Dissecting Ragù

Who really cares about making the perfect ragù, or is there such a thing? The answer lies in the next few paragraphs.

The numerous variations among recipes for ragù alla bolognese which have led my search for the definitive, authentic recipe. There are numerous versions of Bolognese ragù and each has its own direction and ideology. For instance, garlic is absent from most of the recipes, as are herbs. Seasoning is limited to salt, pepper and the occasional pinch of nutmeg. In all of the recipes meats dominate as the principal ingredient, while tomatoes, in one form or another is the only auxiliary ingredient.

Ragù is made easily with the use of the “right” ingredients and so what are they? Each chef you consult has his/her version of what is added to make it perfect, but it’s the base that really counts. Lets keep it simple: you either add pork, or some type of lard or not. Some swear by pancetta, and use butter to make it more rich by using as much fat as possible, while other keep it more pure and lean. I lean towards lean.

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I use the bare necessities such as virgin olive oil to flavor the basic ingredients and keep the flavors pure and simple, yet rich enough. In the end you look to have a balance between sweet and salty and umami.

In my particular recipe (my version) I add konbu to strengthen the end result, and give the taste more depth. I take a nice 4cm by 5cm piece and use it directly into the ragù’s pot. If you prefer more flavors, you’ll need to extract it in water, or loosen the umami proteins and let them simmer more gently.

The first challenge is the main ingredient beef, and so what do you do? There are three options, cook the meat, brown the meat, or stew the meat. I choose to simmer the meat because I want to retain some beef taste and not just a caramelized brown sauce that is all melded together. In many cases chefs meld the flavors and get a deep rich looking sauce that impresses the eye, but at the end seems too heavy. Traditionally milk is added and chicken stock and some liver can be used to give it more gravy texture.

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In the very beginning, I also de-glaze the garlic to give it a little sweetness added to the pungent taste of the garlic. So at the start that’s when you begin to meld the garlic and meat. This step is critical because you are starting your base and this is the background to the canvas.

If you burn the garlic, or over cook it, it’s awful. When garlic burns, it gets brown and when it’s still white you can extract flavors you wish. I am not sure if you know but garlic’s trace metal is 80% manganese, an important metal for human health and necessary for the antioxidant system. Nevertheless, excessive exposure or intake may lead to a neurodegenerative disorder – don’t worry you would need to eat tons of garlic.

A large number of sulfur compounds contribute to the smell and taste of garlic. Allicin has been found to be the compound most responsible for the “hot” sensation of raw garlic. This chemical opens thermo-transient receptor potential channels that are responsible for the burning sense of heat in foods. The process of cooking garlic removes allicin, thus mellowing its spiciness.

I am after taste, color and intensity without forgetting balance. I consider that each palate receptor is more or less constructed the same way, however each person’s preferences are different. This in its own way influences the ultimate taste, and that is why too many Italians over salt. They are used to it, so just remember, if you train yourself to crave salt, you need more and more.

I am after good color and the tomatoes often give sufficient color, but I want a little more intensity, so how do I do it? I add some paprika at the start to color my oil, and avoid using any kind of paste from a tube as they are often too sweet. Then I use low heat and I do not brown the meat.

The basic reason is, I am looking to have more the tomato background taste and the sauce, while I want the meat to contrast. If you cook the meat, it will become too dark and expels plenty of fat during the browning process. I adore fat, but too much fat will over weight and make the sauce top heavy. I am not against browning the meat, and there are plenty of good reasons to brown it, but I just try it this way as my alternative.

Here is a key difference between most Italians chef’s recipes and others I have seen, including notably Batali: they cook the meat only until it has lost it’s raw color and turned a little grey. Most other recipes have you cook the meats until they have shed their fat and are browning and caramelized. The latter technique creates a fuller, and again, more “meaty” flavor.

There is no doubt that browning the meat changes the fundamentals of the sauce and the meat will be dryer, more firm and leaner but the sauce is more oily. In this case you rely more on the melding effect, the idea that all together it works and it happens after the sauce rests one day.

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There is no doubt in my mind that when most chefs cook the meat, it dries and doesn’t re-hydrate itself. It almost crumbles in the sauce and relies on the rich tomato flavors to smother it, and make it juicy. That’s why I do not cook the meat and when it comes to the perfect, you need to decide what works best through your own experimentation.

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In the book ‘Sfida al mattarello’, a manual in Italian to teach the principles of homemade pasta, la sfoglia bolognese, there is a whole chapter about making ragù. It is called ‘His Majesty the Ragù’:-).

Here is how they do it:

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
50gr/1.5 oz pancetta
500gr/1lbs ground chuck beef, or half beef and half pork shoulder
500gr/1lbs puréed and skinned tomatoes
1 medium onion
1 medium carrot
1 celery stick
1-2 chicken livers
1/2 glass/ 1/4 cup dry white wine
2 glasses / 1 cup full fat milk
2 glasses / 1 cup chicken stock
Salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg

Tips:

1. add konbu and after it becomes soft chop it and add it to the sauce.
2. never salt during cooking, only at the end, salt to flavor or you’ll over salt