September 27, 2021
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This is a rich venison ragu recipe that is, essentially, an authentic bolognese sauce. You can use any ground meat here if you don’t have venison.
Have you ever had a real, authentic Bolognese sauce? I mean an actual, honest-to-goodness Bolognese? It’s just different from a typical meat sauce for pasta: smoother, meatier, mellower and a lot richer than a typical ragu or sugo. A little goes a long way.
There is a reason that the guardians of this sauce are so strict about what is and is not an authentic Bolognese. And while there are other renditions of venison ragu, none are better than this one. Trust me on this.
Much of what makes Italian cuisine so special is its skill with poverty foods. Pugliese or Sardinians or the people of the Italian Alps must deal with a limited set of ingredients, and they do so with uncanny ability.
But there is no need for this in Emilia-Romagna, where Bologna lies. This region has everything. And it flaunts it. A Bolognese sauce is a crowning expression of the wealth of Italy’s breadbasket, and some version of it has been made since the 1700s.
This is a sauce with rules. It is built on a base of onion, carrot and celery. No garlic. Nor does it have lots of herbs in it. I love lots of herbs in a meat sauce, but that’s not a Bolognese. The sauce contains dairy products. Tomato, while present, is not the star of the sauce. Meat is. And to make a real Bolognese, it must cook a long, long time.
An authentic Bolognese sauce recipe is all about the meat. Emilia-Romagna is a rich region, and this is a rich sauce. Beef is king here, and the sauce is usually a celebration of the cow: beef, veal, milk and butter. But I am a hunter, so venison is the star here. Because of that, an Italian would call this a simple venison ragu, not an official Bolognese sauce. Oh well.
Every cook has a personal version. The few constants I’ve just mentioned above. Some have only beef. Some a mix of meats. Some pork. A few, like this one, wild boar. Some Bolognese recipes use a little pancetta, prosciutto or chicken liver, too.
One point of contention is tomato. I use just a little, but most American versions make this a tomato sauce with meat. That may taste nice, but it’s not a Bolognese. I suspect Americans do this because we were first exposed to a sauce sorta-kinda like this by Italians from Southern Italy, where tomato-heavy meat sauces are more common.
(Looking for a more tomatoey ragu? My duck ragu works really well with venison, too.)
Mushrooms, usually porcini, do have a place in an authentic Bolognese sauce. I use dried ones here. Porcini powder is another good option. Broth is yet another debating point. Many recipes use beef broth, some use water. I used venison stock.
Wine? Yes, or no. Your choice. White or red both work.
What pasta you serve it on is also hotly debated. By far the most common is homemade tagliatelle, which is a little like linguine. But other pasta shapes are seen, too.
Curiously, spaghetti — the most common pasta used with Bolognese in America — is almost never used with this sauce in Italy. Again, I think using spaghetti is an influence from Italian-Americans from the south, where dried pasta is more commonly used.
Do you need to follow all these rules when you make your own venison ragu? I hope you do, because the result is unlike anything else you’ve ever tasted. Even if you use other meats, such as pork or hare or duck, following these guidelines will make an unforgettable venison Bolognese.
But the Italian Food Police will not come breaking down your door if you add a little of this or a little of that to your liking. Improvisation is, after all, very Italian.
Don’t try to make this sauce on a weeknight. It takes a long time to come together, and the time spent slowly simmering really makes this sauce special. But fear not, it keeps in the fridge for up to 10 days, and freezes well.
It is a perfect sauce to make on a weekend and eat after work all week.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup minced onion
- 1 cup minced carrot
- 1 cup minced celery
- 2 pounds ground venison, or other meat
- 1 ounce dried porcini, reconstituted in 1 cup hot water and chopped
- 1 six- ounce can tomato paste
- 1 cup venison stock, beef broth or water
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 nutmeg, grated or 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- Pasta (tagliatelle, penne, etc)
- Grated cheese for garnish
- Heat the butter over medium-high heat in a large, heavy pot like a Dutch oven. Add the onion, celery and carrots and cook gently for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring often. Do not brown them. Sprinkle a little salt over the veggies as they cook.
- When the vegetables are soft, stir in the chopped porcini and tomato paste and allow everything to cook for 3 or 4 minutes, again, stirring often. When the tomato paste begins to turn the color of brick, add the ground venison, the porcini soaking water and the broth. Bring to a simmer.
- Allow this to cook down over medium-low heat. Take your time here and resist the urge to do this over higher heat. Stir from time to time. When the liquid has mostly evaporated, add the wine and repeat the process. When that has mostly evaporated, add the milk, nutmeg and black pepper and stir well. Bring back to a simmer and add salt to taste. Let this cook until it is the consistency you want.
