Ragu Bolognese – the official version


What’s in a name?  Not much, you might think, going by the the tried and tested po-tay-to/po-tah-to line of reasoning.  But if you are under any illusions as to the importance of a name, here’s a little practical experiment for you: why not try starting your own soft-drink business, selling the beverage in smart red and white cans and calling it Cola-Coca, and see what happens. I can guarantee that you will find out pretty fast what’s in a name !  Recently, it’s not only large soft-drink companies and fast food outlets that have felt the need to protect their product’s name and reputation, but also traditional food and drink producers from around the world.

The trend started in the wine industry with Champagne makers protesting about other countries selling cheap fizzy wine, calling it Champagne  and damaging the exclusive reputation of “proper” Champagne.  This led for example to South African producers of sparkling wines having to  call their wines Methode Cap Classique rather than Champagne.  And it wasn’t long before products like port and sherry had also acquired legally protected status, and manufacturers of similar products worldwide had to scramble to re-brand their products. All of this was the result of legislation passed in 1992 and enforced in the EU (although gradually being expanded internationally via bilateral agreements between the EU and non-EU states) to ensure that only products genuinely originating in a particular region are allowed to be identified as such.   Most of us are familiar with the first two levels of protection: Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical Indication, both of which refer to products made in a specific area and with unique characteristics resulting directly from its place of production.  In these categories you will find cheeses like Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Camembert;  wines like Champagne, Chablis or Port; and foods like Melton Mowbray pork pies and Arbroath smokies.



But most people are surprised to learn about the Traditional Speciality Guaranteed category of protection – a category that is not defined by the geographical origin of a product but rather by asking whether a product is made from traditional ingredients according to a traditional recipe, and whether this distinguishes it from similar products.  In this category we find Polish Kabanosy sausages and Dutch Boerenkaas cheese – but more surprisingly, also Pizza Napoletana.  It seems that the pizzaiolo of Naples got sick and tired of the travesties being sold around the world under the heading of pizza (witness the “pizza” concoction I had in Norway last week topped with potato crisps and bearnaise sauce…!), and so they applied to the EU for official protection of their pizzas and received it in 2010.  This means that if chefs around the world want to give their pizzas the prestigious Neapolitan label, they need to conform to a strict list of ingredients and a specific method of cooking.  A traditional Neapolitan pizza base can only contain durum wheat flour, fresh yeast and sea salt and the dough must be stretched by hand, rather than flattened with a rolling pin. The topping must consist only of San Marzano tomatoes, which grow on the plains south of Mount Vesuvius, and mozzarella cheese from the milk of buffaloes, rather than cows.  The pizza has to be cooked in a wood-fired oven on a stone slab and, when cooked, must have a raised crust and a base no more than an eighth of an inch thick.

As I discovered on my recent visit to Bologna, the Bolognese are no less serious about their Bolognese pasta sauce than the Neapolitans are about their pizzas, but it seems they have not yet got as far as applying for official protection.  But what the Bolognese Chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina has done in reaction to all the truly ghastly versions of “spaghetti Bolognese” on offer throughout the world, is to take the step of declaring one recipe to be the official classic Bolognese ragu.  This recipe has been filed in the Palazzo della Mercanzia, the headquarters of Bologna Chamber of Commerce, to seal its official status.  The two things that most surprised me when I first looked at it were the absence of garlic; and the addition of a cup of milk, but in the interests of research I decided to give it a whirl.  I must say that I really loved the end result.  Rather than the usual indistinguishable mish-mash of flavours in the sauce, this recipe seemed to emphasise each individual element, meaning there is nowhere for bad ingredients to hide – so make sure you use the best you can afford! The addition of the milk makes for a wonderfully creamy sauce, without the detracting from the essential meatiness of the flavours.  But if you want to stay on the right side of the Bolognese food police, remember that a Bolognese ragu is always served on flat egg noodles like tagliatelle, never on spaghetti!


Ragu Bolognese final © J Horak-Druiff 2013


3.7 from 3 reviews
Ragu Bolognese - the official version
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
This recipe has been filed in the Palazzo della Mercanzia, the headquarters of Bologna Chamber of Commerce, as the official traditional recipe for ragu Bolognese. Serve on flat egg noddles, never spaghetti!
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 4
  • 300g lean beef mince (thin flank or skirt if you can find it)
  • 150g unsmoked pancetta, diced
  • 50g carrot, finely diced
  • 50g celery stalk, finely diced
  • 50g onion, finely diced
  • 50g concentrated tomato paste
  • ½ cup white or red wine
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. In a large saucepan, heat the pancetta over medium heat so that the fat starts to render. Add the chopped carrot, celery and onion and allow to stew until beginning to soften.
  2. Add the beef mince and stir to break up lumps, until most of the meat is no longer pink. Add the tomato paste and wine, stir to mix, cover and allow to simmer over very low heat for two hours.
  3. Towards the end of the cooking time, add the milk a little at a time, stirring well between additions.
  4. Check for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Serve on fresh tagliatelle or other flat egg pasta.

