This is my mother’s Traditional Meat Sauce recipe, which she learned to make from her grandmother. I’m happy to share it, but even happier to document it, so my cousins and I can use it every time we make sauce. You can use this sauce to top pasta or polenta, or as the meat layer in lasagna. It’s delicious, versatile, and it freezes well.
My mom’s grandparents came to the U.S. separately and met here, eventually opening a grocery store in Clovis, CA. Her grandfather was a butcher, so he ran the meat counter, and they hired people who spoke better English than they did to speak with customers. Since my grandmother worked at a winery, my mom and her brothers stayed with their grandparents during most of the summer. While my uncles played baseball and fished, my bookworm mother stayed close to her grandmother, learning to cook in the process. (Although Saint Joanie can smack the hell out of a softball too.)
About the Meat Sauce Ingredients:
The ingredients for the sauce are pretty simple, so it’s important that they’re good quality. Choose canned tomato products with fresh, bright flavor – look for tomatoes from Italy or California. (Did you know California provides over 50% of the world’s canned tomatoes? It’s true.) Choose sausage that you like the flavor of when it’s served by itself. Sometimes I use a combination of hot and sweet sausages, especially if I’m making a double batch of sauce. If you’re a gluten-free household, you’ll want to make sure both the sausage and the Worcestershire sauce you’re using are safe.
You can definitely use different ground meats, or finely chopped prosciutto or mortadella, or add in some leftover cooked beef or pork – that would be a very Italian-making-Sunday-sauce move. My mother (and I) often add in a shallot if we have one, and substitute dried herbs for the fresh ones if we need to. Feel free to make this meat sauce recipe your own – but I’d make it once or twice Joanie’s way first.
Next, you can make a batch of fresh pasta or her Meat Lasagna recipe. Or just serve yourself a dish of spaghetti with meat sauce and a nice glass of wine. The choice is obviously yours!
Please let me know if you make this recipe – especially if it becomes a favorite for you. I love knowing that our family’s recipes are feeding you and your loved ones. Mangia bene, friends.
Traditional Meat Sauce Recipe
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion diced about 1/4 inch or chopped
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1/2 pound gluten-free Italian sausage about 2 large links, casings removed
- 6 ounces fresh mushrooms sliced
- 16 ounces tomato sauce or a mixture of tomato sauce and some diced tomatoes
- 6 ounces tomato paste mixed with 3/4 cup of water
- 1 Tbsp gluten-free Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup full-bodied red wine
- 2 tbsp fresh parsley chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp dried basil or 1 tbsp fresh
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp thyme
- 1/2 tsp fresh rosemary minced (or 1/4 tsp dried)
- 1/4 cup sliced olives optional
- Using a large saucepan or pot, heat the olive oil over meduim-high heat, add the onion and garlic and sauté for about 3-4 minutes, until onion becomes translucent.
- Add ground beef and Italian sausage and cook about 4 minutes more, breaking it up as you go, until it’s mostly browned.
- Add mushrooms and cook 3-4 minutes more.
- Add the tomato sauce and tomato paste mixture, mix well. Add the Worcestershire sauce and wine, stir, and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat to low, add the herbs and seasonings, mix well, and simmer for at least 1 1/2 hours or more, adding olives after sauce has cooked for 30 minutes if using.
Photos by James Collier
Meat Sauce vs. Ragu Bolognese: what’s the difference?
This meat sauce recipe, like most others, contains garlic, herbs and spices, and additions like mushrooms or olives. It’s also made with just tomatoes and wine for liquids. Meat sauces vary by region in Italy, or even house-to-house, based on what’s easily available or on hand. Ragu Bolognese starts with onion, celery and carrots (known as soffritto), and no garlic, herbs, or seasonings (beyond salt if needed) are added. While both use ground meat, Bolognese doesn’t have any add-ins like mushrooms or olives.
In the U.S., we often add milk or cream to Ragu Bolognese when it’s prepared. The Italians generally do this on the second or third day after the sauce is made, to add back some freshness or body to the sauce.
So, technically, Ragu Bolognese is a meat sauce, but only a specific meat sauce is Ragu Bolognese.