There’s a good reason Spaghetti Bolognese is such a popular dish, it’s tasty and satisfying comfort food, pure and simple. Slow cooker Bolognese is a deliciously rich and flavoursome ragu of minced beef, pancetta, red wine and herbs, cooked in a tomato sauce. Serve with your favourite pasta for a fantastic meal any night of the week.
Spaghetti Bolognese in the Slow Cooker!
As the name suggests, Bolognese sauce or ragù alla bolognese originates from Bologna, northern Italy. It’s a real classic in Italian cuisine, and has become well known globally too. Here in the UK it’s usually served with spaghetti and known simply as ‘Spag Bol’, but in Italy it’s more traditionally served with tagliatelli or linguine.
It’s commonly agreed that the best way to cook Bolognese sauce is low and slow in a big pot for several hours – so it’s perfect for the slow cooker! This gives time for the tomatoes to sweeten, the meat to soften, and the vegetables, herbs and wine to create the most amazing seasoning. Delicious!
As with any well known dish, there are many recipes for bolognese sauce – everyone has their own take on it! My recipe for Slow Cooker Bolognese takes inspiration from Marcella Hazan’s classic recipe.
It has the familiar combination of meat, tomatoes, vegetables and seasoning and the method is kept as simple as possible whilst maintaining a delicious home cooked rustic flavour. I’ve cooked this recipe many times now and always found it a crowd pleaser, so it’s great to be able to share it!
Ingredients in Slow Cooker Bolognese
Here’s what you need to make bolognese sauce in the slow cooker.
- Meat – Minced beef, I use 10% fat mince. It’s also common to add pork to the mince, so I add pancetta to give a sweet, slightly salty flavour. I like the finely sliced pancetta which I then further dice so it just melts into the sauce during cooking.
- Vegetables – Use onion, celery and carrot to make a soffrito, which is a base for many Italian sauces. Finely dice these vegetables and fry in oil before cooking in the sauce. It creates a flavourful and aromatic undertone so familiar in the taste of bolognese. It’s difficult to replicate this any other way!
- Seasoning – I add garlic, oregano and basil and a beef stock cube for that extra depth of beefy flavour. I also use a splash of balsamic vinegar and small amount of sugar, salt and pepper to bring out the flavour in the tomatoes.
- Sauce – Finely chopped tomatoes are particularly good for an extra smooth sauce. These Mutti tinned tomatoes have a gorgeous flavour. Use red wine to create an earthy and rich tone in the sauce, a medium body red works well. Oh, and milk! Milk in bolognese is a traditional way to balance any acidity from the tomatