Spaghetti Bolognese – the simple yet delicious family favourite

Classic comfort food, spaghetti bolognese is a favourite around the world. So it’s no surprise that a search for recipes on Pinterest yields pages and pages of results. What better dish to use for my inaugural Essence of Yum post?

A bowl of spaghetti with a meaty Bolognese sauce topped with grated Parmesan cheese and the text The essence of spaghetti bolognese.

To help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through twenty recipes for spaghetti bolognese that I found on Pinterest. I’ll show you what’s consistent amongst them, what’s different and why. Hopefully that will help you to choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you best.

What did I compare?

I used some fairly specific criteria to choose the recipes for this review. After searching Pinterest for “spaghetti bolognese”, I opened the first twenty unique recipes that used:

  1. Beef, or pork, or both
  2. Mince (as opposed to chunks, or meatballs)
  3. and didn’t use a slow cooker.

There were quite a few outside my criteria – vegetarian, vegan, turkey, slow-cooker, lentil, and more for those looking for greater variety. But I found twenty that matched my criteria quickly and easily, and you’ll find the links at the bottom of this post.

Spaghetti bolognese word cloud based on popular Pinterest recipes

There’s some variety in the names – spaghetti bolognese, pasta bolognese, spaghetti and meat sauce, bolognese sauce, and lots of variety in the adjectives – traditional, mom’s, homemade, best, weeknight, authentic, quick, easy, classic, and the list goes on.

As you can imagine, with twenty different recipes, even for a staple like spag bol, there’s plenty of variety in both the ingredients and the preparation, but also plenty of similarities as well.

So what was consistent, or at least prevalent amongst them all?

What’s are the main ingredients?

There were only three ingredients used in every one of the twenty recipes:

  • beef mince
  • tomatoes (in some form),
  • garlic

Onion and herbs were almost ubiquitous as well, with only one recipe excluding onion and one other not using any herbs. The only other highly prevalent ingredient was wine, included in 16 of the recipes (with red overwhelmingly the wine of choice).

Other common ingredients

After that, the ingredient choices become much more fragmented, but there are still some strong themes:

  • The inclusion of carrot, celery, or both with the onion and garlic (together known as a battuto, and a soffritto once fried). If we exclude garlic because it’s in every recipe, onion appeared on it’s own in only 8 of the recipes. The other 11 included one or both of the other classic Italian base ingredients.
  • Stock appears in half of the recipes, mainly beef, but a couple with chicken stock.
  • Nine of the recipes added another meat in addition to the beef mince – 3 with pork mince, 6 with bacon or pancetta and 2 with Italian sausage. Two of these included the additional meat in the same quantity as the beef mince, with one of the authors pointing out the beef mince is for flavour and the pork mince for juiciness. Never knew that – thanks Nagi! (Recipe Tin Eats)
  • Sugar is another common addition, which several authors pointed out is to offset the sourness of canned tomatoes (especially lower quality ones).
  • Six of the recipes included milk or cream (or both), which may surprise some, but as we’ll see later when I dig into the origins of the dish , it’s a very relevant inclusion. Almost as many added parmesan cheese to the sauce itself, bringing the total recipes with some form of dairy included to exactly half.
  • The next most common addition is Worcestershire Sauce. For anyone unfamiliar, it’s a tangy, savoury sauce made from vinegar, anchovies, molasses and tamarind, and is often used to add a punch of umami to a dish. It originates from England, so unsurprisingly most of the authors who included it herald from, or have some link to, the UK or her colonies.
A bottle of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, a common addition to spaghetti bolognese

A few unique flavours to try

After that it gets increasingly fragmented. In case you’re interested, the other inclusions (excluding herbs and spices, which I’ll cover shortly) were mushrooms, butter (added at the end – delightfully decadent!), apple cider vinegar, soy, and lemon zest.

Must-have ingredients in bolognese

So, assuming that you’ve made some version of it before (quite possibly from a recipe handed down from your mother or grandmother), you won’t be surprised to learn that based on these recipes, spaghetti bolognese really should include:

  • Beef mince
  • Tomatoes
  • Garlic and onions
  • Herbs
  • Red wine
  • And if you’re a citizen of Her Majesty’s realm, quite possibly a splash of Worcester!
A collage of pictures of ground beef, tomatoes, onion, garlic, herbs and red wine with the text what's at the heart of spaghetti bolognese.

