Technically both Ragu and Bolognese refer to the sauce in your pasta dish, rather than the noodles, but both dishes often go by the name of the sauce and have some traditional noodle pairings that are recommended.
Here in the United States, it might be hard to tell certain Italian sauces apart, but for true fans of Italian cuisine, there are significant differences between them. Plus, learning about the differences between similar sauces, like Ragu Vs Bolognese, is a fantastic way to learn more about pasta in general and get more ideas for how to make a unique sauce.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between these two signature sauces, you’re in the right place!
|Meat, tomatoes, and red wine
|Meat, white wine, minimal tomato puree
|Rich, tangy, and savory (and other flavors depending on the variation)
|Rich, slightly tangy, umami, and slightly sweet
|Many different pasta options
|Generally served with wide noodles, generally tagliatelle or pappardelle – fettuccine in a pinch
What is Ragu?
One of the most common misconceptions about Ragu here in the United States is that it must be a tomato sauce. While a lot of the sauces called ragu are tomato sauces, the defining characteristic is actually that it’s an Italian meat sauce, not that it’s a tomato sauce.
That means that there are many different variations on Ragu, ranging from the rich tomato-y Ragu you likely expect, to versions completely without tomatoes or using a different set of herbs and spices entirely.
Asking what the difference is between Ragu vs. Bolognese is a little tricky, because Bolognese, technically Ragu Bolognese, is a regional variation of Ragu rather than an entirely different dish.
In this article though we’re going to focus on the classic tomato and meat Ragu that many people here are most familiar with.
This sauce can be made with a wide range of meat, typically ground beef or sausage, though prosciutto, chicken liver (especially as a flavorful paste), or even exotic options like monkfish are also considered traditional.
Different Types of Ragu
Ragu is made all over the world these days, and there are a lot of different ways to prepare the dish. However, it’s critical to remember that Ragu is, first and foremost, a meat sauce. It’s not a tomato sauce featuring meat, and it’s important to cater the seasonings and other ingredients in your Ragu around the meat, not around making a tasty tomato sauce.
Red wine is most traditional in Ragu, but some recipes (like Ragu Bolognese) do call for white wine instead. If you’re feeling adventurous, or have a particular brand you prefer, you might even try a rosé.
Another difference between regional types of ragu is whether there is a secondary meat, or more than one, adding to the overall umami. Chicken liver paste is a common addition that disappears into the rest of the sauce but adds incredibly savory flavors to the finished meal. Anchovy paste and others may also be used in some cases.
Almost every region of Itali will have its own take on Ragu, and even individual families may have their own special recipes. Restaurants also often play around with different combinations of ingredients until they come up with a signature ragu that’s unique to them.
How Do You Make Ragu?
Traditional Ragu recipes often call for sautéing the vegetables together, removing them from the pot, and then cooking the meat, adding the vegetables back in, and then adding additional ingredients to create the sauce.
This method helps develop the flavors, preserve distinct textures, and allows you to season each component of the dish individually for a better balance between flavors.
It’s probably the best way to make Ragu, but we wouldn’t blame you if you took some shortcuts. If you want to cook the meal in one pot without having to pull ingredients out as you cook, we’d recommend starting with browning your meat of choice, then adding the vegetables, and then adding wine and tomatoes or other sauce ingredients. That method isn’t as precise and you aren’t going to get as many different distinct flavors, but it can save on time and dishes.
Delicious Ragu Ingredients
Most traditional ragu recipes call for 1-3 different meats, which can be anything from beef pork, or chicken, all the way to fish, shark, and more exotic options. Ground beef and port ribs are a classic combination.
The sauce typically includes tomatoes, red win, rosemary, basil, oregano, onions, garlic, and other aromatics for a complex and savory finish.
Typical vegetables include onions, celery, and carrots, though some recipes will add bell peppers, eggplant, or others for a slightly chunkier version.
Great Ragu Recipes You Should Try
Unsurprisingly the cooks and recipe testers over at the New York Times have a variety of delicious Ragu recipes for you to try at home. You can start with a classic Sausage Ragu if you’re looking for familiar or comforting flavors.
What Is Bolognese?
Bolognese is the regional variant of Ragu from Bologna. Italy, much like France and Spain, is known for having very distinct regional differences in cuisine, and Bolognese is one of the most beloved and widely adopted forms of Ragu in the world.
One of the biggest differences between the two? Most ragu is in a heavy tomato sauce (though not all ragu calls for tomatoes). Bolognese also uses tomato, but significantly less of it. A good Bolognese doesn’t have a lot of sauce distracting from the meat. Instead, it’s a lighter meal with just enough sauce to coat the pasta, where the meat and minimal vegetables are the real stars of the show.
