One of the benefits of living in Italy was eating, on a regular basis, spectacular food. What it did for my waistline need not be mentioned. What it did for my understanding was raise the bar on good eating. Which, in concert with watching Italians cook (and the constant conversations about cooking with fellow patrons at the butcher shop), improved my own culinary powers. I write more about this in Il Bel Centro, of course, and more importantly about how cooking without a map made me a more intuitive cook. But today, I just want to focus on ragù. A simple ragù. Or maybe not so simple. Many people will brown some beef and cover it with a jar of pasta sauce and call that ragù, when in actuality with very little extra work you can have something amazing. All it takes are four secrets I picked up living in Spello.
Here are the secrets, and afterwards, I’ll post my recipe, though there is quite a bit of room for variation, so please don’t tie yourself to numbers and amounts.
Consider fat and meats. The best ragù begins with a dollop of animal fat. That is just true. In Italy, I’d use something delicious from the butcher, maybe the scoop I got free with my back half of a chicken. Here, even if I just use a couple of tablespoons of Snow Cap lard, my sauce is richer and more unctuous. I don’t like a fatty sauce, so that’s not what we’re going for…this just elevates the tomatoes, makes them silky and round. A flavorful way to get that fat is by rendering pancetta (or in the States, I just use whatever bacon I have in the fridge, since we always opt for ones light in smokiness anyway). But I admit I like to render them in a bit of lard. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Other than fat, also think about your meats. The Umbrian secret to a rich and layered sauce, full of flavor notes, is to use multiple meats. I use ground beef and three kinds of pork (bacon, ground pork, and sausage) in this recipe, but I’ll often throw in some ribs or a chop or even a cheap steak. Meat with bones is particularly satisfactory, as bones add a bit of gelatin which amps the softness in a sauce. Just brown them between the pancetta stage and the ground meats stage.
Use large salt. I discovered this by happenstance. My local alimentari stocked two kinds of salt—giant crystals I only ever used for salting pasta water and super-fine that was practically saline dust. One day I was low on the fine salt and so opted to throw in some large grain salt into my sauce. I was shocked at the difference. But that could’ve been coincidence, so I went back and forth, both there and at home, and I’ve landed on the fact that it makes a big difference, though I’ve yet to figure out why.
Add whole onion pierced with a clove. Just toss it in with the tomatoes. It adds a little spice that is impossible to miss, and yet so subtle, no one will know what it is.
Stick the pot in the oven. My best guess is that indirect keeps the sauce cooking at a lower temperature, which improves the flavor and the texture of the meat. Whatever it is, I’ve found that cooking the sauce in a covered Dutch oven in the oven is vastly superior to cooking on the stovetop. More convenient, too. I just stick the burbling sauce into the oven and let it do its thing for hours while the house gets progressively more divinely-scented. PS, This works spectacularly for chili, too.
Bonus trick! Not included in the tally because this isn’t necessarily a secret, but I certainly didn’t know about it until Umbrians looked at me wonky when I expressed surprise—add a splash of milk to the sauce. It tenderizes the meat and rounds the harshness out of the sauce. I don’t always do this, mostly because I forget, but I’m always glad when I remember.
And now the recipe!
Do you have any ragù tricks? Please tell us all about it in the comment section! And as ever feel free to share the post with others! And don’t forget, you can pair this ragù with homemade pasta! Find the recipe right here. It’s easier than you’d imagine.
Extraordinary Ragù Recipe
Ingredients for a whole pot’s worth of sauce
2 T lard (optional if you are using bacon below, but I find lard of some kind adds richness, see note above)
2 slices bacon (assuming you can’t get pancetta, but certainly use pancetta if you have it!), chopped
optional meats (see note above) like ribs, chops, chuck steaks, etc.
2 pounds of ground beef, 85% lean
1 pound ground pork
1/2 pound Italian sausage, hot or mild, whatever your preference (I get the bulk sausage, but you can also just get links and open them up)
1 large onion, chopped, plus one tiny onion (whole) pierced with a clove or two
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 bay leaves (the fresher the better)
1/2 to 3/4 cup of red wine (use white in a pinch, or I’ve even used dry vermouth, just something acid to get those delicious browned bits from the bottom of the pan)
1 6 ounce can of tomato paste
3 28-ounce cans of whole Italian tomatoes (I use Cento brand)
1-2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (I use 2 or maybe more, but I like heat)
2 teaspoons large grain salt (I use the large pink salt grains in the grinder from Costco)
1-2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried mint
In a generous Dutch oven, render bacon in lard if using. Once it approaches crispness, remove the pork from pot.
If using optional meats, salt and pepper them, and then brown them in the rendered fat. Remove, and add to the plate with bacon.
Add ground beef, pork, and sausage and brown. Remove to plate. I’m not too particular here, if some ground bits of beef stay in the pot for the next step, I kind of like that.
Add chopped onion (some people would add the whole onion with clove in it there at this point to brown it a bit, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, do what you love), garlic, bay leaves, herbs and pepper flakes, salt. Cook until the onion is soft but not brown.
Add wine to the pan and scrape up the bottom of the pan to incorporate the browned bits into the onions. Cook for a minute or two to get the harsh alcohol smell out of the sauce. It should cook down to just a bare glisten of liquid.
Add the tomato paste and then fill the empty can with water and add that to the onions. Stir well.
Add the three cans of tomatoes in the following way—open the can, strain the juice/puree into the waiting pot, then use an immersion blender to blend up the tomatoes before dumping those into the pot. Repeat with the other two cans. You can use diced or pureed tomatoes I suppose but as far as I can tell, the cans of whole tomatoes are the first pass, the best tomatoes. The dodgy ones get diced and pureed since no one can tell.
Fill one of the cans with water and add to the pot, and then maybe add another half can of water. I say that because sometimes I add one can, sometimes two, sometimes in between. Just showing you that you can play fast and loose with these “rules”.
If you’d like, add a splash of milk here.
If you haven’t yet, here’s the time to add the onion pierced with a clove.
Add the meats back to the pot and stir well. When the watched pot begins to boil, cover it with the lid, remove from the heat, and put into a waiting 325 degree oven. Let it relax for three or four hours.
Storage note: I always make a huge pot, which keeps me in ragù for some time. Here’s how I store it. Let the sauce get to room temperature, then fill gallon freezer bags with it. Flatten the bags and place on a cookie sheet. Put the sheet in the freezer. When the sauce is frozen, you can remove the cookie sheet (it’s just there so that the sauce freezes in a thin line). The bags are now easy to store, easy to find in the freezer, and defrost quickly.