Let’s dig into each of these fundamental ingredients a little more…

Beef Mince

Not much to say about this refrigerator staple, although several authors helpfully specified a particular fat content, with suggestions including 90% lean, 85% lean, 80% lean and simply “higher fat”. More than one recommendation for fattier mince suggested it was for flavour. I have always subscribed to this theory too, but on doing some research I’ve discovered it’s not as simple as it seems. The Guardian and The Atlantic have interesting articles on the topic if you’re interested in some of the science.

Tomatoes

After herbs, the humble tomato was the ingredient which had the greatest variation, both in type used and in quantity.

#1 – canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes were the most popular, used in fifteen of the recipes. No surprise here, although recall that several authors add sugar to their recipe to overcome the potential sourness of these kitchen staples.

#2 – tomato paste

The next most common was tomato paste in varying quantities, and always used with another tomato ingredient.

#3 – tomato sauce/passata

The third most common tomato type used was one of the ingredients where the nationality or location of the author created some confusion, with the use of different names (and, as it turns out, slightly different products). I’m referring to the almost liquid products made from blended and strained tomatoes. These are known as tomato sauce in the US and passata elsewhere, but they are slightly different products.

Tomato sauce is made from cooked tomatoes and usually includes some herbs and/or spices. Passata is made from raw tomatoes with no added flavours.

And tomato sauce is not to be confused with ketchup (known as tomato sauce in some other parts of the world, like here in Australia). I dig into these products a little bit deeper in my glossary of terms and ingredients. Several authors helpfully pointed out naming issues where appropriate too.

Be it sauce or passata, half of the recipes used one of these products.

#4 – fresh tomatoes

Fresh tomatoes were uncommon, appearing in only two of the recipes, one as an option instead of sauce or passata, and one using blended oven roasted tomatoes (as a homemade puree).

#5 – sun-dried tomatoes

The last variety, which was a bit of a surprise to me, and actually popped up twice, was sun-dried tomatoes. In both cases they were used in addition to either canned tomatoes or tomato sauce. After seeing these recipes I must admit to being intrigued to give this a try. It would definitely give a different tomato punch to the dish.

Sixteen of the recipes use more than one tomato ingredient, and a quarter of them used three different types of tomato. Probably no surprise that tomato paste was the most common “mixer” with the other types.

But how much tomato?

The last interesting variable in the use of tomatoes was the quantity used relative to the quantity of meat. I did a quick and dirty weight-for-weight comparison (excluding tomato paste), and based on that half of the recipes used almost twice as much tomato as meat (1.75 times on average). The rest were a real mix of more or less tomatoes (chart below for the data lovers). At the lower end, there’s almost twice as much meat as tomatoes. At the upper end, there’s close to four times much tomato as meat. Clearly these two extremes would be very different recipes! It would not be unfair to say that in some cases tomatoes significantly defines the recipe.

How much tomato should you use in spaghetti bolognese?

Garlic

Vampires beware, there’s garlic in every single recipe. The amount varies a fair bit, from as little as two cloves to as many as six. As a ratio, it works out to between half a clove and 2 cloves per pound of meat and tomatoes.

Onions

It’s not really fair to talk about onions in isolation given the prevalence of a soffritto in traditional Italian recipes.

If you haven’t come across this term before, it refers to the use of chopped onions, carrots and celery. This trio appear as a consistent base in MANY Italian dishes – soups, stews, sauces, and the list goes on. Garlic is also commonly included, although surprisingly this is contentious, and we’ll dig into this a bit later on.

It’s worth noting here that the use of a soffritto is not unique to Italian cooking. The French use an identical mirepoix, and the Spanish a sofrito of onion, garlic and tomatoes (sounds familiar!). The Germans use a Suppengrün of carrot, celeriac and leek, Cajun cooking uses a rather flamboyantly-named Holy Trinity of onion, celery and green bell pepper/capsicum.

So, how did the soffritto fare in the recipes?

Onion was the most popular inclusion, making an appearance in all but one of the recipes. That recipe did not feature onion, carrot or celery.

The nineteen with onion were relatively evenly broken out as follows:

  • Onion only – eight recipes
  • A true soffritto of onion, carrot and celery – six recipes
  • Onion and carrot – four recipes
  • Onion and celery – one recipe

Based on this, onion’s a must have, and the other two are up to you.

