slowly braised lamb ragu sauce. lamb shoulder gets slowly braised with onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes, and plenty of hardy herbs to make the perfect rich & comforting slowly braised lamb ragu sauce. it’s perfect to serve with gnocchi, polenta, or any pasta of your choice for the coziest winter dinner!
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slowly braised lamb ragu with gnocchi
so, i know i’ve been throwing the term “hug-in-a-bowl” around a lot lately. i can’t help it! the fall season always has me craving cozy, comforting, huggable recipes, especially as we transition to the beginning of winter.
annnnnd i’m pretty sure that slowly braised lamb ragu served over perfect pillows of gnocchi with tons of grated parm is, by its very definition, the kind of dish that’s totally a hug in a bowl.
to say i’m obsessed with this braised lamb ragu is the understatement of the century. i’m obsessed with it.
the braised lamb ragu itself is so insanely flavorful & rich: lamb shoulder slowly simmers away with tons of aromatics, fresh herbs, tomatoes, & red wine, until it’s perfectly fall-apart tender. & then you add soft & pillowy gnocchi & TONS of grated parm to the mix. omg. so, so cozy.
this is truly perfect for a lazy sunday afternoon when you’re in need of a majorly comforting meal & you don’t have much planned beyond yoga pants & netflix. not only do you end up with the most comforting dinner ever, your house will pretty much smell like heaven as the lamb slowly simmers away in the oven. (by the way, if the word “braise” is scaring you, don’t let it! it’s super easy to do! i have step by step photos & slow cooker instructions included at the bottom of this post!)
i also think that braised lamb ragu makes for the perfect holiday gathering this time of year. it’s rich, delicious, & using lamb always makes a dish feel a little bit more festive & special.
(oh, & those gnocchi don’t hurt either! ?)
wait…what is ragu sauce again?
is it a tomato sauce? is it like marinara? is it a cream sauce?
it’s its own thing! ragu is basically a blanket term for a rich, slowly cooked meat sauce.
i first was introduced to ragu at the italian restaurant i worked at for several years out of college. one of our specialties was a rotating house ragu, which would change every week based on what the chefs were in the mood to cook & serve. beef & pork ragu! duck ragu! wild boar ragu! vegetarian mushroom ragu!
the common element of all these ragus, & any ragu really, is the fact that the meat is totally the star of the show.
so yes, while ragu does involve lots of tomatoes (like marinara) & almost always involves finishing with a splash of cream (like a cream sauce), ragu is always all about meat, or a meaty ingredient like mushroom or eggplant.
what goes in ragu sauce
aside from being insanely rich & flavorful, one reason i love ragu so much is because making ragu calls for pretty simple ingredients that you probably already have on hand in your fridge & pantry.
the cast of characters includes:
- onion, carrot, & celery (the combination also known as “soffritto” in italian cooking!)
- tons of garlic
- crushed tomatoes & tomato paste
- a little red wine, a little cooking stock
- some fresh herbs
- and last but not least, your meat of choice
the beauty of ragu is you can really make it whatever you want it to be!
for braised lamb ragu, the meat of choice is obviously lamb, but more specifically lamb shoulder. a tougher cut, like the shoulder, holds up beautifully to a slow braise. once it is braised, lamb shoulder shreds so beautifully & stays so tender. plus! the fattiness of the cut adds a ton of rich flavor to the ragu.
when it comes to buying lamb, be sure to look for American lamb. American lamb is, of course, fresher than imported lamb. buying American also supports the local ranchers & family farmers raising lamb across the country who are so committed preserving high quality & welfare for their animals.
learning more about where your lamb is from is really as simple as asking the folks behind the butcher counter at your grocery store or butcher shop. & if you’re unsure about where to find American lamb, my friends at the American Lamb Board have you covered! they have a full list of American lamb farmers & distributors across the country on their site. you can check it out here!
how to make slowly braised lamb ragu sauce
cooking slowly braised lamb ragu, or any ragu for that matter, can really be broken down into simple 5 steps:
- brown lamb shoulder
- caramelize aromatics
- deglaze with wine
- braise, slow & low
- finish in a skillet (optional, but highly encouraged!)
