Ask a hundred Italian nonnas for their classic Bolognese recipe and you’ll never get the same one twice. People have strong—I’m talking colossal grade—feelings about what should and shouldn’t be included in Bolognese. This recipe is the culmination of what my family ate, plus all my tinkering and tasting until I found the comfort of home to serve to my own family. This is a Sunday recipe, so take your time and enjoy the process.
First things first. Open your cans of tomatoes and put them in a large bowl. If you have kids, this is a good time to enlist their help. You need to get in there and crush these darlings with your hands. I realize that crushed tomatoes are available in the market, but the quality of crushed tomatoes never matches the quality of whole tomatoes. So I always buy them whole and just get in there with my hands. If you’re pinched for time, get them already crushed and move on with your day.
If you have a food processor, zap the carrots and celery a few minutes until it all breaks down into very small pieces that are not yet paste. If you don’t have a food processor, cut or shred the carrots and celery into the smallest pieces you have the patience for. Set aside.
Put your largest pan on medium-low heat to take the chill off. Add a tablespoon of olive oil, and turn the heat up to medium-high. Add the beef, along with ½ teaspoon of salt. Brown until it forms a caramelized crust and the smell beckons you to reach through the heat and pull out a piece to taste. When fully cooked, remove from the heat and let drain on a paper bag or paper towel-lined sheet pan. Do the same with the pork and another ½ teaspoon of salt. Please note you might have to do this in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. In my 12-inch pan, it takes 2 batches.
At the same time you’re cooking the meat, put a large Dutch oven on medium heat and let warm up a minute or two. Add the remaining olive oil, the onions, and the last ½ teaspoon of salt. Give it a good stir. When this mixture is wilted and fragrant, add the carrot/celery mixture, along with the porcini mushrooms, and stir until it looks like you have a pot full of sludge. Really good smelling sludge. Cook until it’s deeply amber, smells sweet, and looks golden brown. Don’t rush it. This might take a good 20 minutes, but this slow cooking is what builds flavor. Add the garlic, and cook until aromatic, about a minute. Add the tomato paste and stir well. The bottom will start to caramelize and look russet in color. Perfect. When it looks like you can’t let it go any longer, wait another moment or two then add half of the wine and scrape the hell out of the bottom of the pot. Don’t miss even one browned bit. That stuff is called fond, and trust me, it’s your secret weapon here; it’s the ingredient that will make this pot of sauce outstanding.
If you really want to capture ALL the flavor possible, drain most of the grease from your meat-browning pan. Add the other half of the wine into that pan while it’s still hot. Stir the bits of fond away from the pan before adding it into the vegetable mixture. It’s one extra step, but if you have time, it’s a step worth taking.
Let the wine cook down until the sauce looks thick and rich, then add the reserved tomatoes to the soffritto (aka flavorful sludge) along with the browned meat. Add in the bay and cheese rind (if adding), and simmer on the lowest heat possible, uncovered, for about 30 minutes.
Remove the bay leaf, and taste for seasoning, but only add salt if it’s brutally underseasoned because it will cook a while longer. Partially cover, and cook for about two hours, stirring every so often, until the flavors have married well and the sauce has a sumptuous texture.
If you’re in kind of a rush and you don’t want to let this sauce simmer for hours, do this: Mix the milk and breadcrumbs together until moist and add to the sauce at the half hour point. Even if I let this sauce simmer a long time, I usually add a dash of milk or cream or butter just before serving. Often this happens in a big pan where I marry the pasta to the sauce.
Feed often to your friends and family—especially on Sundays!
Note: This recipe yields about 11 cups of finished sauce, which will generously sauce 2 pounds of pasta. It also freezes well, so I usually eat half right away, and freeze half for a quick dinner down the road.