Herbs & Spices

Although minor in terms of volume (teaspoons or tablespoons vs. pounds), herbs can obviously offer significant taste impact. They are used almost unanimously in the recipes, but that’s where the similarities ended and the variety exploded.

Only one recipe had no herbs or spices of any kind. The rest had between one and four additions from a wide variety of popular aromatic ingredients. In fact, across the group there were thirteen different flavours, including some surprise inclusions.

Popular herbs and spices

From most to least common, they were:

  • Oregano is the most popular. It’s included in just over half the recipes and only as the dried herb.
  • Basil was a close second, found in nine of the recipes, and this time almost exclusively fresh.
  • Thyme, rosemary and bay leaves all appeared in five recipes each, some the same recipe and some separately. Thyme and rosemary were predominantly fresh. For bay leaves, only one recipe specified dried, with the other four listing simply bay leaves. I’m not sure how common fresh bay leaves are out there, but I only have the dried variety.
  • Parsley appears in three of the recipes, with no strong preference for dried or fresh.
  • Two of the recipes use dried Italian herbs/seasoning, and dried chilli (whole or flakes) appears in two others.
  • Last but not least, there were several ingredients that were unique to one recipe each. These were cloves, star anise, nutmeg, marjoram and sage. Clearly some of the authors’ personal faves appearing here, which I love. Star anise surprised me, but fennel is a common flavour in Italian food, so maybe this is an aniseed substitute? And nutmeg is unexpectedly relevant, but more on that later!

As you can see, herbs are basically a definite, but which ones you choose are up to you. If you’re looking for tried and tested, you wouldn’t go wrong with dried oregano and fresh basil. If you’re feeling more adventurous, there are some great ideas here, and no doubt others you could try too.

Wine

Wine is a strong contender, appearing in sixteen of the recipes. Red is the most common, although four recipes use either white wine, or offer the choice based on preference.

There are a few recommendations on style, with light or blended reds overwhelmingly preferred here. Several authors also comment on meatier reds like cab sauv or shiraz being too heavy for the recipe. The best advice I’ve heard on cooking with wine is “don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink”. Helps with the dreaded leftover wine problem too.

How do you make spaghetti bolognese?

There is some variation in the order the key ingredients are cooked (in particular, soffritto first, or meat first). The biggest difference though is the cooking time. Here there are two clear camps:

  • less than half an hour, for a quick mid-week meal
  • 2 hours or more, for a tender, more deeply-flavoured result.

The faster version wins, with twelve recipes, and a few split the difference, at an hour. The rest are ninety minutes or more, with one cooking for four hours. Nagi at Recipe Tin Eats recommends stock in her recipe, a faster version, to boost the flavour in the absence of a long, slow cook. Erren also suggests seasoning well to compensate for the shorter cooking time.

There are also three camps when it comes to how to serve the dish:

  • sauce on top of the pasta
  • sauce mixed through the pasta
  • a combination approach (some mixed through, some served on top).

Several authors swear by adding a small amount of the pasta water, and tossing the combination together.

The magic of emulsification

I must admit I hadn’t heard of this approach before, and on doing some research, shame on me! 😳 It turns out the tossing emulsifies the water and the oil in the pasta and the sauce (think vinaigrette). And the starch in the bit of pasta water is a great emulsifier. I haven’t gone into great detail here, so if you’re interested check out this or this. There are heaps of other great articles out there too. The decision will clearly come down to personal preference, but I am definitely keen to give emulsification a go!

Garnishing your dish

On the topic of serving up, parmesan is overwhelmingly the finishing touch of choice. Sixteen of the recipes use it, either alone, or in combination with a fresh herb (either basil or parsley). Kitchen Sanctuary make a unique choice here, topping the dish with parmesan and sliced spring onions. I haven’t tried this, but I love spring onions on so many other dishes, so it’s worth a try.

A bowl of spaghetti, topped with a meat sauce and grated parmesan cheese, and the question is spaghetti bolognese really Italian?

What’s an “authentic” Spaghetti Bolognese?

If you’ve spent much time browsing recipes on Pinterest I’m sure you’ve seen the word authentic A LOT. And what a contentious little word it can be, especially in regard to recipes!

