Chefs’ guide to how make authentic spaghetti bolognese
Chefs dish on the ultimate spag bol recipe, plus how to blend it like an Italian.
If one dish has become synonymous with Italian cuisine, it’s spaghetti bolognese.
From Italy’s Emilia-Romagna to New York to Carlton, the saucy dish has twirled its way into the hearts of pasta-eating enthusiasts everywhere. Spag bol is so ubiquitous that a quick search for it on Google returns almost as many results as there are people in its beloved country of origin.
But, contrary to popular belief, this household hall-of-famer is far from an Italian hallmark.
The chances of finding spaghetti bolognaise on a restaurant menu in Italy are slim to none.
Walk into any typical trattoria in Italy and you won’t find spaghetti bolognaise on the menu. Trying to order it will return only blank stares from your waiter. And if you do find something resembling the moreish meat-based dish, it will have very little in common with its Aussie-fied counterpart.
“Traditional bolognese comes from Emilia-Romagna, from the city of Bologna, in Italy’s north,” says chef, cookbook author and restaurateur Guy Grossi. “But there are many different versions, which is why it can be difficult to pinpoint one true recipe. Different families make it in different ways and it becomes very regional and territorial. It even changes from one village to the next and people get very nostalgic and protective over their way of making it.”
Unlike the thick mince-and-tomato medley we’ve come to know and love; in Bologna, ragu alla Bolognese is a rich, meat-based sauce made with chopped beef, bacon, a few vegetables and way less tomato than you’d probably expect.
What’s more, garlic in ragu is to the Bolognese what pineapple on pizza is to the Neapolitans: high treason. Ragu purists even go as far as to specify the type of pasta with which it is acceptably served and, we’ll give you a hint: it’s not spaghetti. Fresh tagliatelle, the flat, egg-based pasta, is ragu’s traditional accompaniment. And, according to original Bolognan pasta law, it should be exactly eight millimetres wide.
So bastardised has bolognese been by its omnipresence in global gastronomy that, in 1982, Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce submitted the official recipe to the Italian Academy of Cooking in order to clarify, once and for all, the true recipe for the sauce that bears its name.
It should be rich and meaty, not swimming in tomato.
The birth of bolognaise
Though ours might not be the most authentic interpretation, the significance – and deliciousness – of bolognese is not lost on Victorians. We have been paying homage to the pseudo-Italian staple since 1952, when the Australian Women’s Weekly published a recipe for a pasta-inspired casserole called ‘Spaghetti Bolognaise’. (The French spelling should have been enough to tip off the local pasta authorities that something was NQR.)
This dinner-party crowd-pleaser called for the addition of highly prohibited ingredients such as Worcestershire sauce, garlic and non-specific cheese (parmesan – or parmigiano reggiano – to be precise, is the only cheese permitted in ragu alla Bolognese), and suggested it be baked until “bubbly and brown”. Because if there’s one thing we love more than spaghetti, it’s a shortcut.
Despite its less-than-authentic origins, the highly controversial and widely debated Italo-Australian dish has been a mainstay of mid-week mealtimes for decades and it’s precisely its versatility, and ability to add your own flavour, that has made it one of the most-loved recipes in the world.
“It doesn’t matter how you make it – it’s delicious,” Guy says. “It’s one of those things you put in your mouth and every time it feels like home. For me, it makes me immediately think of Sunday lunches and family. It’s comfortable and exciting and has this lovely richness and depth of flavour that is heart-warming. It’s warm emotionally as well as physically.”
Even among Australia’s foodie literati, there is little agreement about what goes into the ultimate bolognese. Matt Preston’s recipe calls for the addition of anchovy fillets and soy sauce, George Calombaris gives his a Greek twist with lemon and cinnamon, Donna Hay uses bay leaves for flavour while Neil Perry adds pork to the beef and bacon base.
But despite what the traditional sauce cognoscenti would have you believe, the beauty of bolognese is that there are myriad ways to make it, all of which produce a delicious pasta-topper that is, even if only loosely, based on a true story.
