Bolognese Sauce: Which Way Is Best To Prepare?

bolognese sauceBolognese sauce is the most famous, classic sauce from Northern Italy.   Suddenly Bolognese sauce is being spotlighted in numerous food blogs and cooking magazines (Italian and non-Italian). After reading so many recent articles on this sauce, it seems that for some people, preparing and enjoying Bolognese sauce is like finding gold lately!  As for my family . . . we’ve been preparing Bolognese sauce since any of us can remember.

I’ve had several people ask me for my family’s recipe. When I’ve shared it, one of the first questions that some of them ask is “don’t you add milk?”   That leads to the ultimate question, which way is best to prepare this comforting tomato-based pasta sauce?  Truthfully, no one is going to share their best, treasured family recipes, especially if it is part of a family restaurant, such as my family’s recipe.  After all, Coke’s secret recipe is locked up in a vault!

I’ll never forget when I was growing up, how much of this sauce my parents used to make for their restaurants.  Especially on Sundays when they had ‘all you can eat Spaghetti dinners’ for college students who could never get enough.  I doubt that my parents made a dime of profit for those events, especially considering the college athletes with enormous appetites who showed up to get their Bolognese fix!

As a scrawny child who was in charge of re-filling customers’ glasses of water, I remember watching college students out on dates, fumbling spaghetti noodles on their forks, trying to determine whether or not to ‘twirl’ the pasta noodles or to cut them instead.  I was always waiting to see if some of those pretty girls would spill the sauce on their clothes!

So for this delicious red pasta sauce, I can certainly guide you in making your own beloved version.  Plus there are tons of recipes out there that are already published in cookbooks and magazines.  This month you can find a recipe in Taste of Italia, as well as Cuisine at Home’s Holiday Recipes.  Any Italian cookbook author who is worth their weight will include a recipe in their books.  Goodness, if you even google this sauce, thousands of completely different recipes will appear on your own computer screen!

So back to those million dollar questions:  Is wine added?  Should shredded carrots be added?  Does the recipe require milk or cream?

Because I was so curious, I texted my cousin Silvia Santi in Modena, Italy for how she prepares her Bolognese:  Yes, she adds carrots and wine, but she does not add pancetta, milk or Italian parsley.  See what I mean, we all make it differently.  You can also add some ground pork, veal and/or pancetta if you prefer.  Even my cousin in Iowa adds chopped mushrooms to her recipe!  ”Grazie mille, Silvia for sharing your recipe with me yesterday!”  ;-)

There are as many different recipes for Italian Bolognese Sauce as there are for American Apple Pie!  Everyone makes it differently based on family traditions as well as their own personal tastes. So for this post, my mother and I made 3 different versions and did a taste test!

For the first pot, we made our traditional family recipe. In the second pot, we added some sautéed pancetta and then added it to the browned beef. Finally, for the last pot, we  added carrots, wine and cream (which we normally never do). All of these turned out delicious, with the last version being very rich and creamy, tasting much like a super-rich vodka sauce!

Here is the sweet email message from my cousin Silvia:

“Ciaoooo cara Roz…
I put celery carrots and onions in oil.
when everything is soffritt add the meat.
when the meat is well browned, add a little wine.
I let the wine evaporate and then add the tomato sauce and a little water
also let cook 3 hours

The meat can be a mixture of pork, veal ground or you can also use bacon ground

Let me know how it came
I send you a big kiss

Now let me warn you about my family’s recipes:  Nothing is written down on paper, they are all memorized and so I’ll give you all that I know. And the only way we make our sauce is in HUGE batches to freeze, so we use quantities of ingredients that are very, very large. I’ve never broken them down into smaller batches . . . so you’ll need a calculator or a good math mind to determine what’s in a small batch.

One last note of advice:  This is a pure, classic, authentic Northern Italian recipe in which nothing else is added to it.  It does not need the addition of alot of spices and other ingredients.  What you will create with all of those other ‘celebrity chef’ recipes is a completely different sauce altogether, but it won’t be a Bolognese sauce.  

Bolognese Sauce cut up all of the vegetables and chop them up

Bolognese Sauce

In about a half cup of olive oil, thoroughly brown the beef to a nice dark brown color!

Bolognese Sauce

Saute onions, celery (and carrots if you want them) in more olive oil in another skillet. Then add the sauteed vegetables to the browned beef.

