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What are the ingredients, both main and optional, for a classic Ragù Bolognese?

I tried getting an answer to this question. First I looked around this site. I found one question about a "secret ingredient", a specific question about the type of meat, and a good question about flavoring the sauce with spices. I also tried making my search query more specific, but no dice.

After that I looked at Wikipedia's Ragù Bolognese article, which does contain a certain list:

  • Ground meat (beef or veal, sometimes pork)
  • Onions
  • Celery
  • Carrot
  • Tomato paste
  • Wine

This is only a basic list, e.g. Pancetta's missing, even though it's mentioned in most recipes. Other recipes ranked highly in Google (bonappetit.com, foodnetwork.com, epicurious.com, and for fun BBC even chips in etc.) mention several others as well:

  • Regular olive oil
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Butter
  • Tomatoes (fresh, or more often: tinned or "tin crushed")
  • Pancetta (sometimes even bacon, but I guess that's just a inferior alternative?)
  • Wine (both Red and White get mentioned)
  • Stock (beef, chicken, as well as veal get mentioned)
  • Ground pepper (usually black, sometimes white)
  • Milk
  • Garlic
  • Cloves
  • Basil
  • Bay Leaves
  • Oregano
  • Parseley
  • Nutmeg
  • Sugar
  • Cinnamon

A certain related site also has a similar question that lists a subset, but without any references, explanation, historical background, or whatsoever.

So, to reiterate, my question is: what are the ingredients for Bolognese sauce? What are the staple ingredients, and what are the additions made by chefs over the years?

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    As far as I know, there is only one standard, required ingredient for Ragù Bolognese: meat. That's it, although I'm sure there is a vegan variety somewhere. The reason you have seen so much variety in the recipes is that the recipes are that varied. In the US, it would be like asking for a standard recipe for casserole. If you haven't already, check out A Tale of Two Sauces. – Jolenealaska Aug 19 '14 at 23:10
  • The recipe was officially codified in 1982: culinariaitalia.wordpress.com/2008/06/29/… I don't really hold much truck with these sort of things though but there you have it... – Stefano Aug 20 '14 at 11:01
  • @Stefano Well, that's something! I don't know that I "hold much truck with it" either, but I don't think anyone is going to get any closer to "official" than that. You should make that into an answer so the OP can accept it if he so chooses. – Jolenealaska Aug 20 '14 at 12:18
  • Though note, the very first sentence of that article reads: "In truth there probably isn’t one authentic recipe for Ragu alla Bolognese, but this one is close enough." Sounds like even the author wasn't willing to call it authoritative. – logophobe Aug 20 '14 at 14:55
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Italy is very protective of its food heritage and there are many examples of recipes being officially codified by various authorities, e.g, the EU designation, Traditional Speciality Guaranteed, was applied to pizza margherita in 2009 and strictly mandates the ingredients that may be used.

The recipe for Ragu alla Bolognese doesn't have the weight of the EU behind it but in 1982 the Bolognese chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina did produce an official version and it is on their website, unfortunately only in Italian. Using Google translate you can see that the required ingredients are:

Lean minced beef, pancetta, carrot, onion, pureed or peeled tomato, dry white wine, whole milk, beef broth, olive oil or butter, salt, pepper, cream

I'll leave the translation of the instructions as an exercise for the reader lest I be accused of posting a recipe. ;-)

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  • Huh. I was under the distinct impression that the authentic Bolognese uses lamb or veal (but never beef), and not necessarily ground (but rather in small chunks, which would disintegrate while cooking), and that it also uses lamb liver. Now I’m wondering where I got that from. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 13 at 16:57
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@Stefano's answer is obviously the accepted one, linking to the thing closest to being an official recipe. I still want to add an alternative answer though, that includes some empirical evidence. It combines the results from recipes highly ranked by Google with the ingredients from that official recipe.

After gathering the recipes (and assigning the "official" source double score), I've ranked the ingredients based on appearance. Here are my findings.