Pasta has been a staple on the menu at Guy’s long-standing CDB eatery, Grossi Florentino, for nearly two decades but, in reality, he has been cooking it for far longer than that. Having grown up in an Italian family (both of his parents migrated from northern Italy), with his father a chef, Italian cookery was in his blood.
In 1996, he was even awarded the prestigious L’insegna Del Ristorante Italiano by the presdident of Italy, for his dedication to championing ‘La Cucina Italiana’ in Australia.
Having spent a lifetime learning the art of Italian cookery, Guy is a consummate connoisseur. And, though he says there is no one ‘right’ way to make bolognese, his version comes pretty close to pasta perfection.
Tossing pasta ribbons through the sauce infuses extra flavour.
We’ve already established that traditional bolognese is made from beef but, according to the official recipe, diaphragm, belly or shoulder are the permitted cuts. No mince here. The recipe also calls for bacon (which, in Italy, is generally pancetta – bacon’s unsmoked relative). Oh, and if you dice the pancetta with anything other than a crescent-shaped knife – forget about it.
“We use a mixture of meats,” Guy says. “Mainly ground beef, but also some pork and chicken for richness. My mother is from Verona, in the north of Italy, where they make some magnificent pork ragus. But traditionally bolognese is made from beef.”
Onion, carrot and celery all make the cut here but, notably, garlic does not. To start, fry off the pancetta in some olive oil then add the finely chopped vegetables. The original recipe states that vegetables must be finely diced (however Guy says he prefers to put in whole carrot and celery for flavouring and take it out at the end). These should be sauteed, slowly, on low heat, until the onions become translucent and start to caramelise. This is known as the soffrito.
“This is the part people often rush,” Guy says. “The onions need to get that lovely brown colour to them. Making sure they are caramelised property is what adds sweetness and sugar to offset the tartness of the tomatoes.”
And caramelisation is not just for the onions. Guy says the beef should develop a bit of a crust, too, which will add depth to the flavour. He also advises to hold off on seasoning at this point as it can interfere with the browning of the meat.
“Sometimes it might give off a bit of liquid,” he says. “Wait for that to dry and absorb and for the meat to get nice and brown. You don’t want grey meat – you want it to be almost crispy before adding the wet ingredients.”
Tagliatelle ribbons should be cut to precisely eight millimetres in width.
Once your meat is done, add some white wine and allow it to completely evaporate before adding your tomato, stock (broth) and seasoning, which is simply salt and pepper. Bring it to a simmer and then leave it to bubble away, gently, for a minimum of 1.5 to two hours.
“The longer you cook it, the more flavour you extract,” he says. “You don’t want it to be ready in half an hour.”
What the basil?
It might look nice as a garnish but basil, and herbs in general, are not included in ’82 classification; however, that hasn’t deterred Guy from adding them to his.
“I wouldn’t put basil in there. It’s not the right flavour profile,” he says. ”Parsley is the main one for me, but we put a little bit of sage and chilli in there as well.”
Milk is perhaps the most contentious ingredient in the bolognese-making process, with proponents of the dairy addition swearing that it helps to balance acidity and reduce richness.
“This is traditional,” Guy says. “But I don’t do it. I have tried it a couple of times but, for me, it doesn’t really do a great deal for the sauce.”
Guy Grossi’s ultimate beef bolognese
- 100ml olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 800g premium beef mince
- 100g pork mince
- 100g chicken mince
- 1 tsp finely chopped sage
- 1 tsp chilli, chopped
- ¼ bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cloves, ground
- ½ nutmeg, grated
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 300g tomato paste
- 200ml red wine
- 1.5 L water
- Heat the olive oil in a large pot and saute the onion and garlic over medium heat for four to five minutes until soft and golden.
- Add all the meat and saute, stirring continuously until golden brown; break up the meat using the top of a whisk.
- Mix in the herbs and spices and season with salt and pepper.
- Add the tomato paste and cook for two minutes.
- Pour in the wine and reduce by half.
- Add the water and mix well.
- Bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 60 minutes or until rich in consistency.