The Best Ever Rigatoni Bolognese
Oh my god, guys! We’ve done it! We could not be more excited for you to try this rigatoni bolognese because we are 100% certain it’s going to knock your socks off. Seriously, it’s rich, thick, hearty, and full of flavor. One bite and we think you’re gonna agree that it’s the best bolognese sauce EVER.
While we pride ourselves on sharing lots of quick, flavorful weeknight dinners that can be thrown together in 30 minutes, every once in a while we feature a recipe that takes a bit more time. Trust me, this bolognese sauce recipe is so worth it. And the extra time required? It is hands off. So pour yourself a glass of vino while the sauce simmers away on the stove. Your patience will be rewarded ten fold!
Here’s why we love this rigatoni bolognese so much:
- Low and slow. When you cook the bolognese sauce as long as we do — roughly 3 hours — the pieces of meat break down until their very fine, and you’re left with an unbelievable texture.
- Chicken liver! Please don’t be scared and exit out of this tab! Chicken livers add so much flavor, you will not believe it! Also, they completely melt into the sauce. You won’t know they’re there, but you will miss them if they’re gone.
- Red wine! One whiff of this bolognese and you will get the unmistakable perfume of wine. It adds the best depth of flavor!
- Creamy. Don’t forget a splash of whole milk, which gives the bolognese sauce a creamy texture.
Ingredients For Rigatoni Bolognese
- Cooking fat: olive oil and unsalted butter
- Soffrito: onion, carrot, and celery
- Ground beef and ground pork (we use a 2:1 ratio, favoring ground beef)
- Red wine, such as Rioja
- Whole milk (otherwise this is just a fancy ragu!)
- Chicken stock, low-sodium so you can control the level of salt
- Canned whole San Marzano plum tomatoes
- Bay leaves, dried
- Chicken liver – this is an absolute game changer!!!
- Fresh rosemary
- Fresh thyme
- Rigatoni or your favorite pasta shape!
Make sure to serve rigatoni bolognese with lots of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh lemon zest, which adds a lovely bright note to an otherwise rich and hearty pasta sauce!
A Little History On Bolognese Sauce
Not surprisingly, authentic bolognese sauce originates from — you guessed it! — Bologna, Italy. My husband and I had the extreme luxury of visiting Emilia Romagna on our honeymoon, and you better believe we made sure to travel to Bologna so we could try a big bowl of this classic sauce, made straight from the source.
It totally, 100% lived up to the hype!
So what exactly is in bolognese sauce anyway?
It’s a meat based sauce of ground beef, ground pork and finely minced soffrito (the Italian holy trinity: onions, carrots, and celery!), livened up with wine, chicken stock, tomatoes, milk, and fresh herbs.
It involves several steps in the cooking process including sweating, sautéing, and then braising, each serving their own unique purpose to deliver maximum depth of flavor in the final dish!
While bolognese sauce is often served with tagliatelle or layered in lasagna, we love to serve it with rigatoni. Because of the tube-like shape of the pasta, bits of the bolognese get trapped inside (a very, very good thing!) and there’s a little sauce in every single bite!
Whichever shape pasta you use, make sure to cook it al dente, so it has a slight bite. This is especially important since we recommend cooking the pasta in a pan directly with the bolognese sauce! If it’s mushy when it hits the pan, the pasta will be completely overcooked by the time you serve.
What’s The Difference Between Bolognese and Ragu?
Both bolognese and ragu are Italian meat-based sauces with more meat than tomatoes, and are finished with milk or cream. However Bolognese is a variation of ragu, traditionally made with even less tomatoes. It’s got ground beef and ground pork, and while pancetta is sometimes added, we derive extra umami flavor from chicken livers, which we absolutely insist you try!
Looking for a great ragu? We are crazy about lamb ragu with ricotta and mint!
How To Make Rigatoni Bolognese
Yes, this takes time, but none of the steps are difficult, and each serves a purpose. Let’s break it down!
- Make the soffrito. AKA the Italian holy trinity. AKA the baseline of flavor that many classic Italian recipes begin with. Finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery. Yes, you can do this in a food processor. No, we don’t generally. We like the soffrito to have some texture, not turn into pulp.
- Sweat the veggies. Start with onion, cooking in a little olive oil and butter, then after a few minutes raise the heat and add the carrot and celery.
