If you came to join me for a cozy dinner at the PWWB house, chances are strong that I’d serve you pasta bolognese: a traditional Italian meat sauce made of beef, pork, & tomatoes, tossed into a pile of perfectly al dente pasta (& finished, of course, with a showering of freshly grated parmesan cheese!).
Bolognese is especially rich in flavor, making for the best hearty & comforting meal. &, if you ask me, it’s the ultimate expression of care for whoever you serve it to: it’s the kind of scratch-made meal that requires hours of TLC as it bubbles & simmers away on the stove. It’s just everything.
I guess you could say that pasta bolognese is my love language.
Among the reasons why it’s so near & dear to my heart, pasta bolognese is one of the very first things I ever taught myself how to cook.
After college graduation, I spent some time working as a server at a fine-dining Italian restaurant in Milwaukee, where I fell pretty head over heels for anything having to do with Mediterranean food & wine. If I pestered them enough, the guys who ran the kitchen would talk me through how to make my favorite Italian recipes, starting with my favorite dish on our menu: pasta bolognese.
In the 10 years since, I’ve worked off of that base bolognese recipe, perfecting it with some tips & tricks I learned along the way (from a few of my fave bad ass lady chefs, Anne Burrell & Lidia Bastianich, & from simply growing & improving as a cook throughout my 20s).
The result? The absolute best bolognese sauce recipe.
10 years in the making, this pasta bolognese recipe is my signature dish, & I’m so excited to share my take on it with you today. ♡ Read on to learn more about the PWWB Best-Ever Bolognese Sauce, or jump straight to the recipe & get cookin’!
Ragu vs Bolognese – what’s the difference?
The most frequently asked questions I’d face as a server in my time at that restaurant were, without a doubt, “What’s bolognese? Is it a tomato sauce, like marinara? How’s it different from ragu?”
Ragu is a term used to describe a type of Italian meat sauce, usually slowly simmered over the course of a couple of hours with some veggies & tomatoes. So while it usually has tomatoes (like marinara), & it’s usually finished with a splash of cream (like creamy pasta sauces), ragu is kind of its own thing. Ragu is all about meat, & making sure the meat shines.
You can make all kinds of ragu sauces: pork, lamb, roasted duck, wild boar, hearty mushroom, & so on. While all made with different main ingredients, the common element of ragu is the fact that the meat (or a meaty ingredient) is totally the star of the show.
Bolognese is a type of ragu sauce, made with beef & pork. Originating in Bologna, the largest city of the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy, authentic bolognese is typically made with beef, pork, white wine, milk, & a little tomato.
This bolognese recipe is reminiscent of the Italian-American bolognese you typically find here in the U.S.: a hybrid of authentic Northern Italian bolognese & the kinds of ragu you’d find in Southern Italy, which tend to be a little more tomato-forward & richer in flavor.
Bolognese sauce ingredients
Like many traditional Italian recipes, one of the beautiful things about bolognese is it’s all about giving simple, humble ingredients a little TLC to transform them into something absolutely extraordinary, rich & flavorful.
The ingredients you need for this recipe aren’t anything crazy…you probably already have many of them in your kitchen right now! (Note: the full Ingredients List, including measurements, is provided in the Recipe Card, below.)
- soffritto, AKA the Italian holy trinity – a trusty mixture of carrots, celery, & onion
- meat: I like to use a 50/50 blend of ground beef & ground pork, plus some pancetta (cured, unsmoked Italian bacon) for extra flavor.
- aromatics, of course!: garlic, bay leaves, fresh rosemary, & fresh thyme
- tomato paste & crushed tomatoes
- red wine
- chicken broth or water, for simmering
- some heavy cream & parmesan to finish the sauce
- & pasta, of course!
A couple of quick tips & tricks:
- Many traditional bolognese recipes call for use of ground veal. While I do love the flavor of veal, the combination of ground beef & ground pork is most often available at the grocery stores I frequent. That’s what I opt to use. However, many grocery stores & butcher shops do sell a pre-mixed combination of ground beef, ground pork, & ground veal as a “meatball mix” or “meatloaf mix”. If you can find it at your grocery store, feel free to go ahead & use it in this recipe!
- Traditionally, Italian bolognese is served on a wide & flat noodle, such as pappardelle or tagliatelle. Here in the US, you’ll often see it served on spaghetti. I personally love using bucatini (pictured), a tubular spaghetti with the best chewy texture.
How to make bolognese sauce
The key to making the absolute best bolognese sauce at home is building layers upon layers of rich flavor. This takes a little bit patience & a whole lot of stirring, but it yields an absolutely restaurant-worthy rich & hearty bolognese sauce. It’s so worth it.
The cooking process itself is pretty easy. The basic gist of it goes something like this… (Note: full Recipe Directions are provided in the Recipe Card, below.)
