How to build a better bolognese

Spaghetti bolognese

It would be a rare household that doesn’t have spaghetti bolognese on high rotation on the menu.

As the name suggests, this dish originated in the Bologna area, and its Italian name is ragu alla bolognese. You should definitely trot that out next time you serve it up to make yourself sound a bit swish. Probably a step up from ‘spag bol’.

The recipe dates back to the 1890s, but like many popular dishes, probably popped up much earlier and no-one wrote it down. In Italy, it is traditionally served with tagliatelle, but we are a long way from Italy, so they won’t be able to pasta shame us.  So serve it with whatever you like.

In my long-distant youth, it was common to make it with nothing more than browned mince, onion and enough tomato sauce to make it thick. And I’m not talking about passata. No, just normal tomato sauce like you’d put on a sausage. It was stomach churning.

We’ve come a long way in the past few decades and, thankfully, one of those things is better bolognese. But like many things, there’s always room for improvement.

Here are six things to add to your next bolognese.


Adding milk to your bolognese serves two purposes. First, it adds richness to the sauce, and second, the lactic acid breaks down the meat to make it more tender. You don’t have to add a lot, maybe a third of a cup for every 500g of mince, but it will be well worth it.


You can make a bolognese in 30 minutes if you want to ­– certainly I like to have it from go to whoa in about that time ­– but for the best flavour profile you should simmer for at least an hour. It’s also one of those things that’s better the next day, so do that if you can.


I learnt this early from a movie. I do not remember which movie, but think it starred Beau Bridges. To balance out all that acid from the tomatoes you should also add some sugar. If you haven’t added it before, start small and add until you get the balance you like. I usually add one heaped dessert spoon of brown sugar because I think the brown sugar adds more flavour.


Mushrooms are very meaty so it makes sense to add them to a very meat-based dish. Chop them very finely and add them when you brown the mince. Everyday white cap mushies are fine, but you can also add porcini mushrooms for a bit of oomph.

White wine

You look at your bolognese and it’s red so your instinct is to add red wine, but don’t, you should use white wine instead.

I do not know the science of this, maybe some boffin could help me out in the comments below, other than that red wine tastes too heavy for bolognese.

My preferred method is to pour about half a cup into the emptied tinned tomato or passata container you used, swish it around to collect all remaining solids and then pour that into the pot.

Fresh Italian herbs

It’s a good idea to add at least half a dozen sprigs of your favourite Italian herb during simmering. My preference is basil, but that’s hard to come by in the depths of winter so I also use oregano or thyme when they’re available, preferably thyme.

When the sauce is ready to serve, I fish the sprigs out, just because biting into a stick of thyme can really break your stride mid-meal.

I know they are not exclusively ‘Italian’ herbs, but they are closely associated with the cuisine so I’m going with it. 

What’s your tip for a better bolognese? Why not share your ideas in the comments section below?

Also read: How to improve your fried rice game

Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.

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