A recent trip to Italy reaffirmed my belief in one of that country’s greatest creations: ragù. It seems like every Italian grandmother, including my husband’s, has her own secret recipe for making this tender meat sauce.
To make a ragù, common cuts of meat and hearty vegetables are slowly cooked with wine and herbs to yield a complexity of flavors—individually distinguishable, yet enhanced by their marriage. You taste it and wonder, “How did they do that?”
The mystery is revealed once you understand the techniques used to make the sauce. The process includes browning the meat and vegetables and reducing the added liquids to intensify flavors.
For great texture, grind the meat yourself, or sear the already ground stuff in chunks
Ragù originated with the peasants of Italy as a way to use up every scrap of meat. Today we still use inexpensive cuts of meat because they offer the most flavor and they benefit from long cooking. For my ragùs, I often use beef chuck and pork shoulder, both of which can be mixed with other meats, including veal, rabbit, or a bit of sausage, pancetta, or prosciutto. For beef ragùs, I like chuck or skirt steak; for pork, the butt or shoulder. Country-style “ribs,” which are actually cut from the shoulder, are also great for ragù.
I prefer to grind my own meat for freshness and because I prefer a coarser grind than what I usually find ground in the grocery store. But when testing the recipes for this article, I discovered that some home grinders can yield a texture that becomes mealy with the long cooking. Here are two solutions:
Pulse chunks of meat in the food processor. For a sauce with a chunkier, more rustic feel, try this trick: Cut the meat into 1- to 1-1/2-inch chunks that include some of the fat for flavor and texture. Pulse these chunks in the food processor in two or three batches until the meat looks lightly ground.
Buy ground meat but don’t crumble it. Many recipes for meat sauce suggest crumbling the ground meat as you add it to the hot oil for browning. The texture of my ragùs will turn out best if instead you break the ground meat into pieces of about 1 inch and sear those until browned on both sides. These chunks seem to take better to the long cooking and will break down more slowly into smaller pieces while the ragù cooks.
For the best flavor, sear, deglaze, reduce, and simmer
The pot needs to be very hot to sear the meat; I put mine over high heat for a few minutes and then turn the heat down to medium high to cook the meat. Only add as much meat as will fit in a single layer. This may mean cooking the meat in batches until you’re ready to add the liquid ingredients, but the extra effort is worthwhile. If you crowd the pot, the meat will steam rather than sear, and it won’t brown well.
Deglaze the pan—with wine, water, or stock—and scrape up all the flavored bits that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan. These browned bits add flavor and color to your ragù.
I almost always deglaze with wine: its acidity balances the richness of the meat. Always use a wine you would drink, though it needn’t be a premium wine. I often use inexpensive Chianti in my beef ragùs.
I don’t pour off any fat before deglazing (as some people do) because I find that the fat adds flavor and makes the finished ragù more unctuous.
Reduce the liquid to build layers of flavor. You must allow the deglazing liquid to reduce by at least half before adding the next ingredient. Rushing this step can result in a lack of intensity.
Simmer to blend flavors gently and tenderize the meat. The effort is minimal; all you need to do is stir occasionally, and add a little stock or water if the ragù looks too dry or is in danger of scorching. Sometimes milk or cream is added to a ragù to round out its flavor while it simmers, as in that most famous of ragùs, ragù Bolognese. I usually add a bit of butter to my ragùs just before serving, which has the same effect.
Pairing pasta with ragù
The pasta to serve with ragù is one that will pick up and hold the sauce. I love penne rigate (which means ridged quills), as well as farfalle and fusilli. The sauce clings to these textured pastas, which are also hearty enough to stand up to the coarse sauce. More unusual noodles that also work well include pappardelle (wide ridged ribbons) and the triangular maltagliati. I also like to serve ragù with gnocchi or over roasted potatoes or polenta.
At the restaurant, I serve plates of pasta and ragù on a per-order basis. To do this, I toss some cooked pasta with some of the ragù in a small heated frying pan. The heat helps bind the sauce to the pasta better than simply tossing everything in a serving bowl.
You’ll likely be preparing more than one portion at a time, but you can do the same kind of thing by returning the drained pasta to the pot in which you cooked it. Add enough ragù to balance the pasta and add 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter per serving. Mix together over medium heat until the butter melts.
Ragù has great holding power, and time actually improves its flavor. The sauce can keep for a week, covered in the refrigerator, and it can also be frozen. If you do freeze the ragù, let it defrost overnight in the fridge and then slowly bring it to a simmer, adding a little broth or water to prevent scorching.