Must Haves:

  • Onion
  • Carrot
  • Celery
  • Ground Beef
  • Tomato Paste
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Should Haves:

  • Olive oil (usually extra-virgin, but the "official" source mentions regular oil)
  • Pancetta
  • Milk
  • Ground Veal and/or Pork
  • Dry White Wine (incidentally recipes mention red wine instead)
  • Beef Stock (incidentally chicken stock instead)

† The only ingredient not in the "official" source's recipe, that is found in most other recipes.

Honerable mentions:

  • Cream (the only "official" ingredient not found in most recipes)

Ingredients usually not mentioned:

  • Bacon (instead of pancetta)
  • Tin crushed tomatoes
  • Fresh tomatoes (never mentioned!)
  • Sieved tomatoes
  • Butter
  • Cloves
  • Bay Leaves
  • Nutmeg
  • Cinnamon
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Parsely
  • Sugar
  • Garlic

You can easily check my findings in this document. A summary of the scores for all ingredients is as follows:

Ingredient Grouping     Ingredient                    Summed Score
----------------------  ----------------------------  --------------
Onions                  Onions                        9
Carrot                  Carrot                        9
Celery                  Celery                        9
Ground Meat             Ground Beef                   8
Tomatoes (processed)    Tomato Paste                  8
Salt                    Salt                          8
Pepper                  Pepper                        8
Bacon/Pancetta          Pancetta                      7
Dairy                   Milk                          7
Ground Meat             Ground Veal                   5
Wine                    White Wine (dry)              5
Stock                   Stock (beef)                  5
Ground Meat             Ground Pork                   4
Olive Oil               Extra-virgin Olive Oil        4
Olive Oil               Regular Olive Oil             3
Dairy                   Cream                         3
Wine                    Red Wine                      2
Stock                   Stock (chicken)               2
Garlic                  Garlic                        2
Bacon/Pancetta          Bacon                         1
Tomatoes (processed)    Tomatoes: Sieved              1
Tomatoes                Tomatoes (tin crushed)        1
Wine                    White or Red (nonspecified)   1
Butter                  Butter                        1
Cloves                  Cloves                        1
Bay Leaves              Bay Leaves                    1
Nutmeg                  Nutmeg                        1
Cinnamon                Cinnamon                      1
Tomatoes                Tomatoes (fresh)              0
Stock                   Stock (veal)                  0
Basil                   Basil                         0
Oregano                 Oregano                       0
Parseley                Parseley                      0
Sugar                   Sugar                         0
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If we forget for a second about the "official" codified recipe that has already been mentioned, we can try to think about the philosophy behind Bolognese sauce and this might lead us to the answer what are the key ingredients for this sauce. First of all this is something that you eat very often so it needs products that are readily available all year round and are more or less cheap.

Now what are the two most important ingredients of Italian cuisine - my opinion is that they are wheat and tomatoes. Wheat we've got already in the pasta so we're left with the tomatoes. Tomato paste is something that all Italian families prepare in the summer and have a huge stash in the pantry to last them for the entire winter. Another important part of the Italian cuisine is the so-called Soffritto - chopped onions, carrots and celery, used as a base for many stocks, sauces, soups and stews, similar to the french mirpoix.

This for me would be the second most important ingredient (or three ingredients to be pricise) as it's available all year round and cheap. The third ingredient would be the meat - beef or veal, it doesn't really matter for me, even if there's some pork in the mix, I'd still call it a Bolognese. The 4th ingredient would be extra virgin olive oil, cause we can't cook our veg without it and it adds flavor too.

And if I can pick one other ingredient that would be the wine, as it's also an important part of Italian culture and way of life. And I would put white wine in the summer and red wine in the winter. Now with these five ingredients only you can make a great Bolognese sauce, it will not be the best as we're lacking the pancietta or the beef stock, but still it will be very good and true to the original.

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