Boy oh boy…there’s some major coziness in store for us today & it’s called Slowly Braised Lamb Ragu. If you’re anything like me, the cold weather season has you craving cozy & comforting meals…the kind of dish that feels like a hug-in-a-bowl!
I’m pretty sure that slowly braised lamb ragu, tossed into a pile of twirly pappardelle pasta or pillowy-tender gnocchi with tons of grated parm & a little cream is the very definition of huggable…ya know?
A heavenly, comforting taste of Italy – Slowly Braised Lamb Ragu
This braised lamb ragu, a recipe I’ve been tweaking & perfecting for years, is my take on the authentic agnello (braised lamb) ragu served at the Northern Italian restaurant where I worked as a server during my gap year after college.
Beautifully marbled lamb shoulder slowly simmers with fresh herbs, plenty of garlic, tomatoes, & red wine, until it’s succulently melt-in-your-mouth tender. Toss the lamb ragu into a twirly pile of pasta or serve it with pillowy-soft gnocchi for the coziest, restaurant-quality Italian meal at home.
& the very best part? It’s the kind of meal that is FANCY with a capital F but it’s so easy to throw together that it’s borderline lazy. Braised Lamb Ragu is perfect for the most special occasions, like Christmas or Easter dinner, but it’s also easy enough to make on even the laziest Sunday afternoons when you don’t have much planned beyond yoga pants & a Netflix marathon. (Trust me…I’ve done it!)
Ragu is one of my specialties, & this Slowly Braised Lamb Ragu has been enjoyed by thousands of PWWB readers over the years. We originally published this recipe back in 2017 & we’re revisiting it today with some freshened up photography & improved directions, including slow cooker & Instant Pot guidance. I can’t wait for you to try it! ♡ Read on to learn more about this Braised Lamb Ragu, or jump straight to the recipe & get cookin’!
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First thing’s first – What is Lamb Ragu?!
Before jumping into the nitty-gritty of this lamb ragu recipe, let’s chat ragu for a second. What is ragu?! Is it a tomato sauce – is it like marinara? Or, is it a cream sauce? These were some of the most frequently asked questions from restaurant guests in my serving days…so if you’re curious, you’re definitely not alone!
Ragu is blanket term used to describe a rich, slowly cooked Italian meat sauce. Ragu is hearty, intensely flavorful (borderline stew-like!), & is typically served with pasta, gnocchi, or polenta. Perhaps, without even knowing it, you’ve enjoyed arguably the most famous ragu – bolognese!
So, while it usually does involve slowly simmered tomatoes (similar to a marinara sauce), & it’s almost always finished with milk or heavy cream (like creamy pasta dishes), ragu is in its own category altogether. The common element of any ragu is the fact that meat (or a meaty element, like mushrooms or eggplant) is totally the star of the show.
The beauty of ragu is you can really make it whatever you want it to be! 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. We served pork ragu, wild boar ragu, shredded duck ragu, vegetarian mushroom ragu, agnello…the slowly braised lamb ragu we’re making today!
Key Ingredients for Lamb Ragu
Aside from the fact that it’s insanely rich and meaty, one of the reasons I love ragu so much is because it calls for pretty simple ingredients, many of which are fridge & pantry staples. This lamb ragu recipe is no exception!
Note: full ingredients list & measurements provided in the Recipe Card, below.
The key ingredients in this lamb ragu recipe include…
- Lamb shoulder – A tougher cut of lamb, beautiful for a slow braise. Its marbling adds lots of rich flavor to the ragu sauce and ensures that the lamb shoulder is juicy & tender despite cooking for a few hours.
- Soffritto – The Italian holy trinity of onion, carrot, & celery. I like chopping my soffritto by hand for bigger, chunkier pieces of veggies in my ragu sauce, but you can also grate the veggies in a food processor to cut down on active prep time.
- Aromatics – Of course! This lamb ragu recipe calls for tons of garlic & plenty of fresh herbs to help build a sauce that stands up to the rich flavor of lamb shoulder.
- Wine – It’s not ragu without a little bit of wine! A bold red wine is perfect here. Similar to the aromatics, it helps build a sauce that stands up to the rich flavor of lamb shoulder. I always like cooking with Italian wine when I make ragu. Chianti is a great pairing with lamb shoulder!
