Slow Cooker Bolognese Sauce (Ragu Bolognese)


Bolognese sauce, the mostly meat sauce from Bologna, Italy, simmers for hours and hours. What better recipe for my new slow cooker's first meal?
*Aren't Christmas presents wonderful?

My problem with slow cooker Bolognese sauce has always been too much liquid. Traditional recipes assume the sauce will be simmering all day, and lose a lot of liquid to evaporation. In a slow cooker, the lid traps all that evaporating liquid, resulting in ground meat swimming in juice. I cut back on the wine, milk, and tomatoes, and finally had the thick, meaty sauce I was looking for.

This recipe is a make-ahead gold mine. The recipe makes three quarts of Bolognese sauce, enough to coat three pounds of pasta. I use one third of the sauce, then freeze the sauce in 1 quart containers. With  Bolognese sauce in the freezer, dinner is a snap. Boil some pasta, reheat the sauce, and dinner's ready!

Sure, you could cut the recipe by 2/3rds and only make one night's dinner. But why would you? It doesn't add more than a couple extra minutes to the cooking time to make a big batch, and there's nothing quite like having some frozen assets waiting for you at the end of a long day.
*Get it? "Frozen" assets? Hahahaha! I kill myself.

Recipe: Slow Cooker Bolognese Sauce (Ragu Bolognese)

Adapted from: Slow Cooker Beef Bolognese Williams-Sonoma.com
Cook time: 10 hours

Equipment:
  • 6 quart or larger slow cooker (Crock Pot brand is fine, but I like my fancy one from All-Clad)

Ingredients:
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 oz prosciutto, cut into thin strips and separated (or diced pancetta)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste (half of a 6 oz can)
  • 1 1/2 lbs ground beef
  • 1 1/2 lbs ground pork
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup milk
  • 28oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 by 3 inch piece of Parmesan rind (optional)
  • 1 pound pasta, cooked (tagliatelle is traditional, but use your favorite pasta)


Directions:
1. Saute the meat and aromatics: Heat the oil, butter, and prosciutto in a large pot over medium-high heat, and saute until the prosciutto starts to crisp up, about 3 minutes. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and 1/2 tsp kosher salt, and saute until the onion is softened, about 4 minutes. Stir in the garlic and tomato paste and saute until the tomato paste darkens, about 2 minutes. Add the ground beef and pork, sprinkle with the 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper, and saute until the meat just loses its pink color. Increase the heat to high, add the wine, and bring to a boil. Stir in the milk, tomatoes, bay leaves, and Parmesan rind, and bring to a simmer.
Prosciutto getting crispy
Stirring in the tomato paste
Adding the milk
Bay leaves and Parmesan rind

2. Slow cook the Bolognese sauce: Transfer the ingredients to the slow cooker, cover, and cook on low heat for 8-10 hours or high heat for 4-5 hours.

Ready, set...go!  Um...slowly.
Done

3. Serve: Discard the bay leaves and Parmesan rind. Toss 1 pound of cooked pasta with 1 cup of the Bolognese sauce, then pour 3 more cups on top of the pasta. (Or - use the 3 cups of sauce to top individual servings of pasta - see the picture below.) Freeze the rest of the sauce in 1 quart containers for later use.

Tossed with 1 cup of sauce
Topped with a good helping of sauce

Variations:
*Substitute meatloaf mix for the beef and pork. I had a couple of pounds of grass fed hamburger from my local farmers market in my freezer, so I picked up a pound of ground pork at my local store to fill it out.

Notes:
*Tagliatelle vs regular noodles. Tagliatelle, long, medium-width egg noodles are the traditional pasta used in Bologna. I couldn't find tagliatelle in my local store, so I let the kids pick the shape. They surprised me by picking Campanelle, which worked out great. The trumpet shape traps the little bits of meat in the sauce.

Later, I figured out that egg fettuccine, usually sold in nests, is just about the same thing - slightly narrower, but a good substitute.

*If possible, for the last hour of cooking, increase the heat on the slow cooker to high and remove the lid. This thickens up the sauce a bit. In their recipe, Cooks Country Magazine recommends cooking the whole thing uncovered on high, but that makes me nervous - what if the slow cooker runs a little cold?

*If you're paying attention to the pictures, you can see I'm preparing the ingredients in the slow cooker insert. I'm loving the cast aluminum, stovetop safe insert.  One pot slow cooking, even with a lot of extra steps!  My only issue is: the insert is nonstick.  It wasn't a problem with this recipe.  But if I want browned fond on my pan, to help build the sauce, this insert won't help.  I'll have to pull out my stainless steel pans.  All-Clad, I know everyone wants nonstick nowadays, but how about an anodized aluminum insert next time?