Bolognese is also often served with wider, larger pastas like tagliatelle or pappardelle, which give it a softer chewier texture than other ragu.
The last big difference between these two? Bolognese is cooked with white wine instead of red wine. That's crucial because, where red wines tend to increase the umami of a dish, white wines tend to bring out the sweetness and counter bitter flavors in a meal.
That means that, while Bolognese still has plenty of umami, it tastes slightly sweet and feels much lighter than your typical ragu.
Different Styles Of Bolognese
There aren’t nearly as many different styles of Bolognese, which is typically made with minimal tomatoes (and with tomato paste rather than a tomato sauce or puree), white wine, and ground meat or cubes of pancetta, prosciutto, or pork belly. This sauce also features milk, and usually, some stock, which helps balance the flavor and provide plenty of sauce without relying on tomatoes to provide bulk.
There are individual differences in preparation of course, but since this is already a regional variant of a dish, there aren’t as many differences between preparation as you might expect.
Bolognese is almost always served with a healthy amount of Parmesan Reggiano grated over top, which adds to the contrasting umami and sweetness of the dish.
How Do You Make Bolognese?
With Bolognese, you want to start by using a food processor or blender to chop the veggies (and pancetta if you’re including it) very fine. The goal is to have no chunks other than the meat, and a smooth sauce the expertly combines the flavors of many different ingredients.
Sauté the chopped vegetable mixture until golden brown and aromatic, then add your chosen meat or meats. Make sure to stir or mash everything together if you’re using more than one meat. You want an even mixture of flavors throughout. Then, add seasonings milk, simmer, then add wine, and simmer until reduced.
The key to great Bolognese is a long very slow simmer. You want the sauce to thicken and reduce, concentrating flavors, but you never want it to get to a true boil. You can add stock in slowly over time if the sauce gets too thick or to help control the temperature if it gets too warm.
Bolognese Ingredients and Toppings To Experiment With
Bolognese has a fairly standard list of ingredients, calling for good (but not great) white wine, pancetta, beef and pork, milk, chicken stock (or similar), butter, onions, celery, and carrots.
The key to Bolognese is that there isn’t a lot of any one ingredient, other than the meat, in the recipe. A single carrot, a stalk or two of celery, is sufficient to give flavor to the sauce without overpowering the meal.
If you want to experiment with other ingredients, meats, or adding more vegetables, work slowly and make sure it's always an ingredient that, with enough cooking, will disappear into the sauce.
Top Bolognese Recipes You’re Sure To Love
Bon Appétit has a wonderful Bolognese recipe that’s close to the traditional version, easy enough to make at home, and helps walk you through the process so you not only know what to do, but also why you’re doing it. Or head over to the Clever Carrot for an incredibly detailed recipe, including substitutions and variations to try, that really breaks down the traditional cooking process for a Bolognese that will amaze any guest.
Wrapping Up: What are the key differences between Ragu vs. Bolognese?
While Ragu and Bolognese are similar, and in fact, Bolognese is a form of ragu, there are a few key differences worth considering.
- Ragu sometimes includes vegetable chunks, properly prepared Bolognese does not.
- Ragu typically uses red wine, while Bolognese calls for white.
- Bolognese uses very little tomato, while ragu sauces often feature tomatoes for most of the sauce’s bulk.
- Ragu can be served with a wide variety of noodles, and different noodles bring out different features of the sauce. Bolognese is almost exclusively served with large wide noodles.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q1: Which Is Healthier, Ragu Or Bolognese
Both of these dishes can be made with health and nutrition in mind, but Ragu probably has a slight edge here since it's easier to add more vegetables to Ragu without significantly changing the taste and texture of the sauce. Bolognese, while including several vegetables, calls for smaller amounts of each to create a smoother, lighter sauce.
Bolognese also usually has a higher percentage of pasta per serving than Ragu, since Ragu is the bulkier sauce.
Q2: Is Bolognese a type of Ragu?
Yes, Bolognese is a type of Ragu, though it's distinct enough that most people know it by its own name rather than as a variant of ragu, and there are specific expectations about a bowl of Bolognese that don't necessarily apply to Ragu.
Q3: Is Ragu Thicker Than Bolognese?
Yes and no. Ragu is a thick sauce by nature, while Bolognese aims instead to make a smooth clinging sauce. The biggest difference, beyond flavor profile and percentage of tomato, is probably the ratio of sauce to pasta. In Bolognese, there is a lot of pasta for a little less sauce, whereas Ragu can afford to have more sauce without overpowering the pasta, and there’s no set perfect ratio for all ragu.