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Italian, Mains, Savoury, World Foods

It’s “ragù”, not “Bolognese sauce”

The words “Bolognese sauce” remind me of pre-seasoned tomato purée in glass jars, with labels that flaunt the name of the finished product, to lure those who wish making it took as little as popping a lid. Of lazy cooks who stir-fry beef for ten minutes, shower it in sauce, and think they nailed it. When I read “spag-bol”, I picture a shortcut meal no less saddening than cup-soups and 5-minute microwaveable mac’n’cheese; those who spell “Bolognaise” annoy me even more, nearly as much as those who misuse they’re, their and there. Still, I know no other English words that do the job I need. Perhaps you do, and care to share?

Your Bolognese sauce is called “ragù” to me. Don’t let that accent put you off: it’s just a prompt to say ra-gooh. Easier than pronouncing “prosciutto” or “macchiato”, if you think about it. Don’t confuse it with French ragout, either; that’s a different concept, a slow-cooked main you can make with meat, fish or vegetables. Ragù with the accented “ù” is the mother of all pasta toppings, and a labour of love. A love that demands nothing but patience: let your pot simmer for as long as it takes, just as you’d let a loved one sleep in on a Sunday morning, knowing they’ll get cranky if you wake them one minute too early.

Homemade beef ragù

Simple as the recipe is, no two cooks make it in the same way. Every Italian is bound to enjoy different versions of ragù, yet have one unbeatable favourite; mine is my mother’s.

Mum used to work as a teacher, so when I was a teenager, we got home from school at about the same time every day. In Italy, classes last until 1pm, Monday through to Saturday; we’d usually have a late lunch around 2.30, and there was no convincing her to make anything from scratch. Her trick was to cook large batches of ragù on weekends, freeze a few portions, and use them to whip up a quick pasta on weekdays. It was the brightest spot in her range of go-to recipes: while I grew tired of most of those (“ready” meals that took ages to reheat, overcooked and underseasoned chicken steaks, toasties that always got cold too soon), her ragù has a special place in my heart. When Mum asks what I’d like to eat while I’m home for a holiday, my first answer is always “pasta al ragù”. I’ve refused to eat it anywhere else or make my own for years: I’d find it easier to live without it, than to settle for a lacklustre imitation.


You see, no other recipe I know comes close to that balance of flavours I love. I never warmed up to my uncle’s version with herbs, even though the rest of the family raves about it. Feeling particularly bold, I even confessed to my grandmother that I prefer Mum’s ragù to hers, although I couldn’t quite explain why. I thought it was because Mum used a pressure cooker, instead of a normal pot. I wondered if I’d discovered a dish that tasted better when served from frozen (a life hack my housebound nonna never needed). Then I realised the culprit was celery: an essential of classic ragù to most, an unpalatable intruder to me. Nonna won’t admit defeat: how can ragù without celery even exist? How can her daughter’s taste better than hers? How can any pupil’s work surpass the master’s? If her argument was right, Darth Vader would never have obliterated Obi-Wan. Then again, my grandma’s never seen Star Wars.

So, here’s the thing: any Italian will tell you they have a family member who makes the best beef ragù on earth, and you shouldn’t believe them, because my mum makes the best beef ragù on earth. I’ve been trying my hand at it for a few months, and feel I can finally give her a run for her money: the only thing my ragù is missing (and will be missing for a while) is a proud daughter bragging about it to everyone she knows. It should follow that, if you try this recipe, you’ll also be able to master the best homemade beef ragù. Well, I guess that’s up for debate – you might like celery, after all.

Homemade beef ragù

The best homemade beef ragù on earth

(makes 5 portions)


  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, grated
  • 2tbsp olive oil
  • 500g minced beef
  • 500g tomato passata
  • Salt and pepper, to season
  • Water (if needed)


