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Help! Bolognese issues

Hello all,

I am making the Lighter Contemporary Ragu Bolognese from page 46 of The Splendid Table. I've made plenty of pasta sauce before, but I usually go for quick-cooking stuff and work without a recipe, and I wanted to give this a go just to see how it turned out. So far... well, hmm.

It's not reducing at all; after almost an hour, the level of liquid has only increased due to the milk I've been adding. Now, I've turned the heat up a bit (almost to medium, actually) in order to get things working, but is she serious when she says to keep the heat very low? The sauce isn't reducing at all, and I'm quite confident that I could have left it out for days and there would be the same amount of liquid in the pot.

Also, the tomato paste? There's basically no tomato flavor to the sauce with only 2T of paste to 1.25 lbs meat plus mirepoix, etc. Really?

Further / finally, I was surprised by the lack of both garlic and herbs of any sort. I'm basically planning on scrapping the recipe and adding in some crushed red pepper and fresh parsley, just so the sauce has, you know, flavor.

I guess my real question is: I've never been to Italy, nor have I experienced much of what I would call authentic Italian food, so is the sauce supposed to be basically nothing but ground beef and mirepoix? Because, frankly, it sounds kind of boring, and it's not very tasty.

I am at a point where I wish I had considered the recipe before I started cooking, because if I had, I would have just made the standard pasta sauce I always make (mirepoix, garlic, 2 cans crushed fire roasted tomatoes, ground beef, basil, crushed red pepper, done in like 20 minutes).

Thanks for any advice!

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  1. Update:

    Now that it's started reducing, I can at least see this getting to the right consistency... But still, it's an absolutely hideous color - basically the ugly yellow-ish color of the fat from the ground beef. Really?

    8 Replies
    1. re: nickblesch

      is this a 4 hour simmer recipe? i tried hazans which, like your recipe, uses a mirepoix, tomatoes, milk and beef...and that's it...after 4 hours, this sauce was, quite literally, THE BOMB...best bolognaise i've ever had...give it the full simmer, let it reduce, and i'm sure you'll be pleased...
      BTW: this is not yer mama's red meat sauce and if you go into it thinking it is, you might be disheartened by the results

      1. re: sixelagogo

        It's a 2-hour simmer recipe (I'd be fine to give it more time, though; only make it better). My primary issue with the recipe its that the only tomato in it is 2T of tomato paste, thus meaning that the result is extremely unappealing to the eye and it's lacking a significant depth of flavor.

        I've decided to just add tomatoes and some parsley and to heck the recipe so that dinner won't be gross, but I would love to hear any further suggestions. :D

        1. re: nickblesch

          I would add a little freshly grated nutmeg, as I have always seen this as a component in Bolognese sauce. Adam

          1. re: nickblesch

            I think it was a good idea to add the tomatoes, but it is going to require more time to break then down. Could there be a typo 2 Tbsp tomato paste sounds like too little? I also use Hazan's Essential of Classic Italian Cooking, and there is considerably more tomatoes. It's a lovely ragu, not too tomato-ee at all. The description of the slow simmer process from Hazan is "the laziest of simmers with just an intermittent bubble breaking to the surface." (and this is after bubbling away the milk and the wine, before adding the tomatoes) One thing about the recipe that Chow friends clarified for me was the question of all that fat, (especially if you more than triple the recipe as I routinely do) from the whole milk, ground beef and olive oil. They suggested it really needs to be removed once the ragu has finished simmering and the fat has completely seperated.

            1. re: nickblesch

              2T of tomato paste is very little.

              I would probably do about 5 T/lb of meat, or so.

              1. re: jaykayen


                No need to sell jfood on Hazan's sauce. there is always 3-4 packages frozen in the basement playing cards with her canneloni. Jfood's suggestion on the latter is make a double recipe of the sauce for a single recipe of the crepe and filling.

          2. re: nickblesch

            probably too high a fat content and too much milk. Hazan adds milk once so what is "all the milk i've been adding."?

            1. re: jfood

              All the fat I am referring to is from 4 Tbsp olive oil + butter, 3/4 pound of ground beef, 1 cup of whole milk. Because I always at least triple the recipe and sometimes multiply it by 6, there is quite a bit of fat accumulated in the end.