Bolognese Sauce

Add chopped Italian Parsley (not sautéed).

Bolognese Sauce

Add tomatoes (either tomato paste, sauce, or fresh tomatoes — I add tomatoes that I’ve frozen from my garden).

Bolognese Sauce

Simmer the sauce on the absolute lowest temperature, continually adding water, stirring, stirring, stirring. Place several cookie sheets or pizza pans between the bottom of the pot and the heat source . . . . . do not burn the sauce. Keep a close eye on it. Simmer for a minimum of 3 hours!

Bologonese Sauce with Several Options

What You Need:

  • Olive oil -- a cup or so
  • Ground Beef, Pork & Veal -- 20 pounds total
  • Pancetta (optional) -- 1/4 pound, cubed
  • Yellow Onions - 2 small bags, chopped
  • Celery - One entire bunch with leaves attached, chopped
  • Carrots (optional) -- 2 large carrots, grated
  • Italian Parsley -- about 3 bunches, stemmed removed, chopped
  • Wine (optional) -- 1 - 2 cups (red or white, depending on how strong you want it)
  • Milk/Cream (optional) -- my family does not include -- 1 cup
  • Tomato Paste, sauce, or fresh/frozen tomatoes -- about 10 12-oz cans to start with
  • Water or beef broth to thin the sauce


  • Clean and chop the onions and celery.
  • If adding carrots, shred one or two with a micro-grater.
  • Use two heavy pots: One to saute the beef/pork/veal in olive oil until very brown and one to saute the chopped onion, celery, (and carrots if you prefer) in olive oil until soft.
  • IF YOU WANT TO ADD MUSHROOMS, saute them at this point and add to the soffrito (veggies).
  • After the beef/pork/veal is thoroughly browned, add the sauteed vegetables to the large heavy pot that contains the beef.
  • Add the (non-cooked) chopped Italian parsley.
  • Mix well.
  • IF YOU WANT TO ADD wine (red or white), this is when you add it.
  • Allow it to boil and cook off the wine's liquid.
  • IF YOU WANT TO ADD milk/cream, this is the moment that you add it.
  • Allow the mixture to boil for a few minutes to reduce the milk.
  • Add tomato sauce, paste or fresh/frozen tomatoes.
  • Stir well.
  • Add more to the level of tomato-y-ness that you prefer.
  • Add water to thin down to your desired level of thickness.
  • Place one or two cookie sheets or pizza pans between the bottom of the pot and the heat source TO HELP PREVENT BURNING the sauce.
  • Turn the temperature to the lowest possible and simmer for a minimum of 3 hours.
  • Keep an eye on the sauce, adding water when needed, stirring and checking to see that it is not burning on the bottom of the pan.
  • IF YOU BURN THE SAUCE, you will know it by feeling a crusty build-up on the bottom of the sauce. DO NOT SCRAPE IT IN! Remove the unburned sauce immediately into another clean pot and continue to cook. If you scrape in the burned sauce into the un-burned sauce, it will be completely ruined . . . a sad thing after all of that work!
  • Add salt and pepper to taste throughout.
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Your comments make me smile and I promise to get right back to you both here and on your blog! I may be slow at it because I get easily distracted by something brewing in the kitchen, hummingbirds in my gardens, and student papers to grade! BUT I DO VISIT YOUR BLOG and comment back! Hey, that's what good friends are for! xo

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  1. As we talked about on Facebook the town of Bologna laid down the law and developed the true Bolognese, but there are as many interpretations as here are cooks. Your families recipes sounds so tasty I wish I had a bowl of pasta right now with sauce of course.
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  2. Ron, this looks exactly like I make, but in a much smaller quantity! I am always accused of cooking for an army…but you beat me on this one! But it’s a great comfort to know that there is a healthy portion waiting in the freezer for a fresh batch of your favorite pasta!
    Beautiful…that’s how this looks…that’s how I describe it. I can only imagine the taste!

  3. I was so happy to read your recipe Ros because I knew it would be a good one. We all have our own recipes, don’t we (not that I’m Italian). I never add milk or cream but have added a bit of cream to a bolognese sauce for a lasagne a couple of times. I think the secret is the time it takes to cook. The longer the better. Your photos are gorgeous, as always.

