Tender Ragù Alla Bolognese (no milk)

Forget what you’ve heard. Bolognese no longer requires milk in it to be official, nor is it hard to make. Simmer a pot of this rich, meaty, ragù alla bolognese (no milk recipe) and toss it with some homemade pasta for your next Sunday supper. Inspired by the authorized recipe for bolognese governed by the Bologna, Italy, Chamber of Commerce.

Plate of pappardelle with ragu bolognese.
Pappardelle with ragu alla bolognese makes such a cozy Sunday supper

There is such a thing as good fortune. I know because I’ve experienced it. The first time I ever tasted bolognese sauce I was lucky enough to be in Bologna, the home of ragù bolognese. I wasn’t much of meat sauce lover but I was raised to be a thoughtful guest so I accepted the plate of pappardelle with bolognese from my host with few expectations.

I wasn’t prepared for what was set in front of me. Nor was I prepared with how it tasted. Delicate. Sweet. Rich with meat that was so tender it melted in my mouth and hugged the pappardelle.

Bolognese—you had me at hello.

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Ragù bolognese research epiphany

It took many years later to make bolognese because frankly, I was afraid. Bolognese has a reputation for reputation for a long cooking time, which I mistook for being a difficult cooking process.

My goal is to give you the confidence to make the best bolognese sauce.

I first turned to my Italian cooking bible, The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, the queen of Italian cooking. It has never let me down. And I made her renowned recipe for ragù bolognese.

It was, of course, fabulous but I wasn’t finished researching.

pan of pasta tossed with ragu alla bolognese with fresh basil leaves.
A pan of pasta with bolognese sauce warms the whole room.

You’d think I’d consult my grandmas’ recipe books, but my family is from southern Italy (Reggio Calabria and Naples) and meat sauce or bolognese is more local to northern Italy. Meat sauce wasn’t a staple for our family .

As I studied more about the traditional recipe for bolognese, I realized how nuanced of a dish it was with my usual references of Serious Eats, Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit each having their own and sometimes differing opinions.

Every recipe had its own nuance, which is perfectly acceptable in Italian cooking. Almost ready to develop my own bolognese recipe , I stumbled upon a major update in my research.

Milk was no longer a required ingredient!

The role of milk in bolognese

Milk has always been a benchmark ingredient in bolognese. If a recipe didn’t have it, many wouldn’t consider it bolognese.

Historically, milk was seen as a way to tenderize tough cuts of meat used in bolognese. It also helped mellow the gaminess of meats like wild boar used in Italian cuisine. Milk also serves to help balance the acidity of the tomatoes.

All over Italy, there are standards, parameters and whole committees to manage protected ingredients like San Marzano tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Chianti wine and more.

Bolognese isn’t any different. The city of Bologna has an official recipe for bolognese with specific ingredient qualifiers for what bolognese is and what it isn’t (teaser: it’s not a tomato sauce).

And, in April of 2023, the former “approved recipe standards” for bolognese were revised.

Whether it’s because leaner cuts of meat are available today or to help consumers with dairy dietary restrictions, the Accademia Italiana Della Cucina that governs the bolognese recipe decreed that authentic bolognese sauce no longer “requires” milk.

So—I was ready and made the controversial decision to eliminate milk from this ragù bolognese recipe.

Let the debate begin!

Bolognese without milk: the new “rules”

celery, onion and carrots for a soffritto for bolognese sauce
The base of bolognese sauce is a soffritto.

Here are the bolognese “rules” I’m following from the official recipe:

Ground Meat Mixture. A minced combo of beef and two kinds of pork (pancetta) but not veal, smoked pancetta or bacon.

↠You’ll use a combo of ground beef, fresh ground pork, and diced unsmoked pancetta.

Wine. Typically white but red wine is ok. Never brandy or another alcohol.

↠White wine is the choice for this recipe.

Tomato. A blend of passata (tomato puree) and paste.

↠The passata I recommend is Mutti Passata in addition to tomato paste.

Soffritto. Sometimes also called the “holy trinity” in cooking. Soffritto is a vegetable mixture of diced onion, carrots and celery.

Not changing one thing here!

Equipment needed for bolognese

Traditionally, bolognese is made in a terracotta pot, similar to a chambra but an enameled cast iron dutch oven (the wider the better) is a perfect choice. Either way you want a large pot so the bolognese can beautifully brown.

How to make bolognese, step by step

Bolognese is all about adding ingredients in layers and cooking each layer until it is dry or absorbed which helps achieve an intense depth of flavor.

Here are the steps:

wooden cutting board with knife dicing celery with carrots and onions for bolognese.
Mince carrots, onions, and celery (soffritto)
Pan of diced pancetta being sauteed for ragu bolognese
Cook small pieces of pancetta until browned and drain.
soffritto of carrots, onions and celery being sauteed for ragu bolognese sauce
Saute the soffritto until soft (don’t brown).
beef and pork being browned for ragu alla bolognese
Add ground meats and brown to soffritto.
white wine being poured into a white pot of browned meat and carrots for bolognese sauce.
Pour in white wine
pancetta being added to bolognese sauce in a white pot.
Add tomato products and pancetta.
white pan of ragu bolognese cooked for 3 hours
After 3 hours of slow simmering.
Adding a pat of butter to bolognese sauce in a pan.
A pat of butter tossed with pasta and pasta water.
  • Start by making a soffritto by dicing onion, carrots and celery.
  • Saute diced pancetta in olive oil and remove from the pan.
  • Add the soffritto and saute until soft but not brown.
  • Next add in both ground meats, salt and black pepper. Use a wooden spoon to mince the meats and cook until the meat is browned.
  • Pour in the white wine and a pinch of nutmeg, cooking until absorbed into the meat completely and the pan is dry.
  • Next stir in the tomato paste and the passata. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Pour in chicken stock.
  • Simmer the bolognese for 3 hours on the lowest temperature.
  • Add pasta water and a pat of butter at the end. And, of course, parmesan cheese.

