heston blumenthal’s perfect spaghetti bolognese

heston blumenthal's spaghetti bolognese

I happened to read FrontLineChef’s Ultimate Spag Bol recipe one morning on Twitter and almost fell over: it sounds utterly superb. I remembered I hadn’t yet tried Heston Blumenthal’s perfect spaghetti bolognese.

Bolognese has a strange and maligned history in this country. It’s one of those quirky dishes that are echoes of the home country, like chicken tikka masala, or pizza. I’ve had many a spag bol in my time and plenty of them have made this blog. I particularly recommend Antonio Carluccio’s version which is a cracker.

As his recipes go it’s not one of his most complex; braised meat + soffritto + tomato compote slow-cooked together. I still cut a little of it out when it comes to the tomatoes – I can’t believe the ‘fresh’ tomatoes in December can be much cop so I went for a tinned variety and took it from there. That said it’s very close to the original. To save time I recommend having two decent casserole pans on the go, this will cut down time right at the beginning.

Is it perfect? Not for me. It’s far too sweet for my taste, I would prefer it far more savoury. Although it’s still very tasty and quite complex, different layers of flavours coming through as you enjoy each mouthful. In a nod to old-school spag bol the spaghetti is served under the ragu, yet the buttering it receives is fab and definitely worth a try.

Big love to the superb Bunting’s of Maldon for their excellent meat.

Spaghetti bolognese (serves 6):

For caramelised onion:

1 onion, sliced

1 star anise

For the soffritto:

3 sticks celery, diced

3 carrots, diced

2 onions, diced

8 garlic cloves, minced

For the ragu:

300g pork loin steak, diced

200g beef braising steak, diced

½ bottle white wine

300ml whole milk

For the tomato compote:

2 tins tomatoes

30ml sherry vinegar

5 drops tabasco

5 drops fish suace

For the pasta:

100g spaghetti per person

50g butter

  1. Heat some oil in a large casserole pan and fry the onion and star anise together for 20 mins until caramelised.
  2. Whilst the onion is caramelising, in another large casserole pan fry the soffritto veg in some olive oil for about 10 minutes until softened.
  3. Return to your onions. When they’re done put them to one side (discarding the star anise), add a little olive oil and use this pan to brown off the meats. Take your time with this and make sure there’s enough room for all the pieces of meat to brown, so do these in batches as necessary.
  4. Deglaze this pan with the white wine and turn the heat up. Scrape the bottom of the pan and keep this going until it’s reduced by half.
  5. When your soffritto is tender, add the caramelised onion, diced meat and reduced wine to it. Add the milk and top up with water until all the ingredients are submerged. Leave uncovered on the lowest heat for 6 hours, stirring occasionally. Add water if necessary to keep the liquids topped up. (The milk can make it appear a little granular, this won’t affect the final product.)
  6. For the compote, add all the ingredients to a little olive oil over a high heat. Cook rapidly until thick, then stir this into the rest of the bolognese. Cook for a further hour. Turn the heat off and let it rest for 5 minutes while you cook the pasta. You should check the seasoning at the point – a little extra sherry vinegar can help cut the richness.
  7. For the spaghetti, cook according to packet instructions and drain. Rinse briefly to ensure it doesn’t stick then return to the pan to warm. Toss in the butter to coat well.
  8. Serve the spaghetti by twirling around a carving fork. Add a generous serving of bolognese and top with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.

13 comments

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  • OH god, the tomatoes. You did right – the faff with scoring, blanching them in boiling water and then “slipping” the skins off was the one part I’d never redo.

    This is from a version he did in a newspaper column right? The original was with oxtail, which is a bugger to debone. The second time I did it I wound up using venison burgers!

    Best part of the first time I did it was when my wife phoned to say she’d broken down and had to be towed along the M4 so would be 2 to 3 hours late. Don’t think she believed my insistence that dinner would be fine!

    • I’ve done the whole blanching and peeling tomatoes thing before, it’s so much work. There’s a great Jamie recipe that involves doing this – it’s easier to roast the tomatoes then after about 20 mins you can whip the skin off in a pinch.

      This is based on the version printed in “Search for Perfection”. I wondered about oxtail, but took the advice of my butcher and went for braising steak.