    Anne xx
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  4. This is my husband favourite pasta sauce…well, that’s probably the only sauce he enjoys with his noodle dishes. Thanks for sharing, Roz.
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    • Angie,
      My husband is exactly the same way! He won’t ever touch a cream or Alfredo sauce, nor does he like pasta in olive oil/butter, nor does he even like a simple Marinara sauce. But you give my husband pasta with this sauce and you’ll never hear him speak until his plate is clean (licked)! He’s in his ‘zone’ of sheer happiness when eating. I can just see your husband eating this, with the same delight!

      Roz recently posted..Bologonese Sauce: Which Way Is Best To Prepare?My Profile

  5. Thanks for sharing! I love how what’s old is new again? Who knew that the sauce my sister brought on moving day to my first apartment (a few) years ago would be trendy? And that my dad’s manhattan and my mom’s old-fashioned were “new” drinks? Love it!
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  6. Your blog is very special. I love your photos, stories, styles, and all the contents. Through all those, you have touched us with ‘warmth’ of your lively & cheerful friendship, and allow us to be close to you as real as a ‘real’ person.

    What you share is very genuine. It reaches us as you are fully sharing it from your heart, and it comes to us as if we were your friends who actually sit right in your kitchen or garden with you. You truly make us very special.

    Your today recipe is very well received in such a manner that I, whose mother’s tongue is Thai, cannot find words to express. I feel that you felt for us who love Italian food, that we often look for something real but do not get to the point. You have watched us, Italian or non-Italians, search for this very recipe to the point that you cannot hold it any longer, and have to come out and share what you can with us.

    Thank you so much for everything. You are most appreciated.
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    • Sawadeeka Churaipon Chintakanont Klaijumlang!

      Your comment is the most wonderful, beautiful, most kind compliment that I have ever received in the 5 years of this blog’s existence. In fact, I loved your words so much, that I cried big tears of joy. I read your comment to my husband and I am going to read it to my mother too. I love Thailand and Thai food so much and cannot wait to return for my 3rd time! Hopefully very soon. You are a true Thai in your kindness towards others!

      Big, big hugs and warm regards to you,
      Roz recently posted..Bologonese Sauce: Which Way Is Best To Prepare?My Profile

  7. Thanks so much for taking the time to photograph and share this technique. I’ve never made it and when I do, subscribe to the reasoning of making a large batch to freeze. How wonderful to have this treasure in the freezer for a few meals. Just back from Germany, I’m finding the same arguments over Sauerbraten and what’s authentic.
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    • Oh Lea Ann, thanks so much for your thoughts! After photographing these steps, I truly looked back and realized that I could have taken more, but when in a flurry of cooking (with my whirlwind-cook-Mother), I just forgot to get more taken! Now I hope that YOU will help me learn more authentic German cooking . . . we are infatuated with authentic schnitzels and apple desserts from Germany!

      Roz recently posted..Bologonese Sauce: Which Way Is Best To Prepare?My Profile

  8. wowww, This is super! good!

  9. It looks amazingly good Roz. This is Bev’s favorite sauce but she makes a simple one and I’ve only made Anne Burrell’s version which is somewhat different than yours. I’m about ready for some pasta and I’ll give yours a try. I agree that you should not share the old family recipe – except with me :-)
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  10. Love this post Roz. Bologonese is definitely my favorite sauce! The sauce I make is very similar ingredients, and I to only make huge quantities! I love having it available in the freezer for “no-cook” nights. My only problem…it never turns out the same twice. I’m sure I can blame it on both cooking by eye and tasting as I go…old habits hard to break :)
    Nancy recently posted..I Do, Dinner for 2 & TiramisuMy Profile

    • You’re right there Nancy . . . this sauce never tastes the same twice between different batches . . . could be a different batch of beef or even the tomato flavor changes from year to year…..just the nature of the beast of cooking with fresh ingredients! Big batches rock, huh? So easy to pull from the freezer when there’s little time to prepare for something . . . and it’s just there waiting for you!
      Roz recently posted..Bologonese Sauce: Which Way Is Best To Prepare?My Profile

  11. That’s some mighty fine sauce you got there Roz. I love your recipe, ground beef…
    20 lbs! You go girl!

  12. Hey Roz! Bolognese is our favorite sauce and because its so versatile, we use for so many dishes. And, just like you, we cook large amounts so we can give it to family members and freeze some as well. Beautiful sauce and post !! Bravissimo!!
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    • I could not imagine preparing this sauce is small batches with the amount of time it takes to make . . . it’s just so wonderful to be able to grab a container from the freezer and have it in just the amount of time it takes to re-heat it and the freezing has absolutely no negative impact on the flavor. How’s your company getting along that is visiting you?

