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Apr 6, 2009 09:14 AM

Bolognese--how much tomato?

Different recipes for bolognese sauce (ragu) contain wildly different amounts of tomato. Some call for a few tablespoons of tomato paste for a pound of meat, while others call for a 28 oz. can (or even two). There's an enormous difference between meat sauce with some tomato flavor and a tomato sauce with meat--they really aren't the same dish.

I know that in ordinary American Italian restaurants, "bolognese" is just a fancy name for tomato sauce with meat in it. But it seems to be true in some (but not all) upscale restaurants as well.

I hate ordering this and having no idea what I'm going to get.

I've never been to Bologna. What's the story there? Does the amount of tomato vary, or is ragu a fairly standard item, at least in this respect.? (i.e. ignore variations related to milk, chicken liver, and meats other than beef.)

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  1. Personally I prefer more tomato saue and less meat. I found this also varied throughout Italy but generally every one I had had more meat and less tomato than the way I have it at home. I ate Bolognese 3 times in Bologna and each time the meat was more plentiful than the accompanying tomato sauce.

    1. Ragu (the traditional, official Bolognese) is a meat sauce, not a red sauce with meat. From my blog:
      "Ragu is a beloved Italian sauce from Emilia-Romagna and at its core, it is chopped meat(s), sauteed vegetables and liquid (wine, tomatoes, stock, milk, cream). In Northern Italy, ragu is typically chopped into the sauce, while in Southern Italy, meat may be cooked in the sauce, then served separately from it. With aristocratic origins, ragu became a peasant dish as a sauce served over pasta. Lesser, more affordable cuts of meat were braised often with tomatoes, and cream which rose to the top of a can of heated milk. Broth was not used, as it involved animal bones which were too expensive for most. Salt pork, which was available and affordable, was added to the meat for bulk and flavor.

      Many of you are perhaps familiar with Emilia-Romagna’s most famous ragu-bolognese. If you haven’t made bolognese from Marcella Hazan’s recipe, you owe it to yourself to do so. Not simply marinara with meat, Hazan’s bolognese is meat cooked in tomato, milk and white wine. Its richness and intensity of flavor is beyond compare-served most judiciously as a primi over tagliatelle."

      Hazan's recipe was eye-opening to say the least the first time I made and ate it. It was revelatory. More research into ragus had me come up with this recipe:

      3 Replies
      1. re: monavano

        I adore a true ragu/Bolognese...I believe it's one of those underrated foods. Fortunately we just got a new Italian place that makes a wonderful ragu and serves it over homemade pasta....comfort food at it's finest.

        I like meat sauce (or tomato sauce with meat) also, but IMO it's a completely different dish and experience than a fine ragu.

        1. re: Janet from Richmond

          I totally agree Janet. I like them both too, and had not realized until recently, the difference. Now, I would love to make a homemade tagliatelle for my ragu!

        2. My friend who lived in Italy, this was his version. He does have a few variations saying his Mom sometimes would add sausage or a few seasonings, but as all regions of Italy recipes vary greatly.

          1 lb ground beef, 1/2 - 1/2 ground pork or pork sausage, he said mom used pork and beef mixed
          5 oz pancetta
          1 onion diced mine
          1 large carrot diced fine
          2 celery ribs diced fine
          1 cup white wine
          1/2 cup diced tomatoes, mashed a little with a fork first put not purred
          3 tablespoons tomato paste
          1/2 cup beef broth
          Olive oil to saute vegetables
          Salt and pepper to taste
          1 teaspoon dried oregano
          1 tablespoon fresh basil
          1 bay leaf
          1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
          4 teaspoons of minced garlic
          1/2 teaspoon fresh nutmeg
          1/2 cup heavy cream and 1/4 cup milk
          Tagliatelle or linguini pasta

          Saute veggies and meat and cook until done, add tomatoes and paste and broth and mix well, garlic, seasoning and simmer 1 hour until well blended. On low heat add the cream and mix until well blended for another 20 minutes. Serve over the pasta. Many Italians add either a scoop of ricotta or lots of fresh parm. I've made this and it is decadent.

          6 Replies
          1. re: kchurchill5

            Where in Italy did he live? I've never seen oregano or basil in a Bolognese. As I'm sure you know, Bolognese is not something found all over Italy so there is no reason for regional variations.

            1. re: KTinNYC

              Bolognese is a ragu. Ragus are found all over Italy. Herbs and spices can be used in ragus.
              My source is Lynne Rossetto Kasper, author of The Splendid Table. She noted "herbs and spices: used infrequently in ragus and always with a careful hand"
              Of a recipe for A Lighter Contmeporary Ragu Bolognese, she wrote " Cooking and attitudes toward food evolve and change slowly, but contantly."
              I say, "never say never".

              1. re: monavano

                All Bologneses are a Ragu but not all Ragus are Bologneses.

              2. re: KTinNYC

                Born close to Treviso, not sure where it is other than Northern Italy close to the water west side I believe. His father from southern Italy but they lived in Bologna and moved a lot throughout Italiy and other countries as well. Maybe they added those on their own. No idea. This is just his recipe, you can always add or delete what you want. I like the sauce and don't really care what is traditional or not. He just said his Mom called this traditional It is very good however. I just no that sauces from one area of the country to another change drastically

              3. re: kchurchill5

                My recipe is similar to that one but has only 1 Tb. of tomato paste and no basil or rosemary. Bolognese is my favorite. It's always hard to wait for it to cook down into its
                creamy self.

              4. Issue 110 of Saveur has a collection of bolgonese recipes, including the 'classic' as defined by the Bolognese chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina. This one is rather light on the tomato paste.


                2 Replies
                1. re: paulj

                  Thanks very much. I think this set of recipes from Saveur answers the original question.

                  1. re: fhhsalum

                    I was about to recommend the same issue of Saveur. They are all very tasty!

                    I have tried and tried to love Marcella Hazan's milk+wine recipe, and while it's good, I much prefer recipes without the milk (I feel like I am cheating on her by even admitting that! :)). Not sure why.