The shopping list starts with Italian sausage. In Italian ragùs, if ground beef is used, it is always supplemented with pork because it is sweeter and fattier, and has a finer texture.
When I started out cooking dinner (for my little sister, on the nights my parents went to their weekly disco lesson), meat sauce was one of the recipes I cut my teeth on. (The other was canned-soup stroganoff; we had a great love for ground beef.)
It seemed, and was, so basic: Brown the meat, pour in chopped tomatoes and presto! Meat sauce.
The result was edible, especially with lots of grated cheese, but the two elements (sauce and meat) lacked any kind of meaningful relationship. Also, my sauce was unpredictable: sometimes thin, sour, sweet, chewy or all of the above.
Real Italian meat sauce, with rich taste and velvety texture, isn’t at all hard to make; it just needs a long time and a low flame. Cooking every ingredient completely before adding the next lets each one donate its full flavor to the finished sauce. Caramelization is involved; canned tomatoes and dried pasta are better than fresh; and pork, not beef, is the meat of choice.
Before embarking on the recipe — which is absurdly simple — let’s talk about the goal. It’s not a bowl of naked white pasta under a heavy pile of sauce. It’s a bowl of succulent, ruddy pasta, steaming hot and savory with meat juices, concentrated tomatoes and aromatics. A dollop of extra sauce on top, a dusting of cheese and parsley, and now you’ve made pasta with meat sauce at its best.
New York chef Sara Jenkins, who grew up in Tuscany and has cooked all over Italy, said that she had never seen plain pasta topped with meat sauce in that country. (In Italy, a ragù is usually a slow-cooked meat sauce.)
“It’s one of those mysteries of Italian-American food,” she said, like pepperoni pizza and garlic bread, that do not seem to exist in Italy.
She said that her mentors taught her that the final step of mixing the pasta with the sauce is almost as important as making the sauce itself.
“You want to combine them when the pasta is super hot, because it’s going to absorb the most taste from the ragù,” she said.
She does this right in the serving bowl, because her pasta is always perfectly cooked, but as a home cook, I prefer to do it in the pot, in case the pasta needs more cooking.
“Add a little ragù at first,” Jenkins said, “then taste and toss, taste and toss again; you can always amp up the flavors, but you can’t take away.”
To the pasta and sauce, she said, you add cooking water “so the pasta will continue to soften and plump itself up.” That’s why the pasta for this dish should be slightly firm, al dente, when it comes out of the boiling water; it will absorb more liquid from the sauce and the water and continue to cook until perfectly tender.
Once the pasta and sauce come together, the final step is heating the serving bowl, another place where the pasta-cooking water comes in handy: Scoop some into your bowl before draining the pasta, then swirl and dump it out right before adding the pasta.
And now, to the recipe, a combination of several meat sauces Jenkins has devised. In her kitchen, some ragùs are more delicate, others more robust; some have milk, others have wine; in mine, all I want is the one that best combines delicious, easy and versatile.
Thus, the shopping list starts with Italian sausage: a nifty shortcut, because the flavors of garlic, fennel, salt and pepper are already combined into the pork. If you prefer, use ground pork and add your own spices and aromatics.
Ground beef by itself makes for a coarse, chunky sauce, but you can use some beef if you miss the flavor. In Italian ragùs, if ground beef is used, it is always supplemented with pork because it is sweeter and fattier, and has a finer texture.
Canned tomatoes and tomato paste are also linchpins of this recipe.
“This is kind of a fall and winter sauce, but even if I had fresh tomatoes, I wouldn’t use them here,” Jenkins said.
Canned tomatoes and tomato paste are both cooked during the preservation process, and that gives them a desirable, concentrated, mouth-filling quality that some food scientists identify as umami.
Still, the quality of your canned tomatoes does matter. If at all possible, do find — and spend the extra money for — real San Marzano tomatoes with the European Union’s Denominazione d’Origine Protetta seal (meaning that the tomatoes are grown, processed and packed there). They have the virtue of always being fully ripe and packed in top-quality purée.
Other cans may contain the same breed of tomatoes, but when grown in China or California and packed under uncertain conditions, they are simply not reliably delicious.
When the time comes to cook, the one constant throughout the process is that you want to very gently fry the ingredients, not steam or sear them. You can use a pot or Dutch oven, but a wide, heavy skillet is even better.
If you have a very large and well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, you can use that, but if it is not well seasoned, the combination of tomatoes and unfinished metal will not be a happy one. (The acid in the tomatoes can leach iron from the pan.)
As you add the meat to the pan, break it up as finely as possible. The aromatic bits of carrot, onion and celery should also be small enough to melt into and meld with the hot oil.
Some steaming is unavoidable: Meat and vegetables will always give up some liquid when they are added to a hot pan, but it should cook off quickly. Once the steam subsides, the ingredients should be surrounded by tiny, winking bubbles of golden oil. Any browning should take place as slowly as possible. Adjust the heat and add oil to the pan to make it so.
After 30 to 40 minutes, you may find yourself with a sludgy panful of unrecognizable caramelized bits. This is exactly what you want. Now the mixture is ready to be revived with tomatoes and fresh herbs. Once again, cook the mixture down, then finish it with the rounded sweetness of tomato paste.
Finally, once all the tomato juices are concentrated, the now deliciously seasoned oils break free and rise to the surface.
“You know it’s done when the fat has really separated, and it glistens on the top,” Jenkins said. “And it is just the most beautiful sight.”
CLASSIC MEAT SAUCE
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Makes about 3 cups, enough for 1 to 1½ pounds pasta
1 pound sweet Italian sausage or bulk sausage
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, minced
1 carrot, minced
1 celery stalk, minced
¼ cup minced flat-leaf parsley, plus extra for garnish
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, with its juice
1 large sprig fresh thyme
1 large sprig fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons tomato paste
Ground black pepper
1 pound tubular dried pasta such as mezzi rigatoni, paccheri or penne
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish, optional
1. With the tip of a small, sharp knife, slit open the sausage casings. Crumble the meat into a wide, heavy skillet or Dutch oven and set over medium-low heat. If the meat is not rendering enough fat to coat the bottom of the pan as it begins to cook, add olive oil one tablespoon at a time until the meat is frying gently, not steaming. Sauté, breaking up any large chunks, until all the meat has turned opaque (do not let it brown), about five minutes.
2. Add onion, carrot, celery and parsley and stir. Drizzle in more oil if the pan seems dry. Cook over very low heat, stirring often, until the vegetables have melted in the fat and are beginning to caramelize, and the meat is toasty brown. This may take as long as 40 minutes, but be patient: It is essential to the final flavors.
3. Add tomatoes and their juice, breaking up the tomatoes with your hands or with the side of a spoon. Bring to a simmer, then add thyme and rosemary and let simmer, uncovered, until thickened and pan is almost dry, 20 to 25 minutes.
4. Mix tomato paste with 1 cup hot water. Add to pan, reduce heat to very low, and continue cooking until the ragù is velvety and dark red, and the top glistens with oil, about 10 minutes more. Remove herb sprigs. Sprinkle black pepper over, stir and taste.
5. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil pasta until just tender. Scoop out 2 cups cooking water, drain pasta and return to pot over low heat. Quickly add a ladleful of ragù, a splash of cooking water, stir well and let cook one minute. Taste for doneness. Repeat, adding more cooking water or ragù, or both, until pasta is cooked through and seasoned to your liking.
6. Pour hot pasta water into a large serving bowl to heat it. Pour out the water and pour in the pasta. Top with remaining ragù, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately. Pass grated cheese at the table, if desired.