In her last book, even the arch-traditionalist Marcella Hazan said that making egg pasta dough in the food processor is fine. She was finally acknowledging what home cooks and restaurant chefs had probably been doing for a long time, but it was also testament to her intelligence: food and cooking must evolve to stay alive. It would be foolish to ignore that cooking is an ever changing reality that resists being imprisoned in dogmas: we do not eat, cook or think about food one year for the other.
As much as I love traditions and traditional food, I am also very open to “new ways” in the kitchen, as long as they make my life easier and/or my food better. The pressure cooker is a good example. Not only it makes the best broth, a quick and yet deep-tasting tomato sauce (check here to understand why) and the most tender chickpeas and octopus, it also makes a dreamy classic ragù alla bolognese, in roughly one third of the time, 1 hour cooking time vs 3 or more hours of conventional simmering (the prep time is the same for either methods). Pressure cooker ragù is as good as conventionally cooked ragù, if not better. This is the bottom-line reason why I use the pressure cooker: it makes some foods taste better, deeper and fuller (see also notes)
Ragù tastes better after some hours rest and freezes admirably well: considering the effort, there is no point in making a small quantity of ragù. The following quantities are personal of course, a little less or more of any ingredient should not alter the final dish: I tend not too use too many vegetables for instance, but you might prefer more, one could skip the dairy element for a more savory taste or add more wine – ragù is a very personal affair, once few common rules are followed.
For a lot of ragù, I would use:
1 kg coarsely ground, beef meat, fattier rather than leaner. If you grind the meat yourself, go for hanger steak, skirt or chuck. In Bologna, traditionalists would once go for a beef cut called cartella which should correspond to skirt. If I had access to good veal that is not too expensive, I would also include some (two parts beef and one part veal).
500 g coarsely ground, fatty pork meat (I have also used skinned and crumbled plain sausages with equally good results)
a couple of chicken livers, trimmed and finely chopped
150 g diced pancetta (unsmoked)
1 carrot, 1 stringed celery stick, 1 medium white or brown onion, finely chopped: using a food processor is fine, but the vegetables should not be reduced to a mush
150 ml decent wine, red or white (ragù is also excellent without wine, by the way)
250 ml hot full fat milk, approximately
100 g tomato paste (ideally triple concentrated, I use the brand Mutti when I can find it)
400 ml hot beef stock, approximately: I generally use this supermarket broth, which is fine for these purposes. If you have home made broth, you score brownie points, of course
1 fresh bay leaves, black pepper, freshly grated nutmeg, if you like them as I do
I tend to brown the meat and the soffritto in a non-stick pan and then transfert the lot into the pressure cooker for the actual cooking
Browning the meat:
Place the meat in a large pan that can contain it in a layer that is not too deep. If the meat is marbled enough, no fat is required, otherwise add a splash of a neutral vegetable oil. Do not salt the meat now: as with other lengthy recipes where evaporation and reduction over an extended period of times plays a crucial role, the risk of over salting is high. I tend to salt the sauce very lightly just prior of locking the pressure cooker and I then check the finished sauce at the end.
The heat must be medium, not too aggressive: you want the meat to acquire a lovely deep golden tinge, nothing more. The meat will soon start releasing its water content. Keep on cooking, turning occasionally and breaking up lumps, until all the water has evaporated and the meat starts frying in its own fat. Now you have to stir more frequently. Remove the meat when it is of a deep golden color and keep aside.
Add the vegetables and the pancetta to the same (unwashed) pan. Cover and cook on low, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are completely tender and deep colored, about 30 minutes. Add a little hot water if the vegetables look too dry (which means that your heat was too aggressive) and salt half way through.
Combine meat and soffritto, raise the heat and cook away any liquid still there, add the tomato paste and stirr well to combine.
Cook it for about five minutes and add the wine, if using, scraping the pot. When the wine has evaporated, add the milk gradually and let it evaporate too (to be more specific, we are actually letting the water content of the milk evaporate, so as to be left only with its yummy fats; for this reason some people just add some cream, in a smaller quantity – this is fine too)
Now it is time to add the stock, which must barely cover the meat: there is very little evaporation in cooking under pressure and it is essential not to “drown” the ragù with stock. Add the bay leaf, black pepper and nutmeg. Salt lightly. Bring to simmer and transfer the lot into to the pressure cooker. Lock the pan and bring to high pressure.
Cook for 1 hour at high pressure. Occasionally lift the pot from the heat and roteate it to “stir” the ragù inside.
Release pressure naturally. Open the pot, stir and and transfer it to a medium heat to reduce it further, stirring often. Add the chopped fegatini in the last ten minutes. How much you reduce the ragù is really up to you: in the end, it should be fairly thick, with the fat clearly separating from the sauce when you stir it. Wait few hours before consuming it: the flavors will greatly improve.
Serve it with egg tagliatelle, drained and first dressed with a little butter. Pass parmesan around, but first do try the pasta without any cheese, which is somehow gilding the lily here. Dry penne would be acceptable too, spaghetti (with ragù) are unheard of in Italy and it would be considered barbaric.
I admit that a little magic is lost when using the pressure cooker: one cannot lift the lid and check what’s going on inside, but the pros are worth this loss.
Tomato paste vs canned/fresh tomatoes:
ragù alla bolognese is not a tomato and meat sauce, it is a meat sauce with a little tomato. Concentrated tomato paste or cooked tomato sauce are much better options than fresh or canned tomatoes: in the initial steps of ragù making: one spends a considerable amount of time getting rid of the water content in the soffritto (the mix of chopped onion, celery and carrot that is the foundation of much Italian cooking) and in the ground meat (which must brown) so as to concentrate their flavor, why on earth would then one want to add canned/fresh tomatoes that would dilute the whole lot again? (if you understand Italian, read this lesson on ragù making, from a scientific point of view. ).
On pressure cooker cooking: I am sure you know the butter and tomato sauce Marcella Hazan made famous. I make it in the pressure cooker and I think it is much better this way – more intense. The only caveat is that the sauce needs few minutes of fast reduction at the end.
If you want to compare different ways of making ragù, check also Stefan’s blog. We reach different conclusion, but he is worth reading.
In Italy, I would also add a teaspoon of estratto di carne Liebig, Liebig meat extract, which is, contrary to what one might think, is an amazing product made only with beef.