Learn how to make the best spaghetti sauce with ground beef in 5 easy steps.
This Italian recipe is also known as ragu alla Bolognese.
A rich and flavorful homemade spaghetti with meat sauce is everyone's favorite meal. And Italian grandmas know how to make it to perfection.
Two things I remember from my trips to Italy.
These amazing Italian almond cookies (soft amaretti) and the ragu sauce that my friend's nonna made us one time I we visited her. It was a lot similar to my mom’s Bolognese recipe with the exception that my mom adds a stick of cinnamon and some cloves to give it a spiced character.
It is an easy recipe but you must pay attention to a few things in order to get the best results (you can read everything in the "Instructions" section!).
What is Bolognese sauce?
Bolognese is a kind of ragù (from the french "ragoût") which is a meat sauce that is usually served with pasta.
The recipe originated in the city of Bologna, Italy. This Italian sauce with meat is slowly simmered with pureed tomatoes and a combination of three aromatics (celery, onion, and carrots) which is called mirepoix.
Traditionally, ragù alla Bolognese is served with tagliatelle pasta or another wide pasta such as fettuccine or pappardelle. Spaghetti is almost forbidden with this sauce.
That's why technically, this ragu spaghetti sauce with ground beef can't be named Bolognese (at least not in front of your Italian friends!).
Is there a secret ingredient for the best taste?
I will give you not one, but 3 secret ingredients to make your ragu sauce taste the best: sugar, fresh basil and dairy:
- The sugar balances the acidity and intensifies the flavor of the rest of the ingredients.
- The fresh basil pairs incredibly well with the tomato and the beef flavor and gives this dish a classic Mediterranean taste. Many recipes say to use either basil or oregano, but I actually don't like the taste of oregano in my meat sauce.
- The dairy mellows the tomato taste and makes the texture more creamy. It can be milk, heavy cream or grated Parmesan cheese.
For this ragu recipe with ground beef you'll need the following ingredients:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Ground beef
- Garlic clove
- Fine salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Dry white wine, rose or red wine
- Canned tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
- Tomato paste
- Vegetable stock or chicken broth or water
- Pancetta, finely chopped
- Bay leaf
- Grated nutmeg
- Fresh basil
- Dairy (milk, heavy cream or Parmesan),
Many times I don't use pancetta to cut down on the fat. However, the traditional Italian recipe asks for it. You can try it both ways and see which is your favorite.
Canned tomatoes are a great choice all year round because they're harvested at just the right time. If you have fresh, ripe tomatoes you can also you the same quantity.
Sugar, fresh basil and Parmesan cheese are optional but they're the secret ingredients which will make your dish taste heavenly!
If you plan to add grated Parmesan, taste and adjust the salt after adding the cheese to the sauce.
Follow this easy step by step guide for how to make this Italian spaghetti meat sauce with ground beef in 5 steps:
Step 1. Sauté the meat: Heat a large saucepan or pot over high heat, add the olive oil and the ground beef in one layer and let brown from one side. Once the meat is browned, use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir it well and break all the lumps.
Add the pancetta and cook for another 5-6 minutes, stirring frequently and taking care not to burn the bottom of the pan.
Step 2. Add the vegetables: Reduce to medium-high heat and add the vegetables. Stir with the spatula until the vegetables soften and the onion is translucent.
Step 3. Deglaze with the wine: Pour the wine over the meat mixture and scrape the bottom of the pan with the spatula.
Step 4. Add the pureed tomatoes: Once most of the wine is evapoirated, add the tomatoes and the tomato paste and let it come to a boil.
Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover with the lid and let the ragu cook for at least 1 hour. Since it's covered, it probably won't need any water, but keep an eye on it.
Step 5. Taste and adjust seasonings: Taste the meat sauce and add salt and sugar if needed to balance any acidity from the tomatoes. Optionally, you can add a splash of milk or heavy cream or some grated Parmesan to make the texture creamier.
It is important to chop the vegetables finely or use a food processor, box grater or a food mill.
Choose a deep cooking vessel with high sides because the sauce will splatter when it starts to boil. It should also be wide enough, so that you can toast the meat in one layer. A deep saucepan, large pot or a round Dutch oven pot are ideal for this.
In this recipe I first sauté the meat and after all the juices have evaporated and the meat has browned, I add the onion and the other vegetables (mirepoix).
This is done because if you add the onion first and then the meat, by the time the meat browns (this is called the maillard reaction) the onion will burn.
Another option is to brown the meat, take it out of the pan and then add the vegetables to saute them. This is more fussy, so I try to spare myself from the trouble.
All the Italian grandmas suggest simmering the sauce for a loooong time in order for the flavor to develop. The longer the better. Keep an eye on it and add a splash of water/broth from time to time, if it needs it.
Tip for a creamier sauce: Mix a tablespoon of cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of cold water and add it to the meat sauce 2 minutes before you take it off the heat.
