Walk into a restaurant in Bologna and order “Spaghetti Bolognese” and you’ll be met with blank Italian stares. What we call ‘Spag Bol’ is technically tagliatelle al ragu, an ancient and proud Bologna tradition, and one of the city’s two greatest exports (the other being tertiary education).
Spaghetti Bolognese is not an ancient tradition, but there is a smidge of pride there. Everyone’s got a different take on the 6pm staple, and nothing gets internet trolls frothing like a departure from the ‘classic’ Bolognese recipe. Some people chuck in dark chocolate or butter. Others swear by milk, white wine or even instant coffee.
Whose cuisine reigns supreme? Try for yourself and be the judge. Here’s 11 ways to pimp your Bolognese.
We learned this one from Piera Pagnoni, a Bologna Nonna who works the pasta counter at Ms. Frankie. This lady has forgotten more about Bolognese than most of us will ever learn (you should have seen the look she gave us when we told her how much tomato we add in our recipe). Piera swears by a dash of milk, right at the end of the simmer. Just creams the sauce up a smidge, levelling out those meaty, garlicky notes. Other chefs reckon you should simmer your meat in milk at the beginning—it’s meant to tenderize the mince. Once it’s been milked (ew), add your vegetables, stock, tomatoes (sorry, Nonna) and go from there.
Piera Pagnoni also swore by this one. Once you’ve simmered you Bolognese sauce for an hour or so, right before you take it off the heat, whack in a nob of unsalted butter (fresh, proper butter, not margarine spread). Along with the milk, it enriches the sauce, taking what was merely delicious to new and hidden realms of erotic pleasure (our words, not Nonna Pagnoni’s). We tested this exclusively at home and can confirm, it is effing good. Not surprising really—when was the last time you thought to yourself, “You know what? That’s too much butter...”
This one’s a bit more controversial, but apparently, it’s a thing. The idea is to grate Granny Smith apples (or any tart, firm apple) into the Bolognese sauce and let it simmer down with the tomatoes and everything else. Combined with a dusting parmesan, it gives your Bolognese a sweet/salty kick, kind of like a meaty salted caramel (actually that sounds terrible). We haven’t taste tested this one, so give it a crack and report back to us. Recipe over here.
This is a trick favoured by Marco Pierre White (and if you’ve got a problem with it, take it up with Marco...god help you). Marco grates in a little 80% good quality dark chocolate, right at the end of the simmer. We’ve also heard of chefs who drop a nub of chocolate in and let it melt through the sauce. Not heaps—you don’t want to make a dessert Bolognese. Just enough to give the sauce a supple, sultry complexity. Recipe over here if you’re game.
Mix Your Meats
To be honest, we’ve tried this one a few times and can’t tell the difference. We even once combined beef, veal and pork in some sort of farmhouse extravaganza. Tasted...pretty much the same. Meh. But still, most pro chefs insist on a 50/50 mix of beef and pork meat for a good Bolognese. Whatever you decide, get the cheap stuff—you want a bit of fat in there for flavour. If you buy the premium, extra lean, low-fat, heart-smart organic stuff for $50 a kilo the whole thing will just come out dry and flavourless. Giant 1kg bulk packs two steps above dog food seem to produce a better sauce. Don’t shoot the messenger.
This one has literally kicked off giant scorched-earth internet debates (it all started with British food writer Mary Berry sloshing white wine and cream into her Bolognese on TV). Because everyone KNOWS that you use red wine with Bolognese, right? Red wine and beef are like peaches and cream—culinary soul mates. Well, actually, that’s not quite right. In fact, most old Italian cookbooks recommend white wine instead of red. The Italian Academy of Cooking (real thing) actually laid down the official Bolognese recipe in 1982, and it calls for beef, pancetta, onions, carrots, celery, tomato paste, white wine and milk.
This is the big mistake most Australians make, according to the average Nonna on the street looking for a cannoli. Bologna ragu was never meant to have tomatoes in it—that’s just a bastardised version that got popular in the west (probably because of shadowy machinations on the part of Big Tomato). Naples is the big one on tomatoes anyway, not Bologna. It makes no sense. We tried cooking a batch of Bolognese without any tomatoes at all, and it was...different. Less sweet, not much acidity, more meatiness. Like a delicious bowl of cow.
We’re big on this one. It’s not traditional by any means, but dice up two huge handfuls of random mushrooms and sweat them down with onion and garlic before adding the meat and stock etc. Really packs an umami punch into the Bolognese. Brings out the beefiness of the beef. Nonna Pagnoni might raise a disapproving eyebrow but screw it. Pro tip: vegans can also enjoy the benefits of a good Bolognese by substituting crap-loads of mushrooms instead of beef. This recipe recommends 500g.
This one kicked off as part of a weird Sainsbury’s marketing campaign in the UK. People started putting instant coffee in their Bolognese, and no-one could work out why (or more importantly—why?!) Sainsbury’s freaked everyone out but got heaps of free PR, which was probably the point. We guess in theory instant coffee could make Bolognese a peppy pick-me-up sort of pasta, for when you’ve got an early morning meeting...but nah. Surely this tastes terrible. May as well mix roadside gravel or burnt hair in there. Someone please try this and let us know how it goes.
This one makes a bit more sense. You’re grating parmesan on at the end anyway right? And that dried parmesan husk (the rind you find on the legit, hard-core parmesans) usually ends up in the bin anyway. A lot of chefs chuck the rind into the ragu and let it simmer and melt away into nothing. Apparently, this lends a rich umami flavour to the sauce. We’re too cheap to afford real parmesan that comes with rinds, so we haven’t yet put this one to the test. You can read about 1001 Fun Things To Do With Rinds over here.
We’ve tried this and it does work. There’s a couple of ways you can do it, too. The first is to add a little brown sugar to your soffrito (the onion, celery and carrot your fry up before adding everything else). That helps to caramelise the veggies and lends a lingering sweetness (Matt Preston is a big fan of this technique, and that guy knows his way around a pasta). The other option is just to stir in a couple of teaspoons right at the end of the simmer. Dissolve the sugar into the sauce and give it a good stir. If you insist on using lots of tomatoes (shame, shame, shame on your ancestors), this will help balance out the acidity. But please don’t measure the sugar over the pot—all it takes is a loose lid and you’ve just made some sort of Bolognese parfait...
Keep the good times rolling... here are 13 ways to pimp your packet Mi Goreng noodles.
Image credit: Jenna Fahey-White