First, prep the soffritto & pestata…
…two foundational components of the bolognese sauce. Grab your food processor, &…
- Prep the soffritto: Add roughly chopped carrot, celery, & onion to the food processor. Pulse just until broken down into fine pieces, then transfer to a medium bowl & set aside.
- Prep the pestata: Add roughly chopped pancetta & garlic to the same food processor (you don’t even have to wash it!). Pulse just until broken down into fine pieces. Set aside.
Bolognese meal prep tip: If you’re looking to cut down on active prep time the day you make your bolognese, you can prep both the soffritto & pestata up to 3 days ahead of time, storing in separate airtight containers in the refrigerator.
Brown the pestata, soffritto, & meat mixture.
Grab a heavy-bottomed pot, drizzle in some olive oil, &…
- Cook the pestata: Add the pancetta mixture to the pot & cook until rendered. Your kitchen will smell like garlicky bacony heaven!
- Brown the veggies: Stir the soffritto mixture into the rendered pancetta, & cook until deeply browned & fragrant – 15-20 minutes. Once deeply browned, push the mixture up to the sides of the pot, &
- Brown the meat: Add the meat to the center of the pot. Cook for a solid 2-3 minutes on both sides, then use a wooden spoon to break the meat apart into small pieces before letting it cook completely through.
- Brown the tomato paste: Stir a generous amount of tomato paste into the meat mixture, letting it cook & brown for 2-3 minutes.
It’s incredibly important not to rush this handful of steps, & to instead really take your time in letting each component brown deeply before moving on to the next.
Many of the ragu & bolognese recipes I’ve seen over the years call for cooking through these steps for just a couple of minutes before moving on to the next. I strongly disagree! These steps create a rich base of flavor for the entire sauce. Taking a few extra minutes throughout the browning process to ensure the veggies & meat develop a ton of color & flavor makes a remarkable difference in the end result of your bolognese sauce. Now’s not the time for shortcuts!
Make the sauce:
At this point, you’re ready to deglaze the pan, add some tomatoes, & zhuzh it up with some aromatics….
- Deglaze: Pour the red wine into the pot, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any of the browned bits that may have formed on the bottom of the pot. Browned bits = FLAVOR, so be sure to use some elbow grease to scrape up as much as you can!
- Aromatics: Toss in the bay leaves & fresh herbs. I like to tie the fresh herbs together whole with kitchen twine to eliminate the need to finely chop a bunch of herbs – highly recommend keeping a spool of twine in your kitchen!
Your bolognese sauce will start to look like bolognese sauce at this point!
Simmer & finish the bolognese:
Turn the heat under the pot as low as it’ll go, & get ready for your kitchen to smell like absolute heaven!
- Simmer for 90 minutes. It may seem like a loooong time, but I’ve found that 90 minutes is really the sweet spot for simmering this bolognese sauce recipe. As the sauce simmers, it reduces, creating rich, complex flavor. Aside from the occasional stir, this cooking time is mostly hands-off. The perfect project for a lazy Sunday afternoon at home.
- Finish the sauce with a generous pour of heavy cream & a handful of grated parmesan. While traditional bolognese recipes call for use of whole milk, heavy cream’s extra luscious consistency adds a velvety quality to this bolognese sauce that I’m especially obsessed with.
Once your bolognese sauce simmered down to rich, complex perfection, you can use it immediately in pasta bolognese (or lasagna bolognese, if you’re feeling extra special!).
How to make pasta bolognese at home
Serving pasta bolognese isn’t quite as simple as tossing some of the prepared sauce on a bed of al dente pasta. This is the #1 mistake I see people make when it comes to serving pasta – please, please don’t do this!
Pasta should always cook with the sauce for a couple of minutes on the stovetop, which allows the two separate components to come together as one cohesive dish. If you feel like your pasta never turns out as good as it does in a restaurant, this simple step will help tremendously!
To properly cook pasta bolognese at home:
- Cook your pasta in a large pot of salted water to al dente (according to package directions). I love serving bolognese sauce with bucatini, but you can use any pasta (long or short) you love most. (Note: if you made the bolognese sauce ahead of time, simply heat it up in a large pot or skillet while the pasta cooks.)
- Reserve 1 cup of the starchy pasta water, then carefully drain the pasta. Resist the temptation of rinsing your pasta with water once it’s drained. Doing so rinses away the starches on its surface, preventing it from properly adhering to the bolognese sauce.
- Toss! Add the hot pasta straight into the pot with the bolognese sauce, tossing to combine well. Use your judgment & adjust pasta bolognese as needed (a splash of the reserved pasta water will help loosen up the pasta bolognese; a handful of extra parmesan will tighten it up a bit, etc.).