          3. So: I made the sauce perfectly edible, and dinner was fine enough. Anyway:

            Jfood, the recipe called for 1 1/2 cups of milk - a lot, indeed - and the whole thing was way too fatty, almost greasy. And (prior to my fixing it, anyway) it tasted awful. Since I am apparently allowed to post the ingredients list, I will do so - how to cook it is, I think, pretty obvious:

            3 T olive oil
            1 oz pancetta
            1 large carrot
            2 small stalks celery
            1/2 medium onion
            1 1/4 lbs ground beef
            1/2 c dry white wine
            2 T tomato paste, diluted with 10 T stock
            Salt & pepper to taste
            1 1/2 c milk

            Now, looking at this recipe, it was clearly doomed to fail - I've cooked enough, I have no clue why I didn't realize that in the first place.

            Anyway, the main confusion for me isn't why the recipe failed (that much is plain), but as to why this cookbook comes so highly recommended. Other recipes in it seem fine, but all of the ragus listed on pages 40-ish to 60-ish would suffer from this same issue - pretty much all of them call for 1.5-2 T of tomato paste, or perhaps 3 lonely canned plum tomatoes. The later sauces (such as the Winter Tomato Sauce on 62) all appear to be in order and would, I believe, cook up just fine. Do I have a bad version of The Splendid Table? (I'm glad I got it from the library either way...)

            Donali: regarding the fat content, for future reference: is it okay to drain the fat before adding the simmering liquid? I suspect that would be dumping a lot of flavor out, but it'd be so much easier than waiting and skimming. I'll have to check out the Hazan book and give that recipe a try - thanks for the recommendation!

            1 Reply
            1. re: nickblesch


              as you realize by now those proportions sound off. 2T tomato, 10 T stock and 1.5C milk? ouch.

            2. Check out the April 2008 issue of Saveur, which has a big article on "Ragu' alla Bolognese". They discuss the origins of the sauce and why there is so much variation. And they provide at least six different recipes, which vary widely in things like texture and color. The ones that seem the most "classic" have very little in the way of spices beyond salt and pepper.

              1. Look no further than this:


                If you saw his shape it would be obvious that this man KNOWS about pasta!

                Less ingredients and rather simpler than many recipes, which is truer to native Italian practice. Using all beef is fine, and I add garlic in with the meat.

                1. The recipe calls for
                  '2 tablespoons double- or triple-concentrated Italian tomato paste'
                  Without digging further, I suspect this means something more concentrated than stuff that comes in small cans in the USA. Squeeze tubes from Italy may be sufficiently concentrated. (Lookup 'passata'.) Note also the first line in description: 'Tasting like a hearty beef and wine stew with lots of browned onion...'. Also on p34 "What a ragu is NOT is a tomato sauce with meat." (her emphasis)

                  Regarding the milk, the instructions say to add it 2T at a time, allowing it to 'absorb'. The 1 1/2 c of milk may be more of guideline than a requirement.
                  Final consistency is supposed to be 'a thick soup'.

                  Regarding the fat, that may depend on how much gets rendered from the meat. I haven't made this, but often when fat accumulates on top of a stew, I will spoon off some of it.

                  p39 "skim milk does an admirable job'

                  Regarding the reduction rate, that will depend on the heat, the free surface (a wide shallow pan will reduce more than a deep sauce pan), and how you interpret the 'partially covered' instruction. There will be some thickening due to the breakdown of the vegetables.

                  I have not made a lot of use of this (bought used several months ago), but I suspect it is more useful for its cultural and historical descriptions than for its recipes.

                  The 'Bologna-Style Ragu' in '1000 Italian Recipes' *(Scicolone), only uses 3T of tomato paste for 1.5lb of meat, 1 cup milk (added at the last 15 minutes), 2-3hrs cooking (until the sauce is thick). It starts with 2c of stock. The only added seasoning is 1/4 tsp nutmeg, salt and black pepper. No garlic. Overall, not too different.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: paulj

                    Ahh, I was using imported/concentrated squeeze tube tomato paste - and still, not sure what exactly the deal is, there.

                    That said: I looked at pictures around the net and it seems like perhaps I didn't have my veggies chopped finely enough. I'm not exactly sure how that would have affected the taste, but I am guessing they would have broken down more and integrated into the sauce more (which I didn't realize they were supposed to do), and that would have had to at least make it look a lot better.

                    I'll have to try this again now that I know more what I'm looking for, but I'm still skeptical of the wine-meat ratio. Perhaps it's due to my lack of experience with braising and other slow/low cooking methods, but I still have trouble imagining this being palatable - and obviously, it is.