      Roz recently posted..Bologonese Sauce: Which Way Is Best To Prepare?My Profile

  13. Like your family, mine never wrote down recipes and my mother’s sugo was very different from my mother-in-law’s. It took me years before my husband declared “It finally has character.”
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  14. WOW! That is a HUGE pot of Bologonese!!! 20 pounds of meat! That would last Bobby and I a year at least, but then maybe not. After reading through your list of ingredients, I can smell it! What a great recipe!!! We love a good bologonese, so you can bet I’ll be giving your family recipe a try.! Thanks so much for sharing it!
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  15. Oh, Roz, I would love to smell the aroma of a big pot of sauce simmering on my stove. I always add wine, have never used milk. I can see what a personal thing a family recipe can be. I have a heat diffuser plate I use on my gas range to prevent scorching. Even on high, whatever is cooking won’t burn.
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  16. Larry Peck says:

    I haven’t looked at your website in a while. I was just reading about how you don’t have the family recipe for spaghetti sauce broken down into a small quantity. Waaaaaayyyyyyy back when my mom, Aunt Olga, and Martina measured everything out for what they considered “one batch” of sauce. This is what they passed on to Kathi and I. I don’t know if Kathi makes this very often as Lloyd seems to prefer a marinara sauce over a bolognese. If someone called this bolognese sauce when we were growing up we wouldn’t have known what they were talking about ! It’s SPAGHETTI SAUCE !!!

    Grandma Martina’s Spaghetti Sauce
    Olga Peck (Nona)

    • One pound ground beef (mix of pork & beef or ground turkey or chicken will also work)
    • One cup chopped celery (with tops)
    • One cup chopped onion
    • One 28 oz. can tomatoes (whole or diced – don’t use stewed tomatoes, they have a lot of added sugar in them)
    • One six oz. can of tomato paste
    • One teaspoon dried basil
    • Two tablespoons of dried parsley (or about a half cup of fresh chopped parsley)
    • One teaspoon garlic salt (or two or three cloves of fresh garlic)
    • One teaspoon salt (if using fresh garlic)
    • One eighth teaspoon pepper

    In a large pot, brown meat in a couple tablespoons of olive oil.
    Add pepper, garlic salt or regular salt if using fresh garlic.
    Drain excess fat.

    In a blender add tomatoes, celery, onion, parsley, basil, tomato paste and garlic if using fresh garlic. Blend until smooth.

    Add contents of blender to browned meat. Add one tomato paste can full of water and bring to a good simmer – see hint. Reduce heat and cook at a low simmer for at least one hour – two or three hours is better. Stir frequently to make sure it’s not sticking to the bottom of the pot. This will reduce and thicken. The sauce shouldn’t be too “soupy”. This will thicken a little more after it cools a little.

    If the sauce starts to stick a little to the bottom of the pot just scrape it off and mix it in unless it’s burned.

    This is “one batch” and should be good for about a half a pound of pasta. The sauce freezes well. Don’t use meat that has been previously frozen if you are freezing the sauce.

    A little hint – rinse the tomato paste can out with some hot water then use this water to rinse the tomato can then pour this into the empty blender and run the blender for a few seconds to rinse it out. After all this add the water to the sauce. This is what Nona used to do to get everything out of all of the cans.

    I usually double this when Ted comes home for the weekend. He can polish all of it off on his own !

    Your cousin Larry

    • Hey Larry! Thanks so much for helping all of us out here with the breakdown of each ingredient’s quantities so that this recipe can be made in smaller batches. And you’re right, growing up we never called it Bolognese sauce either, we always simply called it ‘spaghetti sauce’. However in the cooking world that could mean anything!

      Hugs to your and everyone in the FAM!!!!

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  17. Chacun de nous y met un peu de soi mais chacune est bonne quand elle est faite maison ensuite c’est une question de goût, chacune de nous a ses préférences. Délicieuse sauce bolognaise qui donne envie parmi tant d’autres plats de la cuisine italienne. Une amie d’enfance m’a fait connaitre tout cela et depuis je ne peux m’en passer. Aujourd’hui j’y mets ma touche personnelle et je déguste ce plat plein de soleil avec grand bonheur à chaque fois :) .

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