- Tomatoes – The perfect combination of tomato paste for its concentrated flavor & crushed tomatoes, which add a velvety body to the lamb ragu sauce. If you can find fire-roasted crushed tomatoes, snag them & use them in all of your homemade ragu & pasta sauces! Fire roasting adds an extra depth of flavor.
- & a little heavy cream & parmesan to help bring the ragu together.
Other cuts of lamb for lamb ragu:
Because of the long cooking time involved, avoid really lean cuts like lamb chops. You can also make this lamb ragu recipe with lamb shank (yum!). If you prefer to use ground lamb, I suggest modeling your ragu after my Best-Ever Bolognese recipe.
Meal Prep Tip:
Nearly all of the hands-on prep for this braised lamb ragu is chopping up the soffritto. Chop the carrot, celery & onion ahead of time so you can jump right into cooking! A bit of stove time is still involved, but cutting out the active prep time makes this lamb ragu the kind of thing you could do any afternoon.
How to make Lamb Ragu Sauce:
Cooking any braised ragu, including this lamb ragu sauce, is a pretty straightforward process. It is time-intensive since the goal is to pull BIG flavors out of relatively humble ingredients, but it isn’t difficult! A standard braise consists of 3 main steps: browning, deglazing, & simmering.
Note: full Recipe Directions with step-by-step photos provided in the Recipe Card, below.
First, brown the lamb shoulder.
Browning the lamb shoulder serves 2 major purposes. First, it creates a beautiful crust, which locks the juices inside the meat, preventing them from seeping out as the lamb slowly cooks. This means the lamb stays nice & juicy, & doesn’t dry out as it braises. Second, as the meat browns, it leaves browned bits on the bottom of the pan (fond being the technical French term), which is what creates the base flavor of the braising liquid.
To brown, simply add the lamb to a heavy-bottomed pot & cook for a few minutes per side, until deeply golden brown. Pretty straight forward!
A couple of quick tips for nailing the perfect sear:
- The lamb needs to be completely dry. Moisture is the natural enemy of a good, hard sear, so use paper towels to pat the lamb shoulder as dry as you can.
- You need a good, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, which retains its heat well & distributes it evenly. I’m a lifelong superfan of Staub dutch ovens, which are beautiful & retain heat incredibly well.
Next, brown the soffritto:
When I say brown, I mean brown. Many of the ragu & bolognese recipes I’ve read over the years call for simply softening the aromatics…and I couldn’t disagree with them more! The soffritto is the base of the entire sauce. Taking an extra 10 minutes to ensure they brown deeply adds so much flavor to the ragu. Now’s not the time for shortcuts!
Then, deglaze & build:
“Deglaze” is fancy-speak for adding a little bit of liquid, in this case, wine & beef stock, to the pot. The steam created when the wine hits the bottom of the hot pan helps release the flavorful browned bits (fond) that formed on the bottom of the pot throughout the browning process.
Build the lamb ragu sauce, adding in the remaining ingredients: fresh herbs, bay leaves, tomatoes, & a parmesan rind if you want to take the flavor to the next level! Rather than taking the time to chop all the herbs, I prefer to leave them whole, tying them together with kitchen twine, which makes them easy to remove from the lamb ragu before serving.
& finally – braising!
Add the browned lamb back into the Dutch oven & bring everything to a boil. Once boiling, cover the pot & pop it in the oven to braise until the lamb is fall-apart tender. You can also simmer the ragu on the stovetop. I slightly prefer using my oven for braised dishes; it’s nice not to have to worry about an open, unattended flame for such a long period of time!
How long to cook lamb ragu?
This lamb ragu braises for 2 – 2 1/2 hours until the lamb shoulder is very tender & falls apart easily. Your house will smell like Italian heaven!
Alternative cooking methods:
Based on the amount of time you have or how hands-on you’d like the cooking process to be, you can easily adapt this braised lamb ragu for a couple of commonly loved appliances:
- Can I make lamb ragu in a slow cooker? Yes, absolutely! I suggest browning the lamb shoulder & soffritto on the stovetop to develop those rich flavors, then you can braise the sauce slowly in a Crockpot or slow cooker. Full slow cooker directions are in the Recipe Notes, below.