                    1. re: paulj

                      I think "partially covered" just means to cover it so it doesn't pop all over the stove but not so tight that it can't reduce. It's still a matter of reducing it until it's reduced, period.

                      People forget to heat the liquids before they add them.

                      Yeah, paulj, I know you know.

                    2. I'm going to take the contrarian view, here... I don't see any problem with the proportions at all. And yeah, meat, milk, mirepoix and a touch (touch!) of tomato... that's pretty much bolognese.

                      Since Hazan's recipe was referenced, she's adding a cup of milk, a cup of wine and a cup and a half of canned tomatoes (not paste) to three quarters of a pound of ground beef. So this recipe seems lighter on the tomato, but not absurdly so. And I've had Bolognese in Italy that you'd barely know had tomato at all. As pointed out, it's a meat sauce -- not a tomato sauce.

                      And it doesn't need additional flavors. Honestly. Do it right, and anything more than those core ingredients will be nothing more than a distraction.

                      Yeah, it'll be fatty. I love that. It bothers some. But you won't hurt the flavor too much by skimming a little as you cook. Don't start with leaner meat, though. And yeah, as it's cooking all of that fat and butter is going to come to the top. And even the final product isn't that attractive. This isn't a dish that's long on presentation with a nice, red color. It just tastes damn good.

                      Not having a fine enough dice on the vegetables is, I think, a good error analysis Keep 'em fine. But more importantly, I think your efforts to speed up the process might have hurt your results. One of the easiest ways to kill a Bolognese is to rush it. It will feel like it's taking forever, and it might (when I do a big potful for freezing, it takes 8-10 hours), but if you don't keep the heat low and give it as much time as it needs to reduce and come together, the flavors won't develop and it'll just come out flat. At the risk of sounding corny, the most important thing in making Bolognese may very well be patience.

                      Since you're a little unfamiliar with what the final product should be like, That Hazan recipe is a good place to start. Get it and follow it to the letter... exactly... and I think the result will help you understand and then adjust other recipes, if need be. If I was still in Chicago, I'd tell you to swing by and pick up a care package the next time I make it :-)

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Dmnkly

                        "Since Hazan's recipe was referenced, she's adding a cup of milk, a cup of wine and a cup and a half of canned tomatoes (not paste) to three quarters of a pound of ground beef. "


                        Jfood's recipe in Hazan page 128 is 3/4 pound of meat; 1C dry white wine; 1/2C milk and 2C canned tomatoes

                        1. re: jfood

                          And my Hazan recipe, page 204 is 3/4 # ground chuck, 1 cup of wine, 1 cup of milk and 1 1/2 cups tomatoes. What's up Marcella?

                          1. re: donali

                            There are 2 Hazan bolognese recipes. It's been discussed here before and there has never been a good explanation as to why the recipes differ.

                      2. I think you might want to contact Lynn Rossetto Kaspar on her website "The Splendid Table"--tell her your trouble and see what she says--after all, she wrote the recipe.

                        1. I use Hazan's recipe (triple the amounts) and the ground chuck I buy (from a great butcher in SF) does not produce fatty liquid. It does take the better part of a day so I've learned I must not start it in the afternoon. I can't resist adding fresh chopped basil and a little dried basil and dried oregano. The recipe is not written this way but I this is how I prefer it. (For the wine, I use Campanile Pinot Grigio.)

                          1. Your expectations re tomato are American. The amount of tomato in ragus of this type vary from a hint, to a touch, to just noticeable. It's a meat sauce, not a tomato sauce. It should not look red. Maybe vaguely salmonish at most, but more brown than pink/red.

                            And the vegetables should indeed be chopped on the fine side. They are there to build the foundation of flavor.

                            Now, you see, there's a lot of variation in what "ground beef" means. In Bologna, it might mean a finely minced or coarsely ground hanger or skirt-type steak - a toughish cut with lots of flavor. Other recipes would added pork for sweetness and veal (or rabbit) for the glazing properties of the collagen in young mammal flesh....

                            Americans not accustomed to this style of ragu have to overcome a lot of programming that comes from the (wonderful but different) "gravies" adapted by southern Italians when they immigrated to the US.

                            Both involve long cooking, but with different methods. The Bolognese way is a series of reductions.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Karl S

                              In my mind, traditional Bolognese is a subtly flavoured dish. As such, the quality of the ingredients and the deftness with which they are combined are key. I agree with the posters above that tomato should be kept in the background.