Definitions

Oxford Dictionary defines authentic as follows:

Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.

If we focus on the original way, it seems clear enough – how it was originally, or first done. But if we look at “traditional” a bit closer, it’s not so clear. Again, back to Oxford:

Existing in or as part of a tradition; long-established. Produced, done, or used in accordance with tradition.

Now it’s a bit more vague, isn’t it? Whose tradition? The people of Bologna? The family of the author? And in what time period? This generation? Past generations? The first generation? Who knows!

Semantics aside, I’m guessing most use of the term “authentic” is to suggest the recipe faithfully resembles an original. That is, how spaghetti bolognese is made by the people of Emilia-Romagna (the northern Italian region of which Bologna is the capital.

Except, according to many prominent Bolognese, including the current mayor of the city, they never make spaghetti bolognese!

To be fair, there’s more semantics at play here. The Italians do indeed make a dish that spaghetti bolognese is based on, but apparently they NEVER, EVER use spaghetti. Instead, they prefer sturdier pasta styles, and in particular (and possibly only) tagliatelle. There’s a regional bias at play here too, for which the Italians are famous.

So, let’s look at the sauce, or ragu as it’s known in Italy.

Getting to the origin of anything more than a few generations old is always hard. It’s even harder with something as ephemeral as a family recipe. That said, there are a number of strong opinions from prominent Italian chefs on what constitutes an authentic Bolognese ragu.

Ingredients in an “authentic” bolognese sauce

Italian recipes are typically fairly simple, designed to showcase one or two key ingredients. This is definitely the case here. According to the Gruppo Virtuale Cuochi Italiani, the dish consists of:

  • Beef mince
  • A soffritto of onion, carrot and celery
  • A limited amount of tomatoes
  • Milk or cream
  • White wine
  • Possibly some pancetta
  • And originally, chicken giblets, especially liver

It does not contain:

  • herbs or spices, apart from possibly a pinch of nutmeg
  • garlic
  • stock (although it’s easy to imagine water being added to stop the sauce from drying out)

Quite different from our recipes above!

The dish was traditionally cooked for four hours or more. This was mainly because it was made with tough meat that required prolonged cooking to tenderise. It’s also why milk or cream were added, apparently helping to break down the muscle fibres. Cream in particular also added a little sweetness, like the addition of sugar in some of our recipes above.

It’s also worth noting that the use of white wine is contentious. The Accademia Italiana Della Cucina favours red in their recipe registered with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce.

Another interesting difference is that all but three of our recipes are cooked with olive oil. Two more are cooked in vegetable oil or cooking spray. An authentic Bolognese ragu is apparently cooked in butter, or even just the fat from the pancetta.

Bolognese at heart

All of that said though, the base of our twenty recipes is still easily identifiable as a bolognese sauce – beef mince, soffritto and tomatoes. Over the generations, and the oceans, ratios have changed, some ingredients have been lost, and some have been added. The recipes are still, to my eyes at least, variations on the original base, rather than completely different dishes. None of the recipes are truly “authentic” (although a couple come very close), but they are all close at heart.

Out of interest I have tried chicken liver in my bolognese (because I LOVE chicken liver pate), and it does add an incredible depth of flavour, but if you decide to give it a try my advice is to tread lightly. I found that the flavour becomes very strong very quickly. Definitely warrants further experimentation though.

So, what’s in a bolognese sauce?

Authentic Spaghetti Bolognese

An “authentic” bolognese is fairly simple:

  • Beef mince
  • A soffritto of onions, carrots and celery
  • A small amount of tomato
  • Milk or cream
  • White wine
  • And maybe a small amount of chicken liver, pancetta or both

That’s about it! It should be cooked slowly for several hours to tenderise the meat and enhance the flavours. And it should be served with a robust pasta, traditionally fresh tagliatelle.

Modern Spaghetti Bolognese

This is the version that really matters for most of us. Based on the consistent ingredients in our twenty different recipes, a spaghetti bolognese looks something like this:

  • Beef mince, and maybe smaller amounts of pork mince, Italian sausage or pancetta
  • Garlic and onions, and maybe carrots
  • Plenty of tomatoes
  • Herbs, especially oregano
  • And wine, typically red

It can be cooked low and slow like the authentic version, or much more quickly for a weeknight meal. The latter style should have some additional seasoning (like extra S&P, some stock or a splash of Worcestershire Sauce ). And I guess it’s not really spaghetti bolognese unless you serve it with spaghetti! Of course pasta type is completely a matter of personal choice (or maybe what’s left in the cupboard!). My personal favourite with bolognese is pappardelle. Torn up lasagne sheets are amazing too!