- Can I make lamb ragu in an Instant Pot? Another yes! Of all the methods, the Instant Pot or an electric pressure cooker is admittedly my least favorite because the lamb ragu sauce doesn’t achieve the same depth of rich flavor since the cooking time is so much faster…but it will work! Full Instant Pot directions are also in the Recipe Notes, below.
& finally, the best part – serving Braised Lamb Ragu with pappardelle (or gnocchi!):
One of the secrets to creating a restaurant-quality pasta dish at home is finishing the pasta & sauce together just before serving. Pasta should always cook with the sauce for a couple of minutes, which helps the two components come together as a single dish. This is exactly how it’s done in restaurants – 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!
To properly finish your braised lamb ragu, add al dente pasta or prepared gnocchi right into the pot with the ragu sauce, tossing to combine. Use a little bit of heavy cream & parmesan to bind everything together, then let it simmer for a couple of minutes. The starch in the pasta or gnocchi will absorb some of the ragu sauce, melding it all together as one cohesive dish.
If your lamb pasta feels a little thick, loosen it up with some starchy pasta water. Similarly, it feels too loose, thicken it up with extra grated parm.
What’s the best pasta to serve with lamb ragu?
Generally speaking, heavier sauces are best served with wider noodles. This is why you’ll commonly see lamb ragu served with pappardelle. Pappardelle is my top pick for ragu, but bucatini (tubular spaghetti) is awesome, too.
If you prefer to serve with a short noodle, try rigatoni; its tubular shape captures bits & pieces of the lamb ragu for even more delicious bites of pasta. Want to double down on the coziness? Serve your lamb ragu with gnocchi or spoon it over a bed of creamy polenta.
You honestly can’t really go wrong here…rich & hearty braised lamb ragu for the win!
I can’t wait for you to try this Braised Lamb Ragu recipe. It’s pure Italian comfort food, & I know you’ll love it just as much as we do.
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
Succulent lamb shoulder is slowly braised with onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes, & hardy herbs, yielding an intensely flavorful Braised Lamb Ragu Sauce, perfectly paired with pappardelle, gnocchi, polenta, or any pasta you love! Slow cooker & Instant Pot directions provided in the Recipe Notes!
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 ½ pounds lamb shoulder, excess fat trimmed and diced into 1-inch cubes (see Recipe Notes)
- 2 medium carrots, finely diced
- 1 stalk celery, finely diced
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
- 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup dry red wine (such as Chianti)
- 1 cup low-sodium beef stock
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 8–10 sprigs fresh thyme
- kosher salt and ground black pepper, to season
for Braised Lamb Ragu Pasta:
- 16–24 ounces pasta (pappardelle, bucatini, rigatoni, etc.) or gnocchi
- 1/4 – 1/3 cup grated parmesan (roughly 1 tablespoon per serving)
- ¼ – 1/3 cup heavy cream (roughly 1 tablespoon per serving)
- for serving, as desired: additional grated parmesan, finely chopped fresh herbs, etc.
- Brown the lamb shoulder: Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid over medium-high heat (I use a 4-qt Dutch oven). Use paper towel to pat the lamb as dry as possible, then season generously with 1 teaspoon each kosher salt & ground black pepper. Add the seasoned lamb to the Dutch oven and cook until deeply browned on all sides, about 2-3 minutes per side. Work in batches as needed to avoid overcrowding the pot, which prevents browning. Transfer the lamb to a plate and set aside. At this point, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- Cook the aromatics: Add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pot & reduce the heat to medium. Once the oil is hot & shimmers, add in the onion, carrots, and celery, seasoning with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the veggies are softened & deeply browned, 15-20 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, stirring to coat the veggies, and cook for 1-2 minutes more, caramelizing the tomato paste.
- 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 for 2 – 2 ½ hours. When it’s ready, the lamb should shred very easily – 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. Remove the Dutch oven from the oven. Remove & discard the spent bay leaves & herbs. Shred the lamb & stir to combine. At this point, you can cool & store for later use (see Recipe Notes for storage & freezing instructions), or proceed with prepping lamb ragu pappardelle or gnocchi (below).