- Simmer: Let the pasta bolognese simmer for 1-2 minutes, allowing the pasta to absorb some of the bolognese sauce as it finishes cooking.
- Serve! At last, the best part! Portion into individual bowls & serve immediately.
Bolognese sauce FAQs
What’s the best meat for bolognese sauce?
I find it’s most convenient to make bolognese with a 50/50 blend of ground beef & ground pork, which has a great amount of fat & flavor to help develop the flavors of the sauce. I love adding a bit of pancetta to the mix for extra rich flavor.
Many grocery stores & butcher shops sell a pre-mixed combination of ground beef, ground pork, & ground veal as a “meatball mix” or “meatloaf mix”. If you can find it at your grocery store, go ahead & use it in this recipe.
If you’re interested in a slightly lightened-up bolognese recipe, be sure to check out the PWWB turkey bolognese recipe.
What wine works best in bolognese sauce?
If I happen to have a bottle on hand, I like using Chianti in this bolognese recipe. If not, any nice, medium-bodied red is great.
How long should I simmer bolognese sauce?
The sauce develops rich, savory flavor the longer it simmers. I like to simmer my bolognese sauce for a full 90 minutes, giving it a good stir every so often (60 minutes is probably the minimum amount of time I’d allow the sauce to simmer). It’s the perfect recipe to make for a lazy Sunday at home.
If you’re pressed on time, you can make this recipe in a slow cooker or Instant Pot to cut down on active cook time. More on this below!
Can I make this bolognese sauce recipe in my slow cooker or Instant Pot?
Yes & yes! You can find both slow cooker & Instant Pot directions for this bolognese recipe in the Recipe Notes, below.
Can I make this bolognese sauce recipe ahead of time?
Yes! Bolognese sauce is so make-ahead friendly! Like many other stews & sauces, the flavors of this bolognese sauce will continue to meld & develop as it sits. I personally love it most after it’s had a chance to sit in the fridge for a day or two.
This bolognese sauce will keep, stored in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Check the Recipe Notes for additional thoughts on storage & freezing for later.
I really hope you try this Pasta Bolognese recipe soon! This is my tried & true signature recipe, & I know that you’ll flip out over it.
If you do give it a try, be sure to let me know! Leave a comment with a star rating below. You can also snap a photo & tag @playswellwithbutter on Instagram. I LOVE hearing about & seeing your PWWB creations! Happy cooking! ♡Print
Tweaked & perfected over 10+ years, this is the absolute best bolognese sauce recipe! A lusciously rich & hearty Italian meat sauce made of ground beef & pork, pancetta, red wine & tomatoes, which simmers for hours before getting tossed into a pile of pasta for the perfect pasta bolognese dinner. Stovetop, Slow Cooker & Instant Pot instructions provided.
- 2 large carrots, roughly chopped
- 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
- 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 4 ounces pancetta, roughly chopped (see Recipe Notes)
- 6 cloves garlic
- kosher salt & ground black pepper, to season
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
- 1 cup medium-bodied red wine, such as Chianti
- 3–4 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 10–12 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- optional: 1 parmesan rind
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan
- 16 ounces pasta of choice (I love bucatini or rigatoni)
- for serving, as desired: grated parmesan or pecorino romano, finely chopped basil or parsley, crushed red pepper flakes, etc.
- Prep: Grab your food processor & prep the…
- Soffritto: Add the roughly chopped carrot, celery & onion to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse just until the mixture is broken down into fine pieces. The mixture should not be puréed; you should still be able to see small pieces of carrot, celery & onion. Transfer to a medium bowl & set aside.
- Pestata: Add the pancetta & garlic to the bowl of the same food processor used to make the soffritto (no need to wash it!). Pulse just until the mixture is broken down into fine pieces. Set aside.
- Cook the pestata: Add the olive oil to a heavy-bottomed pot (at least 4-quart capacity) over medium heat. Once hot, carefully add the pestata mixture from Step 1 and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pancetta renders, 4-5 minutes.
- Brown the soffritto: Add the soffritto mixture from Step 1 to the pot with the pestata. Season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and stir to combine. Cook, stirring ocassionally, until deeply browned & fragrant, 15-20 minutes. If the veggies begin to brown too quickly, reduce the heat to medium-low or low. Once browned, push the pestata & soffritto mixture to the outer edges of the pot.
- Brown the meat: Generously season the beef and pork with 1 teaspoon kosher salt each. Add the meat to the center of the pot with the soffritto & pestata mixture. Do not touch the meat for 2-3 minutes, allowing it to brown deeply. Turn the meat over and brown the second side for 2-3 minutes. Once browned on both sides, use a wooden spoon to break the meat apart into small pieces. Stir to combine with the soffritto mixture. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned completely, 8-10 minutes. Add the tomato paste, stirring to coat the meat & soffritto mixture. Cook for 2-3 minutes to brown.