- Brown the meat. Add ground beef and ground pork, then season the meat immediately. Let this cook about 8-10 minutes, stirring often and breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula.
- Deglaze the pan. Pour in red wine, allowing it to reduce and evaporate. Don’t worry, all the flavor stays behind!
- Skim the fat. Once the wine reduces, you’ll see excess fat float to the top of the pan. Use a spoon to skim the fat, then discard. This will yield about ¾ – 1 cup of fat. Removing this makes the bolognese sauce less greasy.
- Add remaining liquid. Pour in the whole milk, chicken (or vegetable) stock, and a 28 oz can of San Marzano whole plum tomatoes. We like to crush them by hand! Add two bay leaves and — the most important part of the recipe! — ½ lb finely chopped chicken livers. These will cook down and disintegrate into nothing. I repeat: these will cook down and disintegrate!! It’s about the flavor, and nothing can replace the flavor of chicken liver!
- Simmer low and slow. Allow the sauce to simmer over low heat for 3 hours, checking on it and stirring every 30 minutes or so. If the heat is at a proper simmer, you shouldn’t need to add any additional liquid at all.
- Finish the sauce. Remove the bay leaves, add freshly chopped rosemary and thyme (thanks Roads Of Rome authors Jarrett Wrisley and Paolo Vitaletti for this tip!), then taste and adjust seasoning, as needed. The fresh herbs take this from a 90 to a 100 in an instant!
Congratulations! You’ve just made the absolute best bolognese sauce of your life!! Read on for our tip on how to serve this like the Italian god(dess) that you are!
How To Serve Bolognese
If there’s one thing working in restaurant kitchens taught me, it’s that you absolutely must cook pasta with the sauce in a pan. It’s a cardinal rule.
Another rule of the trade? Every. Single. Dish must get finished with salt. You’re welcome!
Okay so here’s the thing: you just made a completely epic bolognese sauce, and now you want to serve it like a pro. First, cook pasta to al dente, making sure to reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water. Here’s what you do:
- Transfer as much bolognese as you want to a large skillet. Heat over medium high heat until bubbly.
- Add cooked rigatoni or other pasta shape (al dente, please and thank you!) directly to the pan.
- Cook, stirring or shaking the pan often, so that each piece of pasta is completely coated with sauce. It’s the only way it’ll be fully absorbed into all the crevices of the pasta.
- The final step: add a couple tablespoons (more, if making a lot of pasta) of the reserved pasta cooking water to help bind the sauce together. The starch from cooking the pasta will thicken the sauce and bring it to life!
Transfer the rigatoni bolognese to large pasta bowls, then top each with some fresh lemon zest (a must!!) and a healthy sprinkling of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese!
Whew! We did it!
Tips For The Best Bolognese Sauce
- Use a heavy bottomed pot, such as a Staub or Le Creuset dutch oven. These retain heat really well, which you want when cooking over a simmer. Related, whenever cooking with tomatoes, you want to avoid cooking with cast iron. The acid can effect the metal, giving the food an off putting taste.
- While the bolognese sauce recipe is simmering for 3 hours, make sure that it is not cooking at a rapid boil. Just an occasional bubble. Otherwise too much of the liquid will evaporate and your sauce will be dry. If the sauce begins to dry out, add ½ cup water or stock while simmering.
- Make sure to reserve at least 1 cup of pasta cooking water before you drain the rigatoni! That starchy water will be added to the bolognese sauce when you toss it with pasta in a skillet, giving it a velvety, thick, creamy texture!
- Do not skip the chicken livers! To clean chicken livers: trim them of any connective tissue or fat (you can just use your finger to pull the tissue away, chicken livers are extremely delicate). Chop finely until a paste forms. Don’t be scared, they’re very easy to work with! Adding chicken liver was not my brilliant idea. It’s used in so many classic bolognese recipes that I knew I had to test it out. It’s genius! Shout out to James Beard, Kenji Lopez, and all the bolognese recipes from Italian nonnas for inspiring this addition!
Make Ahead And Freezer-Friendly!
Bolognese sauce can be made 3-4 days in advance. And honestly, as is true with most red sauces, the flavor is enhanced after 1 or 2 days in a refrigerator. To reheat, simply place sauce in a skillet over medium to medium-high heat. When hot and bubbly, add al dente pasta, tossing to coat! Finish with grated Parmesan and lemon zest.
