Kati

Contributor

Spaghetti Bolognese is one of the ultimate comfort foods—and like many of the dishes that fit into this category, it’s controversial. For some people, it only counts as traditional spaghetti bolognese if it’s been simmered for hours on a rainy evening; for others, it can be a quick weeknight dinner. And, is spaghetti Bolognese even a proper Italian dish? The answer to that is a resounding no, but we’ll get to that later.

Though everyone has their own recipe for their classic Bolognese , in this article we’ll go through what makes an original(ish) Bolognese, the differences in how to cook spaghetti Bolognese around the world today, and a few shortcuts if you don’t want to spend three hours waiting for the sauce to simmer down. And spaghetti Bolognese doesn’t need to be meaty, either—read on for our suggested alternatives if you want to serve a vegetarian or vegan version.

The Bolognese sauce

A good spaghetti bolognese always starts with the sauce. Technically, it’s a ragù, which is a slow-cooked Italian meat sauce. Many areas in Italy have their own version of a ragù—bolognese itself comes from Bologna. A ragù alla Bolognese is meat, simmered with a mix of onion, carrots and celery, and tomato. Traditionally it was a meal for special occasions, and the most important ingredient was time. You’ll almost never find a recipe for original Italian Bolognese that takes less than three hours to cook.

Most recipes include wine, as the acidity helps to cut through the richness of the sauce. You’d be unlikely to find a modern-day recipe that doesn’t also use a bit of milk, which is said to keep the meat more tender. Some hardcore purists disagree with this, of course, but this is one case where there is actually an “official” version—the official Italian Cooking Academy’s recipe, which was formalised in 1982, includes both wine and milk.

Bolognese is traditionally a beef sauce, but it’s often enriched with pancetta, pork mince, or even chicken livers or lamb for a deeper flavour. For vegan and vegetarian options, read on!

Simple spaghetti Bolognese

Simple spaghetti Bolognese

→ Go to recipe

Macaroni Bolognese

Macaroni Bolognese

→ Go to recipe

Cooking method: Once you’ve decided what ingredients you want to use in your Bolognese sauce, there’s also the matter of choosing your method. It’s usually cooked on the stovetop, but some chefs suggest cooking it in a pot in the oven instead. Firstly, there’s less standing and stirring, which might work for more hands-off cooks, and secondly, you’ll get a bit more browning as the edges of the sauce caramelise on the sides of the pot. This is a good thing—those sticky bits are full of flavour, and by stirring them back into the sauce later, you incorporate them fully

The pasta

Many Italian pasta sauces can be made with a variety of pasta shapes. But in Italy, it’s considered sacrilegious to make Bolognese with spaghetti—it’s much more common to see it paired with pappardelle or tagliatelle, or any other thick noodle which can hold the chunky sauce.

But bolognese sauce is too delicious to stay at home in Italy, and after World War II it was supposedly popularised in America by returning soldiers, as well as new Italian immigrants, who adapted it based on what was locally available. Seeing as spaghetti was the most common kind of pasta available, the combination of the tasty sauce with the familiar spaghetti noodle slowly became considered the international standard.

You can use dried or fresh pasta for this meal, the only difference would be in cooking time, as fresh pasta cooks in only two or three minutes, when compared to dried spaghetti which can take 8 -12 minutes. You could buy fresh spaghetti, or you could even make it yourself. It’s not difficult when you get the knack of it, and knowing that you made the entire dish from scratch is a pretty great feeling.

The aromatics

Unlike many other Italian dishes, spaghetti Bolognese isn’t traditionally a very herb-heavy dish, rather relying on the all-important elements of time, patience, and good fresh produce. However, it does lend itself to Italian seasonings, including garlic, oregano or basil. Thyme is also a great addition, with the deep herbal notes rounding out the flavour of the sauce. For bolognese, less is definitely more when it comes to herbs—you wouldn’t want to overpower it.

Meatless alternatives

Vegetarian Bolognese

It’s much easier to make a vegetarian Bolognese than you might think. Most veggie recipes use brown or red lentils, but you could also add a variety of mushrooms, finely chopped. Some people also include bulgur wheat, which has a nubbly texture that mimics the appearance of mince, and is great at soaking up the flavour it’s cooked with. One very strange addition that you could try? A teaspoon of dark cocoa powder! As long as you don’t add too much, it won’t make your bolognese taste like chocolate — instead, it just adds a savoury depth to the flavour.

Spaghetti with lentil Bolognese

Spaghetti with lentil Bolognese

→ Go to recipe

Vegan Bolognese

Making a vegan bolognese isn’t difficult. Smoked paprika is often used as a shortcut to the smoky hint of bacon in vegan dishes, and it matches perfectly with tomato and lentils here. Like many Italian recipes, traditional Bolognese is usually enhanced with the savoury, umami flavour of Parmesan cheese—which vegans can imitate with nutritional yeast. Although it’s not the tastiest- sounding ingredient, nutritional yeast brings a fantastic, deep nuttiness to vegan dishes. It’s also very high in vitamin B12, which can be hard to find in vegan diets. But the only ingredient you absolutely can’t miss when making a vegan bolognese? Lots of good-quality olive oil. No matter what else you’re including in your sauce, a bolognese needs to be rich and luxurious!

Fast Bolognese

Sometimes, quick and easy is the name of the game—you want Bolognese, and you want it now. It’s definitely possible to do a fast version of spaghetti Bolognese, although it’s probably not worth your time if you don’t simmer it for a minimum of 30 minutes.

For a fast bolognese, don’t feel like you need to brown all the meat—although this creates great flavour, it also dries the mince out, which is one of the reasons the sauce needs a long simmering time to become moist and silky again. For a quick version, try only browning a third of the mince first. This means that you can reach the perfect sauce texture in a much shorter time, without completely sacrificing that toasty caramelised flavour that browning brings to the table.

More ways to use your Bolognese sauce

Our most important advice, if you’re going through the effort of making a proper pot of Bolognese? Double the recipe. The sauce will taste even better the next day, as the flavours have a chance to meld together, and it’s very easy to freeze if you’d like to have it in stock for the longer term.

If you don’t just have to have it with pasta—you could cover the mince with mashed potatoes to make a cottage pie, or just keep it on hand for the next time you have a hankering for lasagna (for all our lasagna tips, see here). You could serve it American-style on toast as a sloppy joe, or go completely fusion-forward and make a bolognese quesadilla. A word of warning, though: Seeing as it’s always important to taste as you go, you might find that your extra portion miraculously disappears as you cook. It’s just one of those mysteries.

British shepherd's pie

British shepherd's pie

→ Go to recipe

Classic Italian lasagna

Classic Italian lasagna

→ Go to recipe

Easy Quesadilla

Easy Quesadilla

→ Go to recipe

More delicious ideas for you