Your path to the best bolognese

Moderate heat. Everything is over moderate heat.

Building layers of flavor. Every step and ingredient is cooked and simmered in steps until it’s dry. This is the key to the recipe.

Simmer on the lowest heat. The sauce should barely bubble as it simmers. If you’ve done these steps correctly, it is impossible to burn the sauce.

No lid needed. If you are simmering the sauce at a low enough temperature, there is no need to put a lid on the pot.

You’ll add in butter and pasta water at the end which adds a luxurious creaminess.

Signs of a good bolognese

white plate of ragu bolognese over pappardelle pasta on a table
Ragu bolognese should cling to the pasta.

The sauce should cling to the pasta. This is achieved by the added pasta water and the butter. You shouldn’t see meat separated from the pasta.

The meat should be so finely minced from the long, slow cook and it and the vegetables should practically melt in your mouth.


Pro Tip

The core principle of bolognese is low and slow. Cook every step at a low temperature, slowly.


The best pasta for bolognese

Close up of pan of ragu bolognese sauce with basil leaves on top
Noodles that can be twirled are the perfect host for bolognese sauce.

A long pasta noodle gives the bolognese sauce lots of real estate to cling. My favorite types of pasta for bolognese are:

Tagliatelle. A delicate egg pasta, tagliatelle pasta is wider than fettuccine but narrower than pappardelle.

Pappardelle. A ribbon pasta. You can buy dried pappardelle or cut your own from a fresh pasta recipe with a pasta cutter (love this doube flat and fluted pasta wheel.

Spaghetti. I know I don’t have to tell you what spaghetti is. It is a great alternative to one of the wider pasta types.

Storage, reheating and freezing tips

Store. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Reheat. The sauce will dry out even more when refrigerated. Add some pasta water, if available, to the sauce in a saucepan and heat over low heat until warmed through.

Freeze. Bolognese freezes beautifully. Freeze in a freezer-safe container or resealable bag for up to 3 months. Defrost completely before following the reheat tips above.

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Plate of pappardelle with ragu bolognese.
5 from 2 votes

Tender Ragù Alla Bolognese (no milk)

Forget what you've heard. Bolognese no longer requires milk in it to be official, nor is it hard to make. Simmer a pot of this rich, meaty, ragù alla bolognese (no milk recipe) and toss it with some homemade pasta for your next Sunday supper. Inspired by the authorized recipe for bolognese governed by the Bologna, Italy, Chamber of Commerce.
Prep Time:30 minutes
Cook Time:3 hours
Total Time:3 hours 30 minutes
Servings 6 people

Ingredients
 

Instructions

  • Heat a large wide dutch oven over medium heat. Add the olive oil and stir in the diced pancetta. Saute in the olive oil until browned but not charred. (That will affect the flavor of the sauce.)
    Use a slotted spoon to remove the pancetta to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. Set aside.
  • Add a little more oil to the pan if it looks too dry. Add the carrots, celery and onion to the pan. Saute the soffritto until cooked and softened a bit for 5-10 min.
  • Add the ground meat and the ground pork to the vegetables.
    Season with the salt and pepper.
    Using the edge of a wooden spoon, finely mince the meats. Brown (but don't let it get too dark), over medium high heat until cooked about 8 minutes.
  • Pour in 1 c wine and the nutmeg and cook until the wine evaporates and the meat is almost dry in the pan. This might take 5 minutes or so.
    After it does, stir in the tomato paste and melt into the meat. Stir in the passata and chicken stock. Allow to come together and then stir in the cooked pancetta.
  • Reduce the heat to the lowest of simmers. The sauce should barely bubble (but it should bubble.)
  • Simmer the bolognese for 3 hours on the lowest temperature.
  • Add pasta water and a pat of butter at the end.

Notes

Tips for the best bolognese:
  • You’ll easily have enough sauce for 8-10 people so adjust the pasta portions as needed. We typically make 1 lb. for 4-6 people,but to be honest end up with leftovers.
  • For the wine, I recommend a dry white wine like a pinot grigio or chardonnay. I don’t recommend a sweet wine.
  • Low and slow is the name of the game. This is not a sauce meant to be rushed. Take your time and enjoy the process!
  • Make ahead up to 4 days ahead. This is a sauce that gets better as it sits.
Store. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
Reheat. The sauce will dry out even more when refrigerated. Add some pasta water, if available, to the sauce in a saucepan and heat over low heat until warmed through.
Freeze. Bolognese freezes beautifully. Freeze in a freezer-safe container or resealable bag for up to 3 months. Defrost completely before following the reheat tips above.
Course: Main Course, Pasta
Cuisine: Italian
Author: Lori Murphy
Did you make this recipe? Tag @josieandnina or tag #josieandnina!

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4 Comments

    1. Hi Mike! Good catch (and all corrected)! There will be enough sauce for about 8-10 people especially once the pasta water is added. Adjust the amount of cooked pasta as you see fit. For the wine, I use a crisp, dry white wine like a Pinot Grigio but have used Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc as well. Please let me know if you have any more questions and thanks you!