There and Back Again: My Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese
I love pasta in many guises, but when it comes to ultimate Comfort Pasta, there is nothing that compares to a spaghetti bolognese. By spaghetti bolognese, I mean spaghetti topped with a rich, ground-meat and tomato based sauce. No fancy ragu or such. I don’t think it’s that authentically Italian, but I don’t really care. It’s one of my favorite cool-weather dinners.
Once upon a time, I had what I thought was a perfect recipe for spaghetti bolognese. Then, about a year ago I lost my way. After a year of bewilderingly off-target bolognese, I’ve found my way back.
I blame Heston Blumenthal for messing with my head. (Disclaimer: I am otherwise a big fan of Mr. Blumenthal.) Last year, he tackled spaghetti bolognese on his In Search of Perfection television series (and in the book of course), and came up with a “perfect” version. The perfect Blumenthal version of spaghetti bolognese is, naturally, extremely complicated, but compared to the other “perfect” versions of various popular dishes it seemed to be the most doable. So, we (note the plural: it required a team effort) tackled it, piece by piece. It does help in life to have an almost equally food-obsessive partner for such quests.
It took us 3 full days to accomplish, starting from the pre-ordering of the meaty oxtails at the butcher counter (it’s not a commonly used cut here), finding the perfect spaghetti, ripe tomatoes in December (yes, I know) and the final slow cooking of the sauce. And the result?
It was good, yes, but perfect? Neither of us was sure. But yet it had flashes of something great in there; the meatiness of the gelatinous oxtail, the unctuous richness. So, we embarked on a long journey of trying to tweak that recipe. We tried different meat combinations. (Turkey is a definite no.) We experimented with bacon, chorizo, various sausages, salami. We tried less or more of the vegetables, canned tomatoes alone or fresh alone.
All were interesting, but I still felt off kilter. Then, the other day I made bolognese more or the way I had made it for years until the Blumenthal experiments - and, it was just about perfect.
Mind you, it’s probably because my criteria for a perfect bolognese are different from the great chef’s, as I explain below. And some of the ideas gleaned from the Blumenthal version and the ensuing experiments did creep in, making the sauce even better. In any case, I’m now happy that this is my Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese. I can now move on to perfecting other things.
Defining my Perfect Bolognese
I prefer my bolognese to have a rich, deep taste of tomato, wine, and meat. I also like the meat to be ground quite finely so that you get an integrated ‘meat sauce’, rather than ‘bits of meat suspended in a sauce’.
The experiments with cured meats convinced me that I don’t like cured-meat flavor or smoke flavor in the sauce, but a little bacon is added for richness.
I like the sauce to be rich, but not swimming in fat (a pronounced feature of the Blumenthal version).
It’s key to let the sauce cook for a very long time - minimum 3 hours after the preparatory stage - in a thick-walled pan, ideally a Le Creuset or similar.
The only pasta to use is a robust, dried spaghetti. The kind we use all the time now is substantial and rough textured, as you can see from the picture. That rough surface absorbs sauce in a very satisfying way. It costs almost twice as much as Barilla spaghetti, but is worth it. (If you are using Barilla or other mass-produced line though, I’d go for the spaghettoni rather than spaghetti.)
(For readers in Switzerland, this is the Spaghetti alla chitarra from the Migros Selection line.)
Things I liked and didn’t like about the Blumenthal version
Mixing fresh and canned tomato is a great idea, as is adding some cream - though I used butter instead, for that dairy unctuousness.
Long cooking, of course, is a good thing, though his version takes 9 hours.
The oxtail meat idea was interesting, but obtaining and then cutting the meat off the fiddly bones is way, way too much work - and ultimately, I felt, not quite worth it. It’s also quite expensive here in Switzerland. For the gelatinous quality I use some veal in the meat mixture instead.
His version was too sweet for me for some reason. I also didn’t like the star anise addition at all - this may have added to that sweet flavor somehow. I do like adding star anise to many meat dishes, especially pork, just not this one.
There was also too much added fat overall, which cause a very substantial oil slick to appear on the surface of the sauce.
I’ve always used red wine in bolognese, and he used an ‘oaky Chardonnay’. I prefer the robust red wine.
Recipe: My Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese
For the sauce:
- 450-500g / 1 lb top loin or chuck
- 225-250g / 8 oz veal breast
- 225-250g / 8 oz. pork shoulder
- 100g / 3 oz non-smoked bacon or pancetta or speck, chopped fine
(Note that the beef and pork should be rather marbled, not very lean, if you need to use other cuts.)
