Slow cooker classic Bolognese
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
This trusty kitchen appliance creates a rich ragû while you can go about your day.
Only my closest friends know this, but I sleep with the Golden Girls every night.
Let me rephrase; I have to fall asleep while watching The Golden Girls, and have done this for a number of years. I know most of the zingers by heart, down to the timing, and that Sophia’s secret pasta sauce takes 14 hours to make. “If this sauce were a man, I’d get naked and make love to it,” she says while standing at her stove.
My weird obsession for old TV sitcoms aside, old-school Italian cooks know that a good Bolognese is going to take some time to make. I have a dear friend, Kelley DiValerio Gonzalez, who said her Italian Nonna in Philadelphia used to spend five to six hours making her pasta sauce “adding wine periodically.” While I don’t have a drop of Italian blood in my veins, I do have a deep appreciation for tradition. In this kitchen, wisdom and inspiration from home cooks is the peg on which we hang our aprons.
However, while I’m unloading my dark secrets on you, let me also confess that for weeknight pasta dinners, I have been known to open a jar of sauce, doctor it up a bit, and add pasta for a quick supper. Italian Nonnas everywhere are clutching at their hearts and gasping “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”
But listen, Nonna, few people can spend several hours babysitting the perfect Bolognese. That’s why this slow cooker ragû Bolognese is the perfect marriage of convenience and low-and-slow. Plus, January is National Slow Cooker Month, which makes it a perfect time to haul out that trusted kitchen appliance and make something comforting for supper.
But first, a quick detour to share some Missouri trivia. The crock-pot’s inventor, Irving Naxon (Nachumsohn), sold his business in 1971 to Kansas City’s Rival Manufacturing when he retired. His “Naxon Beanery” was inspired by the Jewish cooking tradition of taking crocks to town bakeries in order to prepare the Sabbath stew known as cholent. Rival successfully marketed the crock-pot as the first slow cooker, taking Naxon's invention to another level.
Of course, the history of ragû Bolognese goes much farther back in time—to the 18th century—when a cook served the dish to Cardinal Barnaba Chiaramonti. The cardinal later became Pope Pius VII and his cook, Alberto Alvisi, was credited for creating a heavenly dish that is cherished even today.
One of the first written recipes for Bolognese appeared in a late 19th-century cookbook that called for the meat (veal) and vegetables to be cooked in broth—not tomato sauce—and that cream should be added to finish the ragû. Over the years as the recipe evolved, tomato sauce would become a common ingredient, but garlic, a staple of Italian cuisine, would not be added. I see lots of garlic and herbs in recipes from celebrity chefs to church ladies, but it’s not traditional.
In fact, according to the Italian Academy of Cuisine, a classic ragû Bolognese should include beef, pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, tomato purée, broth, dry white wine, milk, salt, and pepper. And while many Americans serve Bolognese with spaghetti, tagliatelle is the pasta you’ll find in this dish when visiting Italy.
For me, any respectable Bolognese begins with a trip to The Hill, St. Louis’ Italian neighborhood, and DiGregario’s Italian Market for canned San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, tagliatelle, pancetta, and Parmesan. Missouri Baking Company sells Italian bread worthy to mop up leftover sauce.
With shopping complete, it’s time to start the sauce. I’m going to let it simmer in the slow cooker overnight, but the steps prior to mixing everything together and switching the button on are crucial. Softening and lightly browning the soffritto (onions, celery, and carrots) helps to deepen the flavor, as does browning the meat in the frying pan.
Next, let’s talk canned tomatoes. Busy cooks tend to like shortcuts and either buy diced or crushed tomatoes, but these are overly processed, and many experts agree it changes the flavor. Use the whole tomatoes and just gently crush them by hand. It’s what Nonna would do. Actually, she’d probably go to her garden, pick vine-ripened tomatoes, roast them with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and then crush them by hand.
Also, trust tradition and add the milk. Other than being part of this recipe since the 19th century, milk helps to tenderize the meat and balance the tomatoes’ acidity. Don’t worry; it won’t curdle using this low heat. In the end, you’ll have a meaty and rich sauce to swoon over.
You also may ask is it worth a trip to buy the ribbon-style pasta versus the box of dried spaghetti you have in the pantry. Think of it this way: surface area. The ragû clings better to the wider pasta, not to mention that tradition thing, but if you’d rather not make a trip to the market, what’s in your pantry will work.
Oh, let’s face it; I’d eat this ragû right out of the slow cooker with a spoon and a piece of Italian bread. Actually, it’s best to toss the pasta with the sauce; don’t just ladle the ragû over the cooked pasta. This allows the sauce to cling to all the noodles, and it won’t hack off Nonna.
This recipe will create enough to feed six to eight people, so if your family is smaller, the sauce freezes beautifully. Better yet, put some in a jar and share it with a neighbor to celebrate National Spaghetti Day (Jan. 4).