What is ragù?
Ragù is a meat-based sauce, typically served with pasta. Traditionally, pieces of meat (often beef, pork, game, or even horse), are cooked on a low heat in a braising liquid (this is usually tomato or wine-based) over a long period of time.
There are a multitude of ragù recipes enjoyed across Italy – specific regions, provinces and communes across the peninsula boast their own version of the famed sauce. For instance, Naples is home to ragù Napoletano, whereas on a Sunday afternoon in Puglia, you’ll likely see ragù alla Barese (ragù from Bari – the region’s capital) on the table. Of course, Ragù alla Bolognese is perhaps the most famous example of a ragù, the much-loved sauce hailing from Bologna in the region of Emilia-Romagna, in Italy's north.
The history of ragù
Ragù was the brainchild of Alberto Alvisi, chef to the Cardinal of Imola, in the 18th century. It is said that the cook developed his recipe from the french ragoût, a meat stew popularised in Italian cuisine, after Napoleonic soldiers brought the dish upon invading the country in 1796. More affluent and aristocratic Italians were captivated by French culture, including their traditional cuisine, paving the way for Italian iterations of classic French dishes, such as ragù. It was nearly two centuries later when Alvisi’s early recipe was brought into the public eye when journalists Aureliano Bassani and Giancarlo Roversi came across Alvisi’s recipe for ‘the Cardinal’s ragù’, a slowly stewed dish of mince, onion and tomato, flavoured with pepper and cinnamon, and served with maccheroni (at this time, maccheroni was a blanket term referring to pasta).
Prior to its introduction in the region of Emilia-Romagna in the late 18th century, this stew was not known as ragù, nor was it served with pasta. While traditional Italian cuisine had long-featured hearty meat stews (popularised during the Renaissance), these were not served with pasta. Early iterations of modern pasta were typically served with rustic meat broths, rather than substantial sauces.
By the late 19th century, sumptuous meat sauces developed from Alvisi’s dish and served atop pasta were commonly enjoyed on feast days and Sundays. However, this was a luxury afforded by the affluent few, given the steep price of meat and rich egg pasta.
However, by the end of the 19th century, technological advances brought about by the industrial revolution ensured poorer classes were able to access pasta flour, which was an expensive commodity in years prior. Before the Second World War, 80% of the Italian rural population lived on a diet mainly composed of plants, with pasta reserved for traditional feasting days. The expansion of pasta within Italy ensured a similar surge in the popularity of ragù – no longer was this dish exclusive to the affluent, instead being enjoyed nation-wide – including in the poorer southern regions.
What does ragù mean?
In terms of etymology, the term ragù stems from the French ragoût, which is in turn derived from “ragouter”, meaning to “add flavour” or “awake the appetite”. Ragoût is a seasoned meat stew that was brought to Italy by Napoleonic soldiers in 1796. Pronounced “raˈgoo”, nowadays ragù is a general term that refers to any (traditionally) meat sauce that is cooked over low heat for a long period of time.
Ragù vs Bolognese - what is the difference?
What's the difference between ragù and Bolognese? Well, while many people regard Bolognese as a category of sauce in itself, technically, Bologna’s most famous export is actually a ragù. We Brits may know the classic sauce as Bolognese, but the dish’s full name is ‘ragù alla Bolognese’, meaning ‘ragù from Bologna’. Ragù is a general term that refers to any (traditionally) meat sauce that is cooked over low heat for a long period of time, and since Bolognese falls within this category, the popular sauce is indeed a ragù.
How to make ragù
While there are a number of means of preparing ragù – as this denotes a type of sauce, rather than a singular recipe – the method is fairly consistent. Traditional ragù sees some kind of meat (often beef, pork, game, or even horse), cooked on a low heat in a braising liquid over a long period of time. This method tenderises the meat, resulting in a rich and robust sauce.
Why not take a look at our signature beef shin ragù recipe? Pasta Evangelists converts go wild for our rich, meaty ragù, that pairs perfectly with fat strands of pappardelle - buon appetito.
What pasta should I pair with ragù?
There are plenty of fantastic options when it comes to pairing ragù with pasta. pappardelle and tagliatelle are great options, as the long and wide strips are perfect for catching tender morsels of sauce. Though slightly harder to come by, mafalde is a great choice too - the long, wavy strands deft at capturing larger shreds of meat.
Pasta tubes such as penne and paccheri also pair well as the holes in these fresh tubes capture the sauces perfectly, with zero risk of dryness or bland flavours. We even recommend pairing ragù with gnocchi, as the richness of the gnocchi stands up to the strong flavours of Italian ragù.
Our favourite ragù recipes
Venetian duck ragù
This typically Venetian ragù pairs rich duck meat with red wine, bay leaf, and cinnamon. Slow-cooked until the duck ceases to cling to the bone, the sauce works wonderfully with ribbons of pappardelle, which are capable of capturing every last delicious morsel of fragrant, spiced duck.
Vegan lentil ragú
Although a traditional ragú usually involves meat, the same cooking techniques can be used to create a satisfying vegan version – made with lentils and a fragrant soffritto. Earthy, comforting no less enjoyable without meat, it's crowd-pleasing recipe suitable for vegan, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
Classic lasagne with beef shin ragú
We've elevated our lasagne recipe by swapping the beef mince for tender chunks of beef shin, taking this classic dish to a more luxurious level.