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    • Jeanne says

      Thank you! I don’t even know what they were called – bought them on a trip because they were nicely packed in a box that would not crush in transit and they were just delicious – would have been great with just butter and Parmesan! And yes, I have done all sorts of mince-related pasta sauces in my time that would invite a visit from the Ragu Police!! I was amazed by the lack of tomato, but the end result was delicious.

  1. says

    What I found interesting in my Italian travels is the pasta to sauce ratio… hardly any sauce but plenty of pasta. Harking back to the peasant heritage I guess…

    • Jeanne says

      That’s so true! We tend to drown our pasta in sauce, but in Italy you get a bowl of pasta and it’s like “where’s the sauce?!” – but then the have done clever things like melting anchovy fillets into the sauce so that it is invisible but so flavourful!

  2. says

    I could eat tons of that. What gorgeous dish and pasta (I’ve never seen that shape before).

    The addition of milk in the Bolognese Ragù is a must. The sauce tastes so much better with it.



    • Jeanne says

      I know – it was a new shape to me too – but I rather like it! Must do some reading to see it I can find it online. And yes I am sold on the concept of milk in ragu now!

  3. says

    I had no idea that even Neapolitan pizza was a protected term! I remember many years back there was an issue with the YSL perfume that they had named champagne and had to subsequently rename because of an uproar from the champagne industry. I still have one of the original bottles before the rename.

    • Jeanne says

      I had heard about the Neapolitan pizza protection a while back but was reminded of it when I read that the Bolognese had registered their ragu recipe at city hall! I think we will see more and more dishes protected like this… Love your YSL story – that bottle could fund your retirement one day LOL!

  4. says

    I had read about the Pizza Napoletana claiming their name to fame and thought it must make many chefs around the world fume when they have no access to tomatoes grown on plains near Mount Vesuvius. One of the first things I did was giggle when I read that ragu Bolgnese should not be served with spaghetti as it’s a bone of argument at home. Now I have proof. The ragu looks incredible.

    • Jeanne says

      Hah – our tourist guide in Bologna told us in no uncertain terms: “if-a you-a serve-a Bolognese ragu on-a spaghetti, you-a go-a straight-a to-a ‘ell-a!!” – tell your household *that* story! hahahaha! And yes, the ragu is pretty incredible… :)

    • Jeanne says

      Hey lovely lady! Happy new year to you too and glad to hear you like the shots! I had also never heard of milk in a ragu, but now I swear by it. I do like a little more tomato though… :)

  5. says

    Interesting – I knew most of this but not the Traditional Speciality Guaranteed category. The ragu is pretty much the way I make it and I agree that simplest is best…although I’d struggle not to use garlic (my Dad was Polish after all!) Such an interesting post.

    • Jeanne says

      It’s fascinating once you start delving into the EU laws on this stuff – the list of protected dishes on the EU website is illuminating and mesmerising! Ai also agree on the garlic – *everything* in my kitchen starts with garlic and onions in olive oil in a pan (with the possible exception of desserts LOL!)

  6. says

    Very interesting, Jeanne. I always knew that ragu bolognese wasn’t what most of us get served as spag bog. What I didn’t know is that the milk is added at the end of cooking, not the beginning. Will have to try it that way and see the difference it makes.

    • Jeanne says

      LOL – you’re one up on me – I hadn’t heard of the addition of milk till I did this post! ;o) Makes for a rich sauce without any overt creaminess.

  7. Rozanne says

    Hi Cook Sister,

    Love following your site & recipes. I believe you have a Thermomix. Any chance you can convert some of your recipes to the TM version?


    Rozanne (Australia)

  8. says

    At the Bologna Chamber of Commerce you can find a gold sample of the perfect tagliatella shape!!For ones that are curious to know more about these egg noodles, here there is a pretty legend!
    According to the Italian humorist A. Majani legend, tagliatalle were created fo the first time by the cook Mastro Zefirano in 1487 for the wedding banquet of the nobles Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso I d’Este celebrated in Bologna. He took inspiration from her long blond hair!

  9. boo says

    I’m sorry but this looks nothing like the proper tagliatelle al ragu. Just goes to show you can follow a recipe but still can’t produce the right result. The sauce is far too chunky. Surprised you actually visited Bologna! Not to mention the pasta. It’s all wrong! Making your own pasta, and chopping everything much finer, would be a good start. Take your time and make a proper soffritto, building up the flavour. It’s not about what you put in, it’s about how you cook it! Oh and, please do mix the cooked pasta with the sauce in a pan and heat it through while tossing it. Don’t just pile the sauce on top!