first, brown the lamb.
this step is pretty straight forward! you add the lamb to a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven & cook it for a few minutes per side, until it’s deeply golden brown. before transferring it to a plate to rest while you prep the rest of the ragu.
browning the lamb serves 2 major purposes. first, it creates a beautiful crust on the lamb. this locks all of the juices in lamb, preventing them from seeping out as the lamb slowly cooks, meaning the lamb will stay nice & juicy & won’t dry out as it braises.
a couple tips for browning:
- the lamb needs to be completely dry. use paper towels to pat it as dry as you can. any moisture at all will prevent that deeply browned crust we’re looking for from forming.
- you need a good heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, which retains heat well & holds it super evenly. this is the Dutch oven that’s pictured in this post (so cute, right?!). this is another great option that’s a little more budget-friendly. i own both & they’ve held up really well over the years!
next, caramelize the aromatics.
& when i say caramelize, i mean caramelize.
most of the ragu & bolognese recipes i’ve read call for cooking the onions, carrots, & celery just until they soften, & i strongly disagree with them! taking the extra 5 minutes to let the veggies deeply caramelize adds so much freakin’ flavor to the ragu. this is the base of the entire sauce…now’s not the time for shortcuts!
at this point, you can transfer everything to a slow cooker if you’d like to slow cook your lamb ragu (more specific directions are provided in the recipe card, below!). it will turn out just fine, i do really suggest continuing to cook & braise as i have the recipe written below since it coaxes maximum flavor out of the lamb ragu & doesn’t really take that much more effort than what you’ve already put in. plus, it’ll save you a few dishes.
next up? delazing.
deglazing is really just fancy-speak for adding a little bit of liquid to the pot. this helps release any of the flavorful browned bits that have formed at the bottom of the pot throughout the browning & caramelizing processes & infuses those flavors into the sauce.
you can deglaze with any liquid you like. i like using a combination of red wine & beef stock. the red wine adds tons of great flavor to the braised lamb ragu, while the beef stock adds some nice body.
when it comes to wine, you’ll want to use something that’s drinkably nice. there’s no need to break the bank here, but you do want to use something with good flavors. i honestly usually use whatever i have open already, but if i’m headed to the store to shop for ragu, i like to buy a nice chianti. it’s bold flavors complement the flavors of the ragu really nicely without competing with it.
& then you braise!
add the lamb back into the Dutch oven, cover it, & pop it in the oven to braise for 2-3 hours! you can also let the ragu simmer away on the stovetop, but i definitely prefer using my oven for a dish like this since it’s nice not to have to worry about having an open flame on unattended for such a long period of time.
once the lamb shreds very easily & your house smells like italian heaven, your braised lamb ragu is ready to serve!
serving braised lamb ragu.
one final, but very important step, is to finish the braised lamb ragu in a skillet, along with the pasta or whatever you’re serving it with, a splash of cream or milk, & some grated parm. this is exactly how it’s done in restaurants, & it’s exactly what you need to do to take your pasta game to the next level at home! if you’ve ever wondered why your pasta doesn’t turn out as amazing as it does at a nice italian restaurant, it’s probably because you’re skipping this step.
taking the extra couple of minutes to finish the ragu in a skillet gives the gnocchi or pasta the chance to absorb & meld together with the sauce.
you can, of course, serve your braised lamb ragu with whatever you love most. i like a thicker long noodle (like bucatini or pappardelle), or gnocchi, of course.
& if that’s not hug-in-a-bowl worthy, i don’t know what is!
if you love this braised lamb ragu recipe, here are a few other cozy recipes you’ll love too!