Have all of the meats (except the bacon, which you’ll chop yourself) twice ground by the butcher, or grind it yourself (use a grinder or a food processor) until fairly fine but not a paste. If using a food processor, it helps to cube the meat and then half-freeze the cubes first. You can buy already ground meat if you prefer, but it should be not too lean as well.
- 2 cups finely chopped onion
- 2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 cup finely chopped celery
- 1 cup finely chopped carrot
- About 1/4 cup light olive oil
- 1 cup (250ml) red wine such as a Barbera or a Côte du Rhone (but I usually use whatever is handy, as long as it’s robust it’s fine)
- 1 large can (800g) canned tomatoes, the tomatoes smashed up (do this with your hands or in the food processor)
- 2 Tbs. tomato paste
- 4 cups peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes, seeds and all (If in the dead of winter, use another can of canned tomatoes instead)
- 2 bay leaves
- Crushed dried or (preferably) fresh chopped rosemary leaves
- Dried thyme
- Dried oregano
- Grated nutmeg
- About 2 Tbs. butter, more or less to taste
- Stock (veal or beef preferred) or water
- Salt and pepper
And…the pasta etc.:
- Spaghetti or spaghettoni, cooked al dente
- Butter to toss with the spaghetti
- Freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano (freshly grated Grana Padano is acceptable)
- a heavy pan - I use an enamelled cast iron pot
- large frying pan or sauté pan
- Recommended to have: a food processor.
Heat up the olive oil in the heavy pot over medium heat. Toss in all the chopped up vegetables, then lower the heat to about midway between low and medium. Sauté the vegetables over the low heat, stirring occasionally, until it’s limp and very lightly tan.
In a large frying pan, sauté the ground meats until browned, and add it all into the pot. Deglaze (add a bit of the stock or water to the hot pan, scrape off the bits ) the frying pan and add that to the pot too.
Add all the other ingredients except the butter, water and salt and pepper. (The amount of herbs you add really depends on your taste. I like to add quite a bit of chopped fresh rosemary, about 2 tablespoons, because I have childhood memories of happily chewing on bits of rosemary leaves in my mother’s spaghetti bolognese. Add about a teaspoonful of the herbs and several grindings of the nutmeg, then taste after a few hours to see if you want more.)
Bring up the temperature until it’s bubbling, then lower the heat to ‘low’ and simmer, stirring up from the bottom of the pot occasionally, for at least 3 hours, preferably 4 or longer. Add a little stock or water whenever it starts to dry out too much. (You may also do this in the oven, but I prefer to do it on the rangetop and have just a tiny hint of burnt flavor in there.)
At the end of the cooking process, take out the bay leaves, stir in the butter, and add salt and pepper to taste.
This makes a lot of very rich sauce. About 1/2 cup is enough I think for a plate of dinner-portion spaghetti (allowing about 100g or 3 1/2 ounces dry weight per person). Portion and freeze the rest - it freezes beautifully.
To enhance the flavor, toss the freshly cooked spaghetti with a knob of butter prior to ladling on the sauce. Optionally top with freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano, or Grana Padano.
The only thing to serve with this is a green salad with a sharp vinegarette.
While the oil slick on this sauce is not as pronounced as the one that appears on the Blumenthal version, it is impressively deep. You can scoop some of this off if it scares you. (I would scoop off the excess oil prior to adding the butter…which may seem illogical, but you’ll be taking out ‘other’ oils and adding in butter flavor.)
You can also ‘stretch’ the sauce by taking a cupful and adding 1 small can (400g - about 8 oz) of crushed canned tomatoes. Adjust the salt and pepper. Sometimes I prefer this less-rich version.
Or, you can add one cupful to 1 cup of cream…for a very rich creamy sauce indeed.
Adding some sauteed mushrooms enhances it too.
The sauce as-is is perfect for layering in lasagna, stuffing cannellini and such, paired with a perfect Bechamel.
Don’t ruin it by covering it with pre-powdered cardboard ‘parmesan’. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while living in Switerland it’s that mystery cheese products taste really, really bad compared to the real thing.
Finally, in case you are wondering, spaghetti bolognese (also known as ‘spaghetti meat sauce’) is very popular in Japan. It has to be one of the most universally loved dishes in the world, no?