      I was thinking of you when I did this, I remember you saying you’d had a go before.

  • Like so many of Heston’s so-called ‘perfect’ recipes for things we all cook all the time, this looks to me like one-upmanship disguised as cooking. If you are serving spaghetti bolognese in a restaurant then you should probably cook it this kind of over-complicated, labour- and time-intensive way, but it’s far too complex for home cooking. I don’t mind cooking complex recipes at home if the result is going to be something really striking or sumptuous but it’s just not worth it for spag bol, which people are going to hoover down anyway.

    I’m not knocking H.B. I know he’s a great chef, but I’m not putting star anise and fish sauce into my bolognese sauce. That’s not what I want from this dish. It’s like his method of cooking roast chicken which involved simmering chicken wings in melted butter and basting the chicken with the resulting chicken-infused butter: I went to all that trouble, and the result was no better or worse than any of the other stupid ways I’ve come across to roast chicken. In the end, my own method of roasting a chicken is Thomas Keller’s: clean the chicken, dry it thoroughly, truss it, sprinkle salt on it and bung it in a hot oven for an hour.

    Some dishes need a lot of time and care and prep. Some don’t. The only thing spaghetti bolognese needs is time. And if you don’t have that, you can fake it with a splash of balsamic.

    • I don’t think there’s a dishonesty at the heart of it; there is a genuine need to make the best he possibly can. Personally I don’t think the results are significantly enhanced on the standard recipes I usually use but an interesting footnote nonetheless. I don’t think balsamic is the magic ingredient – I think it’s an Oxo cube.

      When it comes to the chicken I have to disagree. When I did it HB’s way it was by some margin the best roast chicken I’d ever eaten. A lot comes down to the quality of the initial bird, as the method accentuates the flavours that are already there – note no seasoning required other than brining.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • I personally enjoy HB’s recipe for ‘Spag Bol’. But I have to take some short cuts to make it work for me.

    – I caramelise the onions in the pan before adding the carrots and celery to soften. I don’t cook a batch separately with Star Anise
    – I add the Star Anise to the simmering ragu for the first hour. After trying it, adding Star Anise to meat dishes is genius. Adding to the SA to the simmering dish gives a stronger taste which I prefer.
    – The compote ingredients are added to the simmering Ragu for the last hour, when it is less wet. Not cooked separately.

    I realise that this leads to a less intense tasting Ragu ‘Spag Bol’ tomato flavour but this for a couple of reasons. I have two kids under four and and they love it, but pushing it further may stop them eating it!

    Secondly this Ragu is perfect at this stage for freezing. As my qty’s are a 1kg each of beef and pork. Which makes a large stock pot full. Making the effort in making worth it for the additional dishes it makes.

    Unfrozen I can use for the meat layer in a Lasagne, or adding peas and part boiled carrots and gravy makes to superb cottage pie filling (sounds odd but it does works) or just re-fry add a 1/4 tinned chopped tomatoes and EV olive oil and parsley and add to spaghetti for a mid week bonus.

    There is a larger list of ingredients compared to other Spaghetti Bolognese recipes but I have all of the ingredients in my kitchen anyway so no hassle!

    • Hi Leigh

      Thanks for such an interesting break down of your technique. It captures the spirit of it without losing the interesting flavours.

      I can definitely see how this mix would work for a cottage pie. I am also *completely* with you on the star anise. With any meaty, savoury flavours it really packs a punch.

      I still have a couple of batches in the freezer, I might have to dig them out this week!

  • I really enjoyed this recipe and the taste was incredible. The ingredients caused the tastes to be full and plentiful. Next time I am going to make a larger batch and freeze some away for later use. Thanks for sharing this recipe and I look forward to new ones to try!

  • tried it. lots of work & patience, but once you’ve done this, you’ll NEVER have your bolo in a different way. btw, keep the skinned off oil from the boiled tomatoes. it’s excellent on salads & so on !!!!
    i’s say, TRY IT !!!

  • Pingback: In Search of Perfection: Spaghetti Bolognese

  • I recommend visiting In Search of Heston’s blog for an excellent and painstaking guide to making this dish.

  • Pingback: How to Make Heston’s Perfect Bolognese Recipe from In Search Of Perfection (Redux) : In Search Of Heston

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