- To serve, put the pasta in a large bowl and add a healthy ladle of sauce. Toss to combine. Give everyone their portion, then top with a small ladle's worth of sauce. Grate the cheese over the top and serve.
Keys to Success
- Time. A real deal ragu takes time to make. You can rush things, but you will notice the difference.
- I make my own venison stock for this recipe, but you could use store bought, low-sodium beef broth.
- Use a food processor to finely mince the carrot, onion and celery. Way easier than by hand.
- If you can't find the porcini, skip it or use other dried mushrooms. I will often just use porcini powder.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
I’m planning to make this recipe for the first time and have a question regarding the ground venison. A few pages before this recipe in your book, you talk about not adding fat to certain ground recipes (spaghetti, chili, tacos). Does this fall under spaghetti, or is the 2 pound suggested with a ratio of fat? I like to keep tight to a recipe the first time, before I start making changes. I have 3 of your cook books and they are by far the best wild game cooking guides, hands down. Thanks!
Tim: Assume all my recipes have fat in the grind unless I say otherwise. The fatless spaghetti reference is a suggestion for ground meat that doesn’t have fat, rather than saying that I prefer it without fat. Does that make sense?
Sure does. Thanks for the quick reply!
Made this last night with javelina burger. Unbelievably rich and deep. I did brown the burger first though on my wife’s advice. Maillard is your best friend she said.
A little does go a long way. Thanks mucho Hank.
Made this last night with pastured lamb that we buy from a friend each year (same as I do with Hank’s exquisite Chilandron recipe). It was wonderful! That last hour of cooking is the magic, meat changes from meat to silk. I was a little skeptical about the nutmeg but it added a nice subtile warmth rather than flavor. Another keeper!
Currently on my second attempt, and while the first time was a mangle of bad on-the-fly adjustments by me it was still good. I used a home-made watermelon wine and baby bellas the first time [used what I had…] and it came out a bit on the sweet side. This second time, the porcinis have completely changed the flavor, I used a semi-sweet red and added a little more salt – And I’ll be adding it to my menu at least monthly, for as long as I have venison.
Simple truth – Porcini mushrooms [also called boletes, for you mushroom gathering sorts] absolutely make the difference, and if your ragout doesnt come out looking as beautiful as Hank’s on the first go, you might try what he suggested for mine – add a quart of crushed tomato and an extra quart of stock.
Planning on making this venison ragu today…… should I brown the venison before adding to the mix?
Nancy: You can if you want, but this recipe does not require it.
Hi Hank – Your Venison Ragu Recipe turned out so good, that I thought of your for advice on how long to cook a brined 2.6lb Black Bear Roast in the Sous Vide.
I’m just learning my way around this gadget, and I do know that I need to get the Bear Roast cooked fully to approx. 165 degrees, but have no idea of what the timeframe is for this.
Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
Nancy: With sous vide you can cook it at a lower temperature because you’re essentially pasteurizing the meat. I would cook it at 1445 to 150F for about 8 hours.
Wonderful recipe with the venison. I’m a big lover of boar and am wondering, before substituting the boar for the venison, what difference in taste it would make. Does boar sustain the taste of the nutmeg, for instance, does boar prefer white or red wine, etc. I’ve made boar ragu (so without the milk and more tomato) and it was wonderful but I’m looking for even more earthiness. Any thoughts Hank?
Thanks for your site.
Rollo: If you want to add earthiness, add mushrooms. That always works for me.
If pressure canning this recipe would I just leave out the milk to be added when reheating?
Tasha: Yes, definitely leave out the milk for pressure canning.
This was fantastic! I didn’t have dried mushrooms so substituted fresh hen of the woods and used stock made from black staining polypore. My 13 year old daughter who is the pickiest eater in the world even approved!
Just to be sure – the venison goes in raw, not browned?
Mitch: Correct. For a Bolognese style sauce it goes in raw. That said, you can brown it if you want, although that’s not typical in this particular sauce. Either way tastes good.
The venison and porcini are an ideal marriage for a true boscaiolo. Two suggestions if you are going to take the time to make this amazing ragu:
1. It really deserves an egg-based pasta. If you can’t make your own, it’s relatively easy, you might be able to find tagliatelle or pappardelle, common in italian wild game ragu, from Rana in your supermarket.
2. Please use freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano or grana padano. If you’re going to go this far, compromise elsewhere.
Hank, thanks for sharing.
Can you do this in a crock pot? No time to watch it for hours, but could stir regularly in the slow cooker..
Greg: Absolutely, once it gets rolling. You’ll still need to cook the vegetables at the beginning in a pan, though.