- Deglaze: Increasing the heat to medium-high, pour the red wine into the pot. Stir constantly, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits that may have formed at the bottom of the pot. Cook for 4-5 minutes, until the wine is almost completely absorbed into the meat mixture.
- Aromatics: Tie the herbs together using kitchen twine (or finely chop if you do not have twine), then add to the pot with the bay leaves & parmesan rind, if using. Add the crushed tomatoes & broth or water, stirring to combine.
- Simmer: Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 90 minutes. If the bolognese begins to reduce too much (losing too much of its liquid too quickly), feel free to add in a splash more broth/water, reduce the heat further, &/or cover the pot.
- Finish the bolognese sauce: Stir in the heavy cream and grated parmesan. Taste and season with additional kosher salt and ground black pepper, as desired. At this point you can cool & store for later use (see Recipe Notes for storage & freezing directions), or serve immediately with pasta (proceed to Step 9-10, below).
- Cook the pasta: Once the bolognese has simmered & reduced (Steps 7-8, above), cook the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is cooked to al dente. Carefully dip a liquid measuring cup into the pot, reserving about 1 cup of the starchy pasta water, and set aside. Carefully drain the pasta – do NOT rinse it!
- Finish the pasta bolognese: Add the pasta straight to the bolognese sauce. Toss to combine well – the sauce should evenly coat the pasta. Add in some of the reserved pasta water if the bolognese sauce needs to loosen up a little; add in an extra handful of parmesan if the sauce needs to tighten up a little. Cook over medium heat for 1-2 minutes, allowing the pasta to meld with & absorb some of the sauce.
- Serve the pasta bolognese: Portion out the pasta bolognese into individual pasta bowls. Serve immediately, topped with extra parmesan, chopped herbs, &/or a sprinkling of crushed red pepper as desired. Enjoy!
- Pancetta is cured, unsmoked Italian bacon. Widely available at most conventional grocery stores, you can typically find pancetta already diced up in an individual container near the cured meats & bacon, or cut-to-order at the deli counter. Feel free to swap it out with regular ol’ bacon if that’s what you can find easily – thick, center-cut bacon will work best for this recipe.
- Storage: Bolognese sauce stores SO well – it’s one of those things that gets even better as it sits & its flavors have the chance to meld together. To store, prep the sauce through Step 7. Once cooled, transfer to an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Whip up a batch of pasta bolognese during the week by reheating the bolognese sauce in a skillet, & completing the recipe according to Steps 9-11, above.
- Freezing: Bolognese sauce is incredibly freezer-friendly. To freeze, transfer the cooled bolognese sauce to a freezer container (or divide it up between multiple freezer containers for smaller portions). Freeze for up to 3 months. To thaw, place the frozen bolognese in the refrigerator overnight (or submerge the freezer container in room temperatue water for a quicker thaw). Reheat the bolognese sauce in a skillet. The bolognese sauce may seem a little watery, so just let any residual water simmer out before completing the recipe according to Steps 9-11, above.
- Slow Cooker: Prep the recipe according to Steps 1-5, above. Transfer the bolognese meat mixture to the slow cooker, along with the aromatics, tomatoes, & broth as directed in Step 6. Slow cook on high for 2 hours or on low for 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Finish as directed in Steps 8-11; you can do this right in your slow cooker. If your slow cooker has a searing/browning feature, you can use it to cook the entire bolognese sauce recipe (Steps 2-8) in the slow cooker.
- Instant Pot: Use the Instant Pot’s Sauté setting to cook the recipe as according to Steps 2-6, above. Seal the Instant Pot and cook on manual high pressure for 35 minutes. Allow the pot to naturally release pressure for 10 minutes before carefully flicking the valve to its “venting” position to vent out any residual pressure. If the bolognese sauce seems a little too liquidy, feel free to turn on the Sauté setting again, letting the sauce simmer down a little before finishing as directed in Steps 8-11.
Keywords: traditional pasta bolognese, bolognese sauce recipe, pasta recipes, comfort food recipes
More classic Italian recipes to try…
- Put your bolognese sauce to use: Lasagna Bolognese
- Or try a lightened-up version: Healthier Turkey Bolognese
- Want to try ragu? Start here: Braised Pork Ragu Pappardelle & Slowly Braised Lamb Ragu with Gnocchi
- Quick & easy: 5-Ingredient Pomodoro Sauce
- Perfect for weeknights: 20-Minute Spicy Italian Sausage & Peppers Pasta
- An Italian-American staple: Pasta Marsala
- Instant Pot magic: Instant Pot Chicken Cacciatore
- A classic, with a twist! Gnocchi all’Amatriciana
- All PWWB Pasta Recipes
- All PWWB Italian Recipes
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