  • Heat the oil in a large saucepan. If you have a pressure cooker (as my mum does), you can use that too.
  • Add the onion and carrot, and cook on a medium-high heat for around 10 minutes, or until the onion has softened.
  • Turn the heat to medium-low. Add the meat, and stir with a wooden spoon for 2 – 3 minutes, breaking it into smaller chunks.
  • Pour in the tomato passata, season with salt and pepper and mix well.
  • Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid, then leave to cook until you’re ready to serve.
    Cook’s tip: A little patience goes a long way to make a ragù you’ll remember. The result you’re looking for is the perfect medium between “meat swimming in tomato sauce” and “taco filling”; in my experience, it takes at least 1.5 hours to get there. You can wait even longer if you’d like – my grandmother never settles for less than 2 hours. However, if you’re using a pressure cooker, you might need as little as 45 – 60 minutes (source: Mum, with a soundtrack of nonna tutting loudly).
  • Check the pot after the first 30 – 45 minutes, and every 10 – 15 minutes afterwards.
    Cook’s tip: If the mixture looks dry, add a glug of water or more passata, and stir to combine before putting the lid back on.
  • Taste right before serving, and adjust the seasoning if needed.
  • Put any leftovers in an airtight container, and freeze for up to 3 months. I usually store individual portions in separate boxes, so I can defrost them as and when I need, depending on how many people I’m feeding.
    Cook’s tip: Take your ragù out of the freezer in the morning: by the time you need it, it will have thawed a bit, so you can re-heat it in a pan while your pasta is cooking. You can defrost it in the microwave at the last minute if you’re in a rush; I’m not a fan, as I find it gets too watery.

Homemade beef ragù

Ragù is a glorious seasoning for any type of pasta. I have a soft spot for tagliatelle; you can buy them in store, or make them from scratch while the sauce is simmering away. The best way to enjoy potato gnocchi is with a generous helping of ragù on top, and if you don’t mind spending more time tending to pots and pans (and washing them up afterwards), beef lasagne or cannelloni are also worth making. Those dreary jars of supermarket “Bolognese” have nothing on this stuff.

Wait, there’s more!

I’m entering this recipe into Credit Crunch Munch, a link-up for simple yet effective recipes that don’t break the bank. This month’s host is Sarah at From Plate to Pen.

Click here to enter your link and view the full list…



10 thoughts on “It’s “ragù”, not “Bolognese sauce”

  1. What a lovely story behind your Ragu and I’m sure yours is every bit as good as your mum’s:-) Thanks for linking up to #CreditCrunchMunch with a fab frugal recipe:-)

    Posted by fabfood4all | April 10, 2016, 11:19 AM
    • Thanks for your lovely comment Camilla – I made mum more than proud, in fact she’s a bit jealous as what you can see in the picture is homemade pasta, which she never even attempted 😛

      Posted by Iris | April 11, 2016, 6:28 PM
  2. My mum used to use a pressure cooker a lot too (not that she was fond of cooking). I think I would leave the celery out as well! Hehe. Thanks for entering #CreditCrunchMunch 🙂

    Posted by Sarah | April 10, 2016, 12:42 PM
    • You’ve hit the nail on the head: my mum isn’t the craftiest cook either, hence the pressure cooker and batch weekday meals 🙂 You can never go wrong with this one though – really, the toughest ingredient to source is time. Thanks for stopping by and hosting the link-up!

      Posted by Iris | April 10, 2016, 9:57 PM
  3. Lovely recipe and story. The more I travel in Italy the more I realise how awful the Italian food in the UK is. It sould be quality ingredients, but simple.

    Posted by Fuss Free Helen | April 17, 2016, 6:21 PM
    • Thank you for stopping by Helen, glad you enjoyed the post and recipe 🙂 And yes, I agree with you, it puzzles me how pointlessly complex Italian food can be in the UK. Most Brits I know are fascinated with Italian cuisine, and I can’t help but think they’d love it even more if they could taste it at its best and simplest!

      Posted by Iris | April 20, 2016, 6:37 PM
  4. I found your blog through Beside the Danube- I’m so glad someone else loves The God of Small Things, it’s such an amazing book!
    It’s so lovely hearing people’s stories behind their favourite meals and it’s so nice having recipes passed down from family members and you can’t beat a really good ragu recipe!

    Posted by Amy Eleanor | May 22, 2016, 10:24 PM
    • Couldn’t agree more – I’m so happy I’ve learnt to make it, having to wait until Christmas or the summer holidays to have my fix (and talk my mum into making lasagne) wasn’t doing it for me anymore.

      And on another note…I also recently found your blog through your comment on Beside the Danube, I simply had to click on your comment after you mentioned The God Of Small Things 🙂 Great minds think alike!

      Posted by Iris | May 24, 2016, 7:59 PM


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