To freeze bolognese sauce: allow sauce to cool completely to room temperature, then transfer to a freezer-safe storage container. Seal tightly. Alternatively, you can portion bolognese into large ice cube trays, then freeze until solid. Transfer frozen sauce cubes into a large bag or storage container, then take out and defrost (in a large skillet or sauce pan over medium heat) and use as desired.
Do not freeze the sauce with pasta mixed in. Always better to freeze the sauce separately, then defrost, reheat, and cook with rigatoni or other pasta fresh!
Bolognese sauce will keep for up to 6 months when stored properly.
I’m telling you: there is no such thing as a quick bolognese sauce. Put in the work, be patient, and enjoy the best damn rigatoni bolognese of your life!
If you make this Rigatoni Bolognese, please let us know by leaving a review and rating below!
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For more pasta recipes we love, check out the following:
- Spicy crab pasta
- Chicken pesto pasta
- Chorizo and butternut squash pasta
- Spicy ramen noodles
- Braised beef pappardelle
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- ½ cup sweet onion finely diced, about 1 medium or ½ 1 large
- ½ cup carrot finely diced, about 1 large
- ½ cup celery finely diced, about 2 stalks
- 2 lbs ground beef
- 1 lb ground pork
- 2 tsp Kosher salt
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 ½ cups red wine such as Rioja
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 cups low sodium chicken stock or vegetable stock
- 1 (28 oz) can whole San Marzano plum tomatoes
- 2 dried bay leaves
- ½ lb chicken livers rinsed, drained, and trimmed of any fat or connective tissue, very finely chopped
- 2 Tbsp fresh rosemary finely chopped
- 1 Tbsp fresh thyme finely chopped
- 1 lb rigatoni
- lemon zest for serving
- Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano for serving
- Make the soffrito. Finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery. Yes, you can do this in a food processor. No, we don't generally. We like the soffrito to have some texture, not turn into pulp.
- Sweat the veggies. Heat olive oil and butter in a large dutch oven over medium-low to medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 3 minutes until translucent. Raise the heat to medium, then add the carrot and celery. Cook for an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Brown the meat. Increase the heat to medium-high, then add the ground beef and ground pork. Season the meat immediately with 2 tsp Kosher salt and ½ tsp black pepper. Let this cook about 8-10 minutes, stirring often and breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula.
- Deglaze the pan. Pour in red wine, allowing it to reduce and evaporate, about 3-4 minutes. Don't worry, all the flavor stays behind!
- Skim the fat. Once the wine reduces, you'll see excess fat float to the top of the pan. Use a spoon to skim the fat, then discard. This will yield about ¾ – 1 cup of fat. Removing this makes the bolognese sauce less greasy.
- Add remaining liquid. Pour in the whole milk and chicken stock. Next, crush the tomatoes with your hands directly into the pot. Add two bay leaves and — the most important part of the recipe! — ½ lb finely chopped chicken livers.
- Simmer low and slow. Allow the sauce to simmer over low heat for 3 hours, checking on it and stirring every 30 minutes or so. If the heat is at a proper simmer, you shouldn't need to add any additional liquid at all.
- Finish the sauce. Remove the bay leaves, then add freshly chopped rosemary and thyme. Taste and adjust seasoning, as needed.
- When ready to serve, cook pasta. Cook rigatoni or other pasta according to package directions for al dente, meaning just slightly undercooked by 1-2 minutes. This is important! Before draining, reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water. Drain pasta, do NOT rinse, and set aside.
- Cook with pasta in the sauce. Transfer as much bolognese as you want to a large skillet. Heat over medium high heat until bubbly. Add al dente rigatoni or other pasta shape directly to the pan. Cook, stirring or shaking the pan often, so that each piece of pasta is completely coated with sauce. The final step: add a couple tablespoons (more, if making a lot of pasta) of the reserved pasta cooking water to help bind the sauce together. The starch from cooking the pasta will thicken the sauce and bring it to life!
- To serve. Add a couple tablespoons (more, if making a lot of pasta) of the reserved pasta cooking water to help bind the sauce together. Divide pasta between bowls, then serve with grated lemon zest and freshly grated Parmesan!
- If you omit the chicken livers (please don’t!) you will likely need to add additional Kosher salt. Taste and adjust as needed.