I have an Italian cookbook and I really like the Bolognese Meat Sauce. However, I have learned I really do not do well with dairy and one of the steps is to “cook the meat in milk before adding wine and tomatoes to protect it from the acidic bite of the latter.” Is there a non-dairy substitute that would protect ground beef from the acidic bite of tomatoes?
There are many 'bolognese' recipes – although purists will say they do not count as authentic to the Italian origin – that do not use dairy. Indeed, bolognese is very popular in the UK and I think most people would be surprised to learn that the Italian standard recipe includes dairy (as well as white wine, not red).
You will be fine just leaving out the milk from your existing recipe; 'protecting from the acidic bite' is just a florid way to say 'tastes a bit better' and the difference won't be dramatic. This is also somewhere you could experiment with substitutes like non-dairy milks. You could also search for bolognese (or meat ragu) recipes and pick one without dairy that sounds appealing.
A small amount of sugar (tsp or less) can help balance acidity of tomato. I mainly use half a grated carrot, rather than sugar for the same purpose, in my basic tomato sauce. As @dbmag9 suggests there are many bolognese recipes, the one I favor only uses tomato paste, which is less acidic than other forms of tomato. ...and I agree, no problem leaving milk out if you must.
My interpretation is that you're not looking for any potential way to reduce "sharpness" in a tomato-and-wine sauce, but that you love this particular recipe and want to match the taste as closely as possible.
For that purpose, it is best to use a non-dairy cooking cream imitation. It is not the only way to reduce the sourness, but mixing tomatoes with a fatty emulsion produces a rich and mild taste that is very different from adding sugar, carrots, or other ways of controlling the sour taste. You could in principle also try a milk substitute such as oat or almond milk, but the cream substitute will work better.
A couple of words to the "milk protects meat" idea: You didn't find anything, because the book uses a very misleading wording. There is no need to protect meat from acid, there are many recipes where chunks of meat get marinated in high-acid ingredients, including wine, for better taste. Also, if you mix milk and ground meat, you won't get any kind of protective layer or the like, the later ingredients will have just as much contact with the meat.
Update as lupe notes in comments, coconut milk has the desired physical properties, and does indeed change the taste of sour tomatoes into a milder one. It will move the taste very far from traditional Italian, so you have to try for yourself and see if the new combination is something you enjoy.
Tomato juice, being acidic, may curdle many of the milk substitutes on the market. The result may be unappetizing, so you will want to experiment a little before assuming it will all work well.
Personally, I like making a sauce from cashews to replace cheese, and a thinner version can replace milk--but the thinner version may be more visibly affected by curdling, depending on the strength of the acid mixed with it. There are other options, some with soybeans, some with almonds, etc. In some places, "rice milk" is on the market, and I have even seen a milk substitute made from pistachios. Health-food stores may have some nice options; you may just have to look around a bit to see what is available in your area.
Its actually a little silly to suggest that milk will protect from acid, because as any cook will tell you ... what happens when milk and acid meet ? The milk curdles !
What I would suggest is the following:
- Using a seperate pan, boil off the alcohol from the wine before adding it to the meat. The alcohol is what gives the "acidic" taste. Also don't use horrid cheap wine, there's no such thing as "cooking wine", if you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it !
- Same with the tomatoes really. Just dumping raw tomatoes into the dish won't give you the best flavour. Stew the tomatoes a bit before hand to concentrate the tomato flavour and (gently) evaporate some of the excess water (tomoatoes have a high water content which will obviously dilute flavour). Maybe throw some garlic and herbs in there too...
I once knew an italian farmer that gave me some tomatoes just collected from the plant. They tasted as sweet as a fruit. Then I understood what a famous gangster confessed once. That he always cooked bolognese with canned tomatoes. The reason is that tomatoes for groseries and supermarkets are collected before turning red, so they are easier to move without breaking. Then they turn red after a while, but not in the plant... Canned tomatoes, are collected after becoming red, so they are sweeter.