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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell; Headshots From Left to Right: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images, Noam Galai/Getty Images, Barbara Banks, Food & Wine
Recipe Review

We Tested 4 Bolognese Recipes and the Winner Is Simply Flawless

published Feb 5, 2021
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When I first got into cooking, I assumed the term “Bolognese” was just another way to say red meat sauce. In fact, it wasn’t until I went to culinary school that I learned Bolognese wasn’t the Italian-American meat sauce my parents served me weekly growing up, but rather a vegetable and meat braise that’s not really saucy at all.

Bolognese originally hails from Bologna, Italy, hence the name ragù alla Bolognese (the word ragù translates to “sauce”). There are many iterations of Bolognese, but most consist of a beef- or pork-based sauce cooked with an aromatic trio of carrots, celery, and onions. The mixture is simmered with white wine, milk or cream, and/or chopped whole tomatoes.

Whereas true Bolognese is just as much about the aromatic base of vegetables as it is the meat, Italian-American versions are very meat-heavy (and often use red wine) and more reminiscent of southern Italian dishes. My goal with this showdown was to test both varieties (and a few that fell in between) to find the very best one. Here’s how it went.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Meet Our 4 Contenders

I began by searching for high-ranking, well-reviewed recipes. For the most traditional version, I chose Marcella Hazan’s Italian Bolognese. Hazan had an enormous impact on the way Americans cook Italian food — she was referred to by New York restauranteur Lidia Bastianich as “the first mother of Italian cooking in America.” In the 1970s, she caught the eye of the New York Times while teaching cooking lessons out of her Manhattan apartment, which launched her career as a beloved cookbook author. Her Bolognese is short on ingredients, but long on cooking time (it requires a three-hour braise). Would that time investment pay off?

I also included Grace Parisi’s Bolognese recipe from Food & Wine. Her recipe is similar to Marcella’s, but instead of using solely beef, she leans into pork with the addition of pancetta. Her recipe promises to be on the table in just 90 minutes.

Anne Burrell won our meatball showdown and studied under some famed Italian-American chefs, so I figured she’d be able to provide insight into good Bolognese. Her recipe includes three types of meat, tomato paste, and red wine, and takes about three hours to make.

Ina Garten’s weeknight Bolognese is very highly rated and comes together in well under an hour. Her slimmed-down recipe doesn’t call for any traditional aromatics and uses lean sirloin as the meat. Ina has won several Kitchn showdowns, including pot roast and chocolate cake, so I had to know: Would the Queen of Comfort reign over Bolognese as well? Would ease triumph over tradition? I was determined to find out.

How I Tested the Recipes

I cooked all four Bolognese recipes on the same day. Rather than taste them with pasta, I kept this battle all about the sauce, knowing the best-tasting sauce would taste the best with noodles, too. I followed each recipe exactly and used canned San Marzano tomatoes anytime a recipe called for canned tomatoes.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

1. Ina Garten’s Weeknight Bolognese

This battle proved that faster isn’t always better. Ina’s recipe starts with lean sirloin instead of a fattier, more flavorful meat like chuck and uses garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes instead of the traditional aromatics. Unfortunately, those flavors were overpowered by the taste of red wine, which didn’t have enough time to cook off, and the final splash of cream sat on my palate in an unpleasing way. I won’t be making this Bolognese again.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

2. Anne Burrell’s Pasta Bolognese

Anne’s recipe starts off strong: She uses a high-quality combo of brisket, chuck, and round, and has you chop the aromatics in the food processor to cut down on prep time. Unfortunately, two full cups of tomato paste proved to be too intense, and similar to Ina’s sauce, the flavor of the red wine was overpowering. Ultimately, this recipe took all the time and effort of a Sunday sauce without the rich flavors, deep comfort, and satisfaction that I was looking for. It just felt like a very fancy red sauce.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

3. Food & Wine’s Pasta Bolognese, by Grace Parisi

Food & Wine’s recipe comes together in just 90 minutes, so in theory you could whip it up on a weeknight. The use of both pancetta and ground pork made the flavor super porky — in a good way! The white wine and canned tomatoes kept the sauce light and bright, and I liked that it stayed mostly true to a traditional Italian Bolognese. Overall I really liked this recipe and would absolutely make it again, but the ingredients didn’t quite sing the way our winner’s recipe did, which is why it’s taking second place.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

4. Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese Meat Sauce

Marcella is the queen of Italian cooking for a reason. This super-traditional Bolognese cannot be beat! She uses the classic aromatic trio of onions, carrots, and celery and brings all the flavors together using white wine, milk, chopped canned tomatoes, and nutmeg. Even though there’s a full cup of wine in the recipe, it’s given more than enough time to cook out, and the tomatoes have ample time to cook down as well so they add flavor without overpowering the dish. The milk simmers for hours and is cooked until the fat separates from the meat, creating the faintest caramel flavor. The marriage of those flavors with the nutmeg plays a magical dance on your palate. I can confidently say it’s the only Bolognese recipe I’ll ever make. Bellissimo!

Do you have a favorite Bolognese recipe? Let us know in the comments!