Feature

Recipe of the week: Italian meat sauce, American-style

Creating a sublime tomato-and-meat pasta sauce is an all-day affair, said Charles Kelsey in Cook

 
Creating a sublime tomato-and-meat pasta sauce is an all-day affair, said Charles Kelsey in Cook’s Illustrated. At least it is in Italy, where a rustic ragù alla Bolognese slowly simmers “for three or four hours—or even longer.” This unhurried process breaks down the meat, develops concentrated flavors, and gives the sauce “a soft, lush texture.” By contrast, most American recipes for Italian-style sauces are lackluster versions that usually take about a half-hour.

In analyzing and comparing Italian and American techniques in our test kitchen, my colleagues and I searched for ways to produce a truly satisfying meat sauce that doesn’t take hours to produce. After much trial and error, we finally came up with a few shortcuts to a “sauce with meltingly tender meat that was as complex and full-bodied as any sauce simmered for under an hour could be.”

Recipe of the week
Simple Italian-Style Meat Sauce
Only use ground beef that is 85 percent lean. (Eighty percent lean beef will turn the sauce greasy; 90 percent will make it fibrous.) Use high-quality crushed tomatoes, such as Muir Glen Organic.

4 oz white mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed, and broken into rough pieces
1 large slice high-quality white sandwich bread, torn into quarters
2 tbsp whole milk
Table salt and ground black pepper
1 lb 85 percent lean ground beef
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped fine (about 1-1/2 cups)
6 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 tbsp)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 (14.5-oz) can diced tomatoes, drained, 1/4 cup liquid reserved
1 (28-oz) can crushed tomatoes
3 tsp minced fresh oregano leaves or 1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 oz grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/4 cup)

Process mushrooms in food processor until finely chopped, about eight 1-second pulses, scraping down side of bowl as needed; transfer to medium bowl. Add bread, milk, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper to now-empty food processor; process until paste forms, about eight 1-second pulses. Add beef; pulse until mixture is well combined, about six 1-second pulses.

Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add onion and mushrooms; cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are browned and dark bits form on pan bottom, 6 to 12 minutes. Stir in garlic, pepper flakes, tomato paste; cook until fragrant and tomato paste starts to brown, about 1 minute. Add 1/4 cup reserved tomato liquid and 2 tsp fresh oregano (if using dried, add 1 tsp), scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits. Add meat mixture and cook, breaking meat into small pieces with wooden spoon, until beef loses its raw color, 2 to 4 minutes, making sure meat does not brown.

Stir in crushed and drained diced tomatoes, and bring to simmer; reduce heat to low and gently simmer until sauce has thickened and flavors have blended, about 30 minutes. Stir in cheese and remaining fresh oregano; season with salt and pepper to taste.

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