Bolognese sauce (ragù alla Bolognese) is, first and foremost, a meat sauce. Anyone who has ancestral ties to Italy, and most especially to Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region, will be sure to tell you that, to rid you of any impression that it is a tomato-based sauce.
This desire to re-educate people is due to the fact that Bolognese sauce has changed a lot over the centuries since it was first made by home cooks with no access to ingredients beyond those that were grown and produced in their own region. Classically, Bolognese sauce is made from everyday vegetables (a battuto of carrot, celery, and onion), locally-raised meats (most often beef, but could also include pork, veal, sausage, and prosciutto), a touch of tomato, and a whole lot of time.
Today, there may be fewer cooks who will devote the hours necessary to create a true ragù, but the facts are still the same: Every step of its preparation is designed to draw out the best results from each ingredient. The vegetables are slow-cooked with pork fat (today, usually pancetta) or olive oil until they are melted together in a caramelized vegetable medley. The meat is slowly simmered to cook off its water content, helping it brown properly. Often, wine and tomatoes (or tomato paste) are added and reduced to the point of evaporation, leaving behind their concentrated flavor. Then the sauce is slowly simmered, resulting in a rich, meaty sauce that is traditionally served over a fresh, egg-rich pasta called talgiatelle. Ragù alla Bolognese also finds its way into lasagne (traditionally layered with spinach noodles and béchamel sauce) and as a sauce for pillowy potato gnocchi.
Some Bolognese sauces also include a touch of milk or cream, some broth, or a sprinkling of nutmeg, but those additions vary among different families and recipes. Milk is said to mellow the flavor and soften the texture of gamy meats, broth adds a meaty richness, and nutmeg sweetens the acidity of tomatoes. All these are acceptable additions, but then again, it all depends who you ask. Traditionalists cling to their great-grandmother’s recipe; regionalists only cook with the products local to their area; and perhaps, romantics welcome a half-day spent over a bubbling pot of ragù as a remembrance of a time when life moved at a slower pace and feeding the family long-simmered meals was a part of everyday life.
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