Braised Lamb Ragu Pasta:
- Boil the pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the gnocchi or pasta to al dente according to package directions. Before draining, carefully dip a liquid measuring cup into the pot, reserving about 1 cup of the starchy pasta water & set aside. Carefully drain the pasta (or gnocchi) & set aside – do NOT rinse hot pasta/gnocchi!
- Finish the Braised Lamb Ragu sauce: Meanwhile, as the pasta boils, bring the braised lamb ragu to a simmer. Stir in the heavy cream & grated parmesan. Reduce heat to low & continue to simmer, stirring occasionally as needed.
- Lamb ragu pasta: Add the al dente pasta or gnocchi to the simmering ragu sauce, tossing to coat such that the pasta is evenly coated in sauce. If the ragu is thick & needs to loosen up some, drizzle in some of the reserved starchy pasta water. If the pasta is loose & needs to thicken up some, sprinkle in some extra grated parm. Cook over medium heat for 1-2 minutes, until the pasta or gnocchi absorbs some of the ragu & the ragu clings to the pasta or gnocchi beautifully.
- Serve: Portion the lamb ragu pasta into individual pasta bowls. Finish with some grated parm or finely chopped herbs as desired. Serve immediately. Enjoy!
- Lamb: My preferred cut of lamb for this braised lamb ragu is lamb shoulder, though lamb shanks will work very well, too. Because of the long cooking time involved, avoid lean cuts like lamb chops. If you prefer to use ground lamb, I suggest modeling your ragu after my Best-Ever Bolognese recipe.
- Make-ahead, storage, & freezing:
- Storage: Lamb ragu sauce stores incredibly well – it gets better & better as the flavors meld together over time! To store, prep the lamb ragu sauce through Step 4 of Recipe Directions, above. Cool completely & transfer to an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Finish your ragu according to Steps 1-4 of “Braised Lamb Ragu Pasta” directions, above. Easy!
- Freezing lamb ragu: Lamb ragu is also very freezer-friendly. You can make a double batch of this recipe, or freeze any leftovers for an easy dinner down the road. To freeze, transfer cooled lamb ragu sauce to a freezer bag or container. Freeze for up to 3 months. To thaw, place the frozen ragu in the refrigerator overnight or submerge the freezer container in cool water for an even quicker thaw. Finish your ragu according to Steps 1-4 of “Braised Lamb Ragu Pasta” directions, above. Previously frozen lamb ragu will be a little watery at first, which is totally fine & expected – simply let excess water simmer out before adding in the heavy cream & parmesan.
- Alternative cooking methods:
- Slow cooker or Crockpot: Prepare the recipe according to Steps 1-3, above. Transfer the browned lamb shoulder, deglazed soffritto, & all remaining sauce ingredients as directed in Step 3 to a slow cooker. Slow cook on high for 3-4 hours or on low for 6-7 hours until the lamb shoulder is fall-apart tender. If your slow cooker has a searing/browning feature, you can use it to cook this entire lamb ragu recipe (Steps 1-4) in the slow cooker. Finish as directed in “Braised Lamb Ragu Pasta” Steps 1-4. Enjoy!
- Instant Pot or electric pressure cooker: Use the Instant Pot’s “Sauté” setting to cook the recipe according to Steps 1-3, above. Cover & seal the pressure cooker. Cook on manual high pressure for 45 minutes. Allow the pressure cooker to naturally release pressure for 15 minutes before carefully flicking the valve to its “venting” position to vent out any residual pressure. Finish as directed in “Braised Lamb Ragu Pasta” Steps 1-4. Enjoy!
Keywords: braised lamb ragu sauce, ragu sauce recipe, lamb shoulder, winter, pasta dish recipe, slow cooker, Instant Pot, Christmas, Easter
Recipe by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by Eat Love Eat
More classic Italian recipes to try…
- Obsessed with ragu? Be sure to try this one! Slowly Braised Pork Ragu
- Another classic: PWWB’s Best-Ever Bolognese, & put it to use in this Lasagna Bolognese
- Or try a lightened-up version: Healthier Turkey Bolognese
- Quick & easy: 5-Ingredient Pomodoro Sauce
- Perfect for weeknights: 20-Minute Spicy Italian Sausage & Peppers Pasta
- An Italian-American staple: Pasta Marsala
- Braised to perfection! Slowly Braised Lamb Ragu with Gnocchi
- 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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