- love lamb? try these! slow cooker lamb sandwiches with balsamic & rosemary
- the EASIEST homemade pasta sauce: 5-ingredient roasted red pepper pomodoro
- my FAVE: lightened-up turkey bolognese
- easy pasta pomodoro with chicken & goat cheese
- marsala pasta with spicy italian sausage & mushrooms
- all pwwb main dishes recipes
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A slowly braised lamb ragu sauce, perfect for serving over gnocchi, polenta, or your favorite pasta for the coziest winter dinner! Be sure to check out the Recipe Notes for slow cooker instructions.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
- 1 ½ pounds American lamb shoulder, excess fat trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes (see Recipe Notes)
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
- 2 medium carrots, finely diced
- 1 stalk celery, finely diced
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup good red wine (see Recipe Notes)
- 1 cup low-sodium beef stock
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 8–10 sprigs fresh thyme
- optional: ¼ cup heavy cream
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to season
- for serving: gnocchi or pasta of choice, grated parmesan, fresh basil or parsley for garnish
- Brown the lamb: Add the olive oil to a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium high heat. Using paper towel, pat the lamb as dry as possible, then season generously with 1 teaspoon each Kosher salt and ground black pepper. Working in batches as needed, add the lamb to the Dutch oven. Cook the lamb until deeply browned on all sides, about 2-3 minutes per side. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan – it prevents browning! Transfer the lamb to a plate and set aside. At this point, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- Cook the aromatics: Reduce the heat under the Dutch oven to medium. Add the onion, carrots and celery, seasoning with 1 teaspoon Kosher salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the veggies are softened and deeply caramelized, about 10-12 minutes. Add in the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add in the tomato paste, stirring to combine, and cook for another minute or two to caramelize.
- Deglaze: Slowly pour the red wine into the Dutch oven, using a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits that have formed at the bottom of the pot – that’s where all the flavor is! Let the red wine reduce by about half (this goes by quickly!), then pour in the beef stock, crushed tomatoes, and the herbs. I like to use kitchen twine to tie them into a little bundle for easy removal. Return the lamb to the Dutch oven.
- Braise: Cover the Dutch oven and place it in the oven to braise at 325 degrees F for 2-2 ½ hours. When it’s ready, the lamb should shred very easily. Remove the Dutch oven from the oven. Remove the herbs, then shred the lamb – it’ll be tender enough that you should be able to shred it right in the ragu by using the back of a wooden spoon. Stir to combine. At this point you can serve, set aside, or even freeze for later use.
- Serve: Bring a pot of salty water to a boil and cook the gnocchi or pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, as the gnocchi boils, finish the ragu. Add the ragu to a small skillet over medium high heat, about ½ cup ragu per serving. Drizzle in some heavy cream, about 1 tablespoon per serving. Stir to combine, then add in the cooked gnocchi or pasta. Toss to combine, then let cook for 1-2 minutes for everything to come together. Serve immediately, sprinkled with grated parmesan & fresh herbs, as desired. Enjoy!
- Lamb: When it comes to buying lamb, it’s so important to choose American lamb, vs imported. It’s not only fresher, but buying American also supports the local ranchers & family farms across the country who are committed to the quality & welfare of their animals. Be sure to ask your butcher where they source their lamb, or check out the American Lamb Board’s website for more details. They have a full list of distributors & farmers throughout the country!
- Red wine helps add so much richness to this braised lamb ragu! No need to break the bank here, but use a drinkable medium-bodied dry red wine. A good Chianti is always my go-to!
- Slow cooker: This braised lamb ragu recipe is slow cooker-friendly, though I have a strong preference for braising it as written. Braising pulls out so much more flavor! If braising doesn’t fit in your schedule, slow cooking will work, but be sure to try the braised version at some point! To slow cook, sear the lamb and cook the aromatics according to Steps 1-2 of Recipe Directions. Transfer everything to a slow cooker with all remaining listed ingredients, tomato paste through herbs. Slow cook on low heat for 8-10 hours, until the lamb shreds easily. Serve according to Step 5 of Recipe Directions.
- Freezing lamb ragu: Lamb ragu is super freezer friendly. Make a double batch, or freeze any leftovers for an easy dinner later on. Transfer cooled lamb ragu to a freezer bag or container. Freeze for up to 3 months. To serve, defrost in the refrigerator overnight and serve according to Step 5 of Recipe Directions.
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