Variations - Substitutions
Olive oil: Use a neutral tasting vegetable oil if you don't have olive oil.
Wine: You can subtitute it with brandy, cognac, water or chicken stock.
Canned tomatoes: You can use the same quantity of tomato passata (tomato puree). For a more traditional (grandma's) flavor, use very ripe, fresh, peeled tomatoes that have been passed through a box grater or a food mill.
Fresh garlic clove: You can use dried garlic powder instead. For a smoother flavor try 1-2 teaspoons of this roasted garlic in the oven.
Only beef: Many times I just omit the pancetta and make this ragu sauce only with ground beef.
Other types of pork: If you like, you can substitute the pancetta with ground pork or Italian sausage. A bit of ground chorizo sausage will also add depth of flavor to the sauce.
Greek style: The Greek version of this spaghetti meat sauce is called "makaronia me kima" which roughly translates to "pasta with ground beef". This version uses only ground beef and additional cinnamon and cloves to make a spiced meat sauce.
To make it, add 1 cinnamon stick and 5 cloves (or ¼ teaspoon ground cloves) to the pot the same time you add the vegetables. Remember to discard the cinnamon and the whole cloves before serving.
I use this Greek variation to make Pastitsio (Greek lasagna).
Storage - Freezing
This ground beef sauce for spaghetti will last for 3-4 days when stored in the fridge inside an airtight container.
I suggest using a glass container because the tomato can stain the plastic.
This is also one of the most freezer friendly recipes. It freezes so well, that I always make a double batch and keep the half in the freezer
How to reheat: Let it thaw in the refrigerator from the night before and slowly warm in a small saucepan over medium heat.
Alternatively, transfer to a microwave safe container and warm in a microwave oven at medium-high for 2-3 minutes or until steamy.
Spaghetti with meat sauce is a meal that has everything: protein, carbohydrates and fat. The only thing it needs on the side is a healthy salad.
Here are some suggestions:
You may also be interested in this easy, homemade pizza sauce with canned tomatoes which is also perfect for spaghetti and pasta.
Best spaghetti sauce with ground beef (ragu Bolognese)
- 1 large and deep saucepan or Dutch oven pot
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 17.6 ounces (500 grams) ground beef
- 3.5 ounces (100 grams) pancetta, finely chopped (optional)
- 1 small carrot, finely chopped (about ½ cup or 60 grams)
- 1 stalk of celery, finely chopped (about ½ cup or 60 grams)
- 1 onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup or 120 grams)
- 1 garlic clove, whole
- 2 bay leaves, optional
- 1 cup (250 grams) white, rose or red wine
- 2 cans (28 ounces total or 800 grams) san marzano tomatoes, pureed
- 2 tablespoons thick tomato paste
- Fine salt to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Vegetable stock or chicken broth or water (to add in case it dries during cooking)
- 2 pinches grated nutmeg, optional
- ¼ cup milk, heavy cream or grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Sugar to taste, optional
- 5-6 large fresh basil leaves, optional
- Sauté the meat: Heat a large, deep saucepan or pot over high heat, add the olive oil and the ground beef in one layer and let brown from one side. Once the meat is browned, use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir it well and break any lumps.Let the juices from the meat evaporate and add the pancetta (if using) and cook for another 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently and taking care not to burn on the bottom of the pan.
- Add the vegetables: Reduce to medium-high heat and add the carrot, the celery, the onion, the garlic and the bay leaves. Stir with the spatula until the vegetables soften and the onion is translucent (about 6-7 minutes).
- Deglaze with the wine: Pour the wine over the meat mixture and scrape the bottom of the pan with the spatula, until most of the wine evaporates.
- Add the tomatoes: Add the pureed tomatoes, the tomato paste, the salt and the black pepper and let it come to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook with the lid on (but not completely covered) for at least 1 hour.It probably won't need much water (or broth), but keep an eye on it. At the end of cooking the sauce should be thick with most of the liquids evaporated. If it's watery, continue cooking without the lid.
- Taste and adjust the seasonings: Optionally, you can add a splash of milk, heavy cream or some grated Parmesan to make the texture creamier. Then, taste the meat sauce and add salt and sugar if needed to balance any acidity from the tomatoes. Also add the fresh basil, if using and cook for 1 minute.Discard the garlic clove and the bay leaves before serving.
Raw ground beef should not be added in tomato sauce, mainly for two reasons.
Firstly, it will form big lumps which will be difficult to break in the sauce.
Secondly, the taste will be much better if you toast it first, and then add the ingredients to make the sauce.
No, you can not overcook the ground beef in a tomato sauce. Actually the more you cook it, the better it will become. Italian grandma's will say that if you cook a tomato-based sauce with ground beef for a lot of hours it will eventually become smooth as "crema" (cream).