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Ragù Bolognese: the authorized version

Ingredients for ragù Bolognese
The herbs on the right, often added in Tuscany, are expressly forbidden in the official recipe of the strict and somewhat autocratic Camera di Commercio in Bologna

Most regions in Italy have their own version of ragù and while the cooking process is similar, they all seem to differ with regard to the type and proportions of meat used. Ragù Bolognese is of course the classic sauce that is beloved by the English speaking world as Spaghetti Bolognese, much to the annoyance of every mayor of Bologna for decades who would prefer that you follow the tradition of their city and accompany the ragù with fresh egg pasta, specifically tagliatelle, but never spaghetti.

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They are fighting a losing battle I’m afraid because the only thing I could cook in England at university almost 50 years ago was spaghetti bolognese and I don’t remember seeing any egg pasta anywhere at that time so a tradition was started a long time ago that I don’t think will ever disappear in many countries outside Italy.

There have always been different opinions as to the correct ingredients for ragù bolognese so in 1982 the official website of Bologna’s Camera di Commercio laid down the law with its authorized recipe for ragù Bolognese or as they say, the vero ragù alla Bolognese. Their list of ingredients and cooking directions are incredibly precise and include the correct proportions of everything and they also attach a short list of permitted variations and a second list of items that are not permitted. Only Italians take their traditional foods so seriously!

I was glad to see that almost all the ingredients that are used by the Italians I know, including my 87 year old mother-in-law, are on the permitted list for the authorized recipe.

The mayor of Bologna should relax a little because one of the most famous Italian culinary words in the world is bolognese, an adjective obviously derived from his city, even if it’s mostly used in conjunction with spaghetti.

Ragù Bolognese simmering on the stove
With a couple of hours of gentle simmering still to go, this sauce will thicken considerably

Ingredients for 8-9 people:

If you’re going to spend 3 hours preparing this ragù properly then it makes sense to either cook for a crowd or to make it in sufficient quantity to put some in the freezer so you can have a couple of evenings with nothing more to do than boil the pasta. Ragù freezes very well and I think actually improves a little during the process.

Fresh or dried egg pasta, preferably tagliatelle

800g ground beef and pork ( of which no more than 200g should be pork)

150g pancetta (only necessary if the entire 800g above is ground beef)

140g onions

2 medium carrots

2-3 ribs celery

2 large glasses red wine (can be white but red is better)

800g passata di pomodoro (use less passata if adding some stock)

1 large spoon tomato paste/concentrate

half glass milk

Extra virgin Italian olive oil (plus a little butter perhaps)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

a little grated nutmeg

2 bay leaves

Freshly grated parmigiano reggiano


Traditionally this ragù used ground beef from the diaphragm but these days the diaphragm muscle is in demand by restaurants for hanger steak and skirt steak so some of the tougher collagen-rich cuts from the front of the animal can be used like shoulder, neck, belly or brisket. The neck or chuck is ideal for this dish and also the neck/shoulder of pork known as capocollo.

Ragù Bolognese plated with egg pasta


1. Use a cast iron or other heavy bottomed pan where the sauce can simmer for hours without burning.

2. If using slices of pancetta, cook them first for a few minutes to render the fat.

3. Prepare the classic Italian battuto with the chopped onion, carrot and celery and add to the pan with some olive oil. Cook for 5-10 minutes or so on medium low heat without browning.

4. Turn the heat up and add all the ground meat, salt well to extract the juices and sauté for about 10 mins stirring frequently so it all browns and nothing burns.

5. Add the wine and when the alcohol has evaporated and the liquid has reduced add the tomato concentrate, passata, salt, pepper and a little nutmeg.

6. When the sauce begins to bubble turn down the heat to a very low simmer, uncover or partially cover the pan and cook slowly for at 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally.

7. Add the milk half way through and keep more passata or stock on hand to add throughout the cooking process if the sauce is drying out too much. When ready it should be a thickish sauce and not soupy at all. Adjust for salt and pepper.

8. Before serving mix the appropriate quantity of ragù with the cooked drained pasta and when plated everyone can sprinkle on their own parmigiano as required.


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