For the last year I’ve been subjecting my family to spaghetti sauce experiments just about every weekend. It’s been an interesting challenge striking a balance between something that is rich enough to be paired with a robust wine, simple enough that my kids will eat it, and quick enough to make that it doesn’t take me all afternoon (or day).
Through this process I’ve come to believe a few ingredients are essential:
- Caramelized yellow onions add a richness, authentic sweetness and texture that you can’t leave out.
- Two strips of bacon, finely chopped, added towards the end of the onions caramelizing, takes the sauce to a whole other dimension. You only need two. Three is too many, and one is not enough for you to pick up on it. Pancetta also works here, but it imparts different flavors based on the spices used during curing. I’ve tried a whole bunch and there is one “applewood smoked” bacon at one grocery store in our area that I think works the best. This bacon really is the secret ingredient.
- Veal, finely ground, has the perfect texture and flavor for spaghetti sauce but not so much texture to overwhelm you. I typically use a 1/2 lb.
- Anchovy paste. 1-2 tsp. Absolute must have. I can’t make spaghetti without this now. Once you pick up on the little umami boost anchovy imparts you can’t go without it. I’ve tried replicating it with other ingredients but it just doesn’t work. You need anchovy paste.
- Thoroughly salt the water for the spaghetti, and carefully watch the timer so you can stop it al dente. The salt is critical to get the spaghetti to the proper firmness and bring out the flavor. Opinions vary on how much salt to add (and it depends on the noodle); for the noodles we’ve been buying about 2-3 tsp table salt works for 500g noodles.
- Fresh basil, thinly sliced, sprinkled on top before serving.
I’ve also concluded there are a few classic ingredients you can do without:
- Celery and carrot aren’t worth it. Although these are classic bolognese ingredients, they are so fibrous you’ll need to cook them down for an additional 2-3 hours. The flavor gain is pretty minimal, and in that time you’ll have over-boiled and cooked down your other ingredients! I’ve found I prefer a sauce that has pockets of texture and flavor rather than one consistent flavor.
- Extra meat. Again, a classic bolognese will have more ground beef or ground pork, but I’ve found you really don’t need to add it. It makes for a heartier plate but it distracts from other flavors. Sometimes I’ll add another 1/2-1 lb of ground beef or ground pork but it’s really not necessary.
- Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano). I feel crazy writing this down but if you nail the sauce you will completely forget about sprinkling cheese on top. And if you do, you’ll regret it because it will mask the flavors of the sauce and just taste like you sprinkled salt on top.
- Fresh tomatoes or tomato paste. Unless you have 3-4 lbs of fresh ripe tomatoes, a quizinart, 7-8 hours and a desire to clean splattered tomato off your backsplash, it’s much easier to use pre-made tomato sauce and canned tomatoes. The results will also be much more consistent. You can substitute a jar of marinara sauce but there’s only one brand I’ve found that I like; most are pretty bland.
- Fresh garlic. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but the sauce doesn’t need fresh garlic. Even a minute amount of fresh garlic will impart a biting zing to the sauce that overwhelms all the other spices. Fresh garlic only makes sense if you’re going to cook the sauce down for 3+ hours. If you like garlic (I love garlic) save it for the crostini on the side. Use only a small amount of garlic powder for the sauce.
Here are the rough steps I follow:
- Dice a large yellow onion and sauté over high heat with 2-3 tbsp olive oil, 1 tsp salt. When the onion starts to darken, but before it starts to burn, turn the heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 30-45 minutes. It should slowly turn dark brown and translucent.
- About 15-20 minutes into the caramelization you can throw the chopped bacon in with it. If you time it right you’ll have caramelized onions mixed with crispy bacon–you can just stop here. You have won the day.
- Add the other meat (veal, pork, beef), turn the heat up to medium and cook it until right before it starts to brown.
- Add 1-2 tsp anchovy paste and spices (I’m partial to thyme, coriander, oregano, fennel, garlic powder and red pepper flakes), mix in thoroughly.
- Add either 2 cans tomato sauce and 1 can diced tomatoes OR 1 jar of a pre-made marinara sauce.
- Simmer for 10+ minutes. Usually by this time the water for the noodles is boiling so I throw the noodles in, wait for them to cook and then serve.
- Serve with thinly sliced fresh basil on top.
This becomes an incredible dish if you serve it with crostini, a hot Italian sausage link cooked to 160°F, and a fine red wine.