                              As mentioned above, there are endless variations in Bologna and environs--I had it almost every day there for a week in different places and each was different.

                              If you want to "kick it up a notch" [BARF] consider the following:

                              1) I agree with nutmeg--though just a wee bit.
                              2) I generally use a big bay leaf
                              3) Duck, goose, or rabbit liver is awesome--I add, oh, maybe 2 oz per pound of beef, finely chopped and sauteed for about 5 min after the mirepoix are sweated.
                              4) Stock!!! The richer the better--gives a great meaty flavour
                              5) Cream in lieu of milk. Yes, this is an iconoclastic (sacrilegious?) touch, but it works nicely. I just add it to taste a bit before serving.
                              6) Goes without saying, but real Parmagiano Reggiano is essential.
                              7) I think that the chopping of the mirepoix is important--I actually do a nice brunoise for special occasions. People marvel at the perfect little 2 mm cubes of carrot.

                              If you want something that walks the line between the tomato-centric Italian-American version and the more authentic Bolognese version, here is my personal take, which is part of my lasagne recipe:

                              Meaty Lasagne

                              Yield: one 13” by 9” pan (serves 6 to 12) plus about 5 cups of extra meat sauce.

                              This lasagne occupies a middle ground between the tomato-y Italian-American version and the meaty/creamy Bolognese version. The sauce is, of course, delicious on spaghetti as well. For this reason, the recipe below makes more than twice as much sauce as you will need for the lasagne itself.



                              4 oz pancetta, finely chopped
                              2 TB olive oil
                              5 oz poultry liver (goose, duck, or chicken), finely chopped
                              4 large cloves of garlic, minced

                              3 medium onions, finely chopped
                              1 large carrot, finely chopped
                              2 medium stalks celery, finely chopped

                              2 pounds lean ground beef

                              ½ dry white wine

                              2 cups very rich meat stock (I like to use veal demi-glace)

                              1 large bay leaf
                              1 ½ tsp dried oregano
                              ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
                              ¼ tsp ground black pepper

                              28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
                              ½ cup cream

                              Salt to taste, about ½ tsp
                              Sugar to taste, about 1 tsp


                              500 gm ricotta
                              1 egg
                              2/3 cup chopped parsley
                              ½ tsp ground black pepper
                              1 pound mozzarella and/or mild provolone cheese, grated
                              Salt to taste


                              1 pound lasagne noodles


                              ¼ pound mozzarella and/or mild provolone cheese
                              2 oz parmagiano reggiano (or aged provolone) cheese



                              Cook pancetta and olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven until light brown, then add poultry liver, cooking (stirring frequently) for several minutes until it has lost its pink colour. Add garlic and cook for a few minutes, until it has lost its sharp edge. Add onions, carrots, and celery and cook until softened, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add ground beef, raise heat to medium high, and cook until it has lost its pink colour, breaking it up with a spoon—do not let the meat brown.

                              Add white wine, raise the heat, and cook until evaporated. Add stock, bay leaf, nutmeg, oregano, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered (you want the stock to reduce a bit) for an hour or so, until the meat is tender.

                              Add the tomatoes and cream, and simmer uncovered for another 30 minutes.

                              Add salt to taste, then add sugar (if needed) to take away just a bit of the tang of the tomatoes.

                              Cheese Filling:

                              Beat the filling ingredients together in a stand mixer or by hand until smooth.


                              Boil noodles in salted water until barely done. Drain, and toss gently with a little butter or oil to keep them from sticking to one another.


                              Butter a 13” by 9” pan. Layer as follows (starting from the bottom)

                              One layer of noodles
                              About 1/3 of the cheese filling
                              About 1 cup of sauce
                              Another layer of noodles
                              Another 1/3 of the filling
                              Another layer of noodles
                              Remaining 1/3 of the filling
                              A final layer of noodles
                              About 2 cups of meat sauce
                              Grated cheese topping


                              Cover with aluminium foil and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes; remove foil and bake for another 10 minutes or so, until slightly crusty on top.

                              1. re: zamorski


                                Nutmeg is important - you shouldn't really notice it, but it's absence would be missed.

                                Rabbit liver: I think rabbit liver is the finest of all mammal livers, albeit virtually unknown in the US in recipes and cooking chatter. Puts calf liver to shame. While it's use in ragu is deeply canonical, I really would resent having to give up having it for itself....

                                1. re: Karl S

                                  was lucky enough to have fresh rabbit liver when brother had a farm. Wow!