Making the perfect slow-cooked brisket ragù

Get the recipe for my Slow-Cooked Brisket Ragù here

Consider this a deep dive into the recipe development process; an origin story, if you will. It covers everything from why I think sweet onions reign supreme, to why you should only ever use whole rather than chopped plum tomatoes, to how my recipe compares to the official recipe for ragù Bolognese (because yes, there is an official recipe that is registered with Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce!).

The key to making a delicious ragù is building layers of flavour. Theoretically, you could just throw the ingredients into a pot and cook them low and slow and you’d get a somewhat decent tasting sauce. But we don’t want decent; we want delicious. And that requires working in steps; it allows us to build successive waves of flavour.

The meats: beef brisket and pancetta

While a traditional ragù Bolognese is made with mince, this recipe uses brisket, slow-cooked to perfection and then shredded. You start by generously seasoning the brisket pieces with sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper before searing them over medium heat on all sides to lock in the juices. Next comes the pancetta – it gets cooked over medium heat until browned and slightly crisp. 

Using pancetta (or any kind of cured pork product) adds huge depth of flavour. When I was developing this recipe, I had to decide whether to use smoked or unsmoked pancetta. I settled on smoked; the smokiness adds a nice touch to the dish. However, if I’m making a lasagna and using this ragù as a base (see my recipe for Brisket Ragù Lasagna here ), I prefer unsmoked pancetta; I find that the smokiness overwhelms the other components.  

The sofrito

Next comes the sofrito: a combination of sweet onion, carrots and celery. Why sweet onions, specifically? Because sweet onions reign supreme. I use sweet onions a lot in my Italian sauces because they add a lovely sweetness and help cut through the acidity of tomatoes.

You cook the sofrito in the rendered pancetta fat until the veggies are nice and soft. You don’t want them to take on any colour; the goal is to cook them gently until tender, allowing them to release their natural sweetness. Once softened, you add some thinly sliced garlic. The official recipe for ragù Bolognese does not call for garlic, but I love it, so mine does. I’ve made this recipe with and without it, and I think that it’s better with it. 

The tomatoes 

This recipe calls for 3 tomato products: double concentrated tomato purée, sundried tomato paste and whole peeled plum tomatoes (we’ll get to these a little later). The tomato purée goes in right after the aromatics. You want to fry the paste out in the oil until it darkens; this helps get rid of that raw, tinny taste. Sundried tomato paste is very non-traditional. It isn’t absolutely necessary but I like it because it adds an extra little punch of umami. 

Wine: red or white?

Italians are on the fence about this one; some say white, others insist on red. I’m on team white wine; I find that the flavour of red wine is a little overpowering and lends the ragù a slight French/beef bourguignon-esque note, which isn’t what I’m looking for in a ragù. Once you’ve fried out the tomato pastes, add the wine and reduce by ¾; this helps drive off the alcohol and concentrate the flavours. 

Then comes the third and final tomato product: whole peeled plum tomatoes. Ranging in price from 30p to just over £1, there’s a lot to choose from. My advice? Splurge a little. When it comes to tinned tomatoes, you get what you pay for—the better the quality of the tomatoes, the tastier, more flavourful your sauce will be. 

I always recommend buying whole peeled plum tomatoes, rather than chopped tomatoes. Whole peeled plum tomatoes are less processed than chopped tomatoes, which means that they have a brighter, fresher flavour and retain more of their natural sweetness. Moreover, tinned chopped tomatoes generally added water—especially the cheaper brands—which further dilutes their flavour.

Stock: beef or chicken?

This is another area of contention: some people prefer beef, others chicken. I’m team chicken stock: brisket is super beefy; I don’t think it needs any additional beef flavour. But if you like your ragù extra beefy, by all means, swap the chicken stock out for beef stock. Whichever stock you choose, make sure it’s good-quality. Remember, the key to making a delicious ragù is building layers of flavour. Adding poor-quality stock is no different to adding barely seasoned water, and we definitely don’t want that. 

Milk (yes, milk!)

I was shocked when I learned that milk is a cornerstone of ragù. When I was developing this recipe, I tried it with and without milk; with milk is definitely the way to go. It makes a huge difference: it cuts through the acidity of the tomatoes, adds richness and gives the sauce body. This recipe calls for whole milk. While I never drink it, it’s my preferred milk for cooking; save the skimmed milk/ plant-based milks for your cereal or latte.  

Low and slow

Low and slow is the only way to go: it takes time for the brisket to become fall-apart tender and for all the flavours to come together. You can cook the ragù in one of two ways: either cook it on the stove over low heat for 4 ½ to 5 ½ hours, leaving the lid slightly ajar, or bake at 150 degrees Celsius until the meat is nice and tender, 5 to 6 hours.

Once cooked, all that remains is shredding the beef. Remove the brisket pieces from the sauce and allow to rest for 10 mins. This step is crucial; if you don’t let your brisket rest before shredding it, it’ll lose all its moisture—no one wants dry, stringy meat. Return the shredded brisket to the sauce, taste and season the ragù with sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper and then you’re done. Serve Bolognese-style with tagliatelle or pappardelle or use it as a base for a delicious lasagna. 

Get the recipe for my Slow-Cooked Brisket Ragù here


Passionate home cook, food enthusiast and recipe developer, based in London. Creating healthy, delicious dishes, outrageously indulgent treats and everything in between.

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