagliatelle, or pappardelle, but can also be used as a meaty sauce for lasagne, moussaka, or other casserole-style dishes.


Slow-Cooked Shredded Beef Ragù alla Bolognese

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Delicious ragù alla Bolognese made with slow-cooked, shredded beef chuck.
  • Difficulty:Easy
  • Prep Time:10 mins
  • Cook Time:240 mins
  • Serves:6
  • Freezable:Yes

Nutrition per portion

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 500g beef chuck, or brisket
  • 120g yellow onion, finely minced
  • 120g carrots, peeled and finely diced
  • 120g celery stalks, finely diced
  • 100g cured pancetta, thinly sliced and roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 250ml white wine
  • 250ml water, or beef stock
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • 150ml whole milk
  • 600g dried tagliatelle, or dried pappardelle (or about 750g fresh pasta)
  1. Cut your beef chuck into cubes of about 3 - 4 cm.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot, or Dutch oven on high heat. Add the beef cubes to the pot and cook until nicely browned on all sides for about 4 - 5 minutes. Remove the beef from the pot.
  3. Add your finely minced onion and finely diced carrot and celery to the pot and sauté until soft and browned for about 10 minutes, or more if needed. Make sure you get a good color on the vegetables; this is where a lot of the flavor comes from.
  4. Add the chopped pancetta and sauté until lightly browned then add the tomato paste and stir for another minute.
  5. Return the beef to the pan and add the white wine and stock, or water. Add a bit of salt and freshly cracked black pepper, but be careful with the salt at this point as the tomato paste contains salt already and the sauce will reduce while cooking.
  6. Cover the pan with a lid and turn the heat to low. Simmer for 3 hours (up to 4 hours), stirring occasionally, until the beef turns really soft and starts to fall apart. [When using coarsely ground beef the meat will need at least 1.5 hours + the 30 minutes in ‘step 7’ of hands-off simmering]
  7. When the beef is soft, shred the pieces that haven’t fallen apart with two forks (this should be easy at this point) and stir the meat back into the sauce.
  8. Add the milk, stir, and simmer the sauce uncovered for another 30 minutes until the milk is well incorporated and the liquid has reduced and thickened. Stir frequently to avoid burning the sauce. Taste the sauce and add more salt and pepper if desired.
  9. When your sauce is almost done, bring a large pot filled with water to a boil. When the water is boiling add a good amount of salt and boil your pasta of choice according to the instructions on the package. When the pasta is done, drain the pasta, but reserve about 150ml of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the pot with the sauce (or vice versa). Stir gently to cover all strands of pasta with a thin layer of meat sauce. If necessary, stir in some of the reserved cooking liquid to help coat the pasta in the sauce if the sauce and pasta mixture seems too dry (it should be slightly glossy). Serve immediately.

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