Interesting Additions and Variations

Beyond the above, the authors offer up a range of great options for additional ingredients or substitutes. Here were a few that stood out for me:

Star Anise

Marion at Marion’s Kitchen adds three whole star anise. While definitely not a traditional Italian spice (although it is used to make Sambuca), aniseed is a common flavour in Italian cooking, typically with the use of fennel.

Cloves

Heidi at Foodie Crush swears by the addition of whole cloves (based on what appears to be a much-loved recipe from her mother). This is the only recipe that uses cloves, and I must admit I’m intrigued to try it. It has been said that cloves are similar in taste to nutmeg. Nutmeg is the one “authentic” spice in bolognese, so it’s easy to imagine this could be a wonderful addition.

Porcini Mushrooms and Olives

Sara at Dinner at the Zoo has a couple of great suggestions:

  • dried porcini mushrooms (reconstituted in hot water). I’ve done this myself and it adds a wonderful earthy tone to the dish. Great in minestrone too!
  • olives for a salty finish.
Oven-roasted tomatoes

Carrian and Cade at Oh Sweet Basil make their own tomato sauce from oven roasted Roma tomatoes. This I will definitely try.

Parmesan Rind

Jaclyn at Cooking Classy suggests adding a parmesan rind to the simmering sauce and removing it at the end. I hadn’t heard of this before and I love a real Parmigiano-Reggiano, so I did a bit of digging. Wow! It turns out this is just one of many things you can do with a leftover rind. Can’t wait to try this!

Sun-dried Tomatoes

Sun-dried tomatoes are definitely worth a try, added chopped by Chris at Don’t Go Bacon My Heart and blitzed to a paste by Jamie Oliver

Wine Substitutes

If you’re not a wine drinker, a number of the recipes recommend additional stock as a substitute. There were a few other interesting substitutes suggested for wine too:

The essence of Spaghetti Bolognese

So there you have it – spaghetti bolognese according to twenty prominent recipes on Pinterest. I hope this has been helpful. It has certainly helped me understand more about this family favourite. Feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear what you think.

Sophia Loren capturing the guilty pleasure of devouring spaghetti.

The recipes are listed below in the order I originally pulled them from Pinterest.

  1. Spaghetti Bolognese – The Food Joy
  2. Traditional Bolognese Sauce – Culinary Ginger
  3. Mom’s Homemade Spaghetti Recipe (& Meat Sauce) – Foodie Crush
  4. Best spaghetti Bolognese recipe – Jamie Oliver
  5. Spaghetti Bolognese Recipe – Kitchen Sanctuary
  6. Authentic Spaghetti Bolognese – Sprinkles and Sprouts
  7. Spaghetti Bolognese Sauce Recipe – Sugar & Soul
  8. Bolognese Sauce – Will Cook For Smiles
  9. Quick & Easy Spaghetti Bolognese – Erren’s Kitchen
  10. Bolognese Sauce Recipe – Masala Herb
  11. Marion’s Spaghetti Bolognese – Marion’s Kitchen
  12. Low Syn Rich Spaghetti Bolognese – Slimming World Recipes
  13. Weeknight Spaghetti Bolognese Recipe – Foolproof Living
  14. Spaghetti Sauce – Cooking Classy
  15. Spaghetti Bolognese – RecipeTin Eats
  16. Authentic Italian Bolognese Sauce Recipe – Oh Sweet Basil
  17. Best Spaghetti Bolognese – Don’t Go Bacon My Heart
  18. The Best Spaghetti and Meat Sauce – Joyous Apron
  19. Spaghetti Bolognese – The Cozy Cook
  20. Pasta Bolognese – Dinner at the Zoo

1 thought on “Spaghetti Bolognese – the simple yet delicious family favourite”

  1. I’ve been making spag bol for years, and going through this process has taught me some great new ways to try it. What about you? Did you discover anything you’re keen to give a go?

    Reply

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