Ragù di carne is the classic Italian meat sauce and, while there are many different regional versions, this one has a Tuscan spin.
Unlike meat sauce as it is often made in the U.S., an authentic Italian-style ragù is mostly meat with very little tomato, but you can make your sauce more or less liquid depending on your taste and how you intend to use it. For example, if you intend to use it in a lasagna made with dried pasta noodles, make it more liquid, while if you're going to make a lasagna with fresh pasta sheets, keep it dryer.
This is one of those magical dishes that tastes better every time you reheat it, so make a big batch, use it as a pasta sauce for a day or two, then make a meat lasagna with it on the second or third day, and freeze any leftover sauce. It freezes wonderfully. If you're making a lasagna or want to have extra to freeze, then you can easily double or triple the recipe.
If you can find ground veal, the sauce is even better with a mix of three kinds of meat—4 ounces ground beef, 2 ounces ground veal, and 2 ounces ground pork. As with most good Italian sauces, this one starts with an Italian soffritto—finely chopped carrot, celery, and onion sautéed in olive oil—that is basically the same thing as the French mirepoix.
This recipe calls for a few unorthodox ingredients that are purely optional—tamari or Japanese soy sauce that has a richer stronger flavor, fish sauce, and Worcestershire sauce. They all add umami (a pleasant savory taste) that will punch up your sauce. It is used in such small quantities that their individual flavors will not be detectable and they won't alter the traditional flavor profile of an Italian ragù. If you don't have these ingredients or choose to omit them, feel free to do so.
- For the Soffritto:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup onion/1 small onion (finely diced)
- 1/2 cup carrot/1 small carrot (finely diced)
- 1/2 cup celery/1 celery rib (finely diced)
- For the Ragù:
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste (doppio concentrato di pomodoro)
- 1 ounce/250 g dried porcini mushrooms (soaked in warm water for 15 minutes)
- 1.5 ounces/43 g prosciutto (about 4 to 5 paper-thin slices)
- 4 ounces/1/4 pound/113 g ground pork (or 1 sweet Italian pork sausage, casing removed)
- 4 ounces/1/4 pound/113 g ground beef
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 12 ounces/1 1/2 cups/350 g tomato purée (passata di pomodoro in a glass jar)
- Fine sea salt (to taste)
- Black pepper (freshly ground to taste)
- Pinch nutmeg (freshly ground)
- Optional: 1 to 2 drops Worcestershire sauce
- Optional: 1/4 teaspoon tamari sauce (or soy sauce)
- Optional: 1 to 2 drops fish sauce
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest (finely grated)
Reconstitute the Dried Mushrooms
- Place the dried porcini in a small bowl with enough warm water to cover and set aside to soften while you make the soffritto, about 15 minutes.
- When the mushrooms are softened, drain them—but retain the soaking water in a separate bowl—and chop them finely. Set aside.
Make the Soffritto
- Sauté the onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat until softened, reduced, and the onions are slightly caramelized for about 20 minutes.
Make the Ragù
- Add the tomato paste to the soffritto and cook until the paste thickens and darkens for about 2 minutes.
- Add the prosciutto and the ground pork, beef, and optional veal and raise the heat to brown them, stirring often with a wooden spoon.
- Add the wine and stir until most of the alcohol aroma evaporates, about 1 minute, stirring to loosen and dissolve any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.
- Add the chopped porcini and tomato purée and stir well to mix. Season with salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of freshly ground nutmeg, optional 1 or 2 drops of Worcestershire sauce, the optional tamari or soy sauce, and one or two drops of optional fish sauce.
- Now cover the pot and lower the heat to low. Let the sauce just barely simmer for a minimum of 1 hour, preferably 2 or 3 hours. Check it occasionally and if it seems like it's too dry, you can add some of the mushroom soaking water. Flavor-saving tip—pour the mushroom-soaking water into the empty tomato purée jar so that none of the purée is wasted.
- As a final touch, when your sauce is done and after removing it from the heat, stir in the finely-grated lemon zest. This also sounds unorthodox, but the touch of brightness really balances out the heavy richness of the meat sauce and brings all of the other flavors together.
How to Use This Sauce
Of course, this sauce is wonderful on pasta, particularly fresh tagliatelle or pappardelle, but it's also great served on top of the small square or round slices of fried polenta as an antipasto or party finger-food, or even on small rounds of bread or crostini.