What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.

Related Posts:
Slow Cooker Pork Pot Roast
Slow Cooker Turkey Thighs with Beer and Onions

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15 comments:

Live to Cook at Home said...

Made my own rendition with venison, grass fed beef, pork sausage, and a few other changes. Thanks for the inspiration, it made a perfect comfort meal last night!

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

@Live to Cook at home:

The venison and sausage sound amazing! Glad I could inspire you. As it happens, I pulled my last batch out of the freezer for tonight's dinner.

leadpipe said...

Dad, Thanks for your great website. Since buying my weber 670 I have been a huge fan. I just read how you tried to cook salmon on the rotisserie and it didn’t work out well. I want to share a great product I just discovered and it did an excellent job on my salmon. It is called the Ribolator. Check it out here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_J_TuEIhI4&feature=related

Thanks again
John

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

@Leadpipe:

I've been eyeing the Ribolator...but it feels like cheating - I want to see if I can get it to work with the spit and rotisserie. That said, I really do want to get a ribolator one of these days.

Stephanie said...

Gorgeous recipe - thank you! I must confess to a little slow cooker envy. What a gorgeous stainless steel beauty you have there.

I love that you use half a can of tomato paste here. Am I the only cook on the planet who buys a can for the inevitable 1 Tablespoon required in most recipes and then stares at the remainder in my freezer for months on end? Into the bolognese it goes.

Do you use whole milk to prevent curdling? Thanks, Mike!

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

@Stephanie:

For this recipe, I buy cans of tomato paste, but I keep a tube of tomato paste in my refrigerator at all times for recipes that only want one tablespoon - it's more expensive, but I can use the whole thing without it going bad.

For the milk: I use whatever I have on hand, which usually means 2% milk. I've never noticed it in the recipe, but I have to think the milk curdles as part of the cooking process. When I was researching Bolognese recipes, they all include a little milk, with no special instructions to avoid curdling. My guess is it does curdle, but that is intentional, and it blends into the rest of the sauce.

Chris Lukowski said...

I think this may be my first recipe once Santa makes his rounds. Word has it he was omniscient enough to catch that Friday W-S $180 sale. :o) Regarding reheating frozen leftover sauce, do you thaw it entirely in the microwave or just enough to transfer it to a saucepan? I imagine the whole thing in the nuker, cold rock to thoroughly hot, might me a spitty, messy proposition.

Mike V @ DadCooksDinner said...

I've thawed it both ways. I nuke it to get it started, then I either keep nuking it until it is hot all the way through, or transfer it to a saucepan to heat up next to the pasta pot.

Chris www.stowedstuff.com said...

I made this for the family today. The recipe worked great and the kids are loving it. Perfect for a post-snow storm meal!

Mike V @ DadCooksDinner said...

Thank you! (And, what a coincidence - this was our dinner last night, too.)

Chris Lukowski said...

I'm planning on making this on the weekend. When I saw the W-S recipe you adapted from I noticed they preferred red wine in the sauce, yet you called for white. Is that personal preference or just using what you had around? Also the curdling question below is of interest to me. I'm going to use whole milk in case it matters (you didn't specify).

Mike V @ DadCooksDinner said...

There's a lot of debate around the red or white question: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/nov/26/recipe-foodanddrink
My answer? Either works; use what you have on hand. I prefer white wine - I think I picked that up from the recipe I first used, years ago - but I'll use red if I don't have white on hand..

Chris Lukowski said...

I made this the other day and while it was good, there was something a tad "off" about it. Granted I haven't had a lot of bolognese before and I've never used ground pork before. I think between that and the tasty but strongly flavored prosciutto di parma I used it had a pretty strong aroma and flavor that caught me off guard. Perhaps next time I'll use a more balanced "meatloaf mix" and go with diced pancetta. What do you think? Also next time I think I will brown the meat separately so I can drain it. There was a LOT of fat that rendered to the top by the time it was done by doing it all in the insert.

Mike V @ DadCooksDinner said...

But...but...the pancetta? The rendered fat? Those are the best parts!

Just kidding - one of the keys to cooking is using your own judgement. If you think that's what the recipe needs, then that's what the recipe needs.



Oh, and instead of browning the meat (which will result in dry meat after the long cooking time), use a spoon to skim the fat from the top of the slow cooker before serving.

Jorien said...

Hey Cooking dad!

I've been stealing your recipes ever since I got my first slowcooker! Never been more excited about being in the kitchen! Just a quick question: Is there anything I could substitute the wine with? We never drink wine and so never have it at home!

Thanks!

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