The 12-Hour Bolognese


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I used to think Martha Stewart was high maintenance — but that was before I encountered Heston Blumenthal.

Yes, the man — chef/owner of the three Michelin-star Fat Duck in Bray, U.K. — is a molecular gastronomy genius responsible for tongue-boggling dishes like powdered anjou pigeon and scrambled egg and bacon ice-cream.  

But let’s take something like, say, bolognese, one of the most basic dishes in classic Italian cooking. It should be fairly easy to make … well, except that this is Blumenthal we’re talking about.

His bolognese recipe includes this instruction: “Cook for at least six hours.” And this would be taking place after a good two hours or so of cooking and prep work.

By the time my Blumenthal bolognese was done, it was 4:30 a.m. and the ragu had taken a total of 12 hours to make. I was mad at my oven, my bolognese — while also plotting a trip to Bray to give Blumenthal a piece of my mind.

But then I had my first spoonful of the ragu, a rich and muscular concoction that was beefy and hefty but also so, so, so sweet. Each morsel had just the slightest hint of licorice and the beef was so tender that I wondered if it was possible that I was actually feeling it melt on my tongue.

It was, in short, a joy to eat.

I first came across Blumenthal’s bolognese recipe while pawing through the Internet for ragus made with star anise. I’d just seen an episode of “House” in which the good doctor becomes briefly obsessed with cooking. House spends hours slaving over a ragu containing star anise, explaining that the spice reacts with the sulfur compounds in onions to intensify the flavor of the beef. 

When I found out Blumenthal favors this combination, too, that sealed it. This recipe simply had to be tried.

Before you start, you must know that this is not for the impatient. 

Between peeling, chopping, simmering and cooking down liquids, you’re looking at a good two-plus hours even before the bolognese gets into the oven.

As for the six hours of slow cooking, there is solid reason for that. Blumenthal is a big advocate of ultra–slow cooking — the idea is to slowly deconstruct the meat’s collagen molecules by cooking it at very low temperatures over a period of several hours. This collagen breaks down into a rich gelatin over that time, making the meat especially tender.

Now, the tricky part about this recipe is how long it can take for your liquids to cook down. In my kitchen, the milk, which Blumenthal estimates will take about 30 minutes to “disappear,” ended up taking close to an hour.

And at the end of the six hours of slow-cooking in the oven, I was horrified to discover that a thick layer of liquid still coated my beef. (I ended up taking a cue from Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking, and moving the pot to the stove for some slow simmering — this took three more hours.)

The taste and texture of this bolognese, however, is unbeatable. It’s like feeling silk on your skin for the first time — the synthetic stuff just won’t set your heart racing after that.

Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Would I do it again? Probably not for a while.

Another Blumenthal experiment is beckoning, you see.

This would be his rib-eye steak, which is supposed to be incredibly tender and flavorful. Time it takes to make it? Oh, about 24 hours.

Like I said: High maintenance.

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The 12-Hour Bolognese

(Recipe is a combination of Heston Blumenthal’s and Marcella Hazan’s bolognese sauce recipes.)

2 TB olive oil
6 TB unsalted butter
1 cup onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
2 star anise
2/3 cup celery, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/3 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1.5 lbs ground beef chuck (the fatter the meat, the sweeter the ragu will be)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups whole milk
Nutmeg (whole, for grating)
2 cups dry white wine
3 cups (or 750g) canned Italian plum tomatoes, with juice
Cooked tagliatelle

Preheat the oven to 225F. Season ground beef with salt and fresh ground pepper and set aside.

Put the oil and
butter in a large casserole with a lid and add the onion, garlic and star
anise. Cook over a low heat for 30 minutes.

Add the chopped carrots to the pot and continue
cooking for another 20 minutes, then add the celery and cook for a further
couple of minutes. Add the ground beef to the pot, sprinkle some salt on it right away and then mix it up well with the vegetables.

Next, add the milk to the meat mixture. Grate over some nutmeg
and cook gently for at least 30 minutes, until the milk has just about
disappeared.

Add the white wine and tomatoes, stir through, then place in the oven, with
the lid of the casserole slightly ajar. Cook for at least six hours. It
probably won’t be necessary, but if the meat starts to look dry, add some water.

After cooking, some fat will have split and risen to the surface, but don’t
worry about that. When the sauce has finished cooking, it should be rich and
moist.

Note, at this point, your ragu may still be fairly liquid — if so, gently simmer it over medium heat on the stove until most of the liquid has evaporated. (This took about three hours for me.)

Taste it and, if needed, generously season with freshly ground black pepper. Serve
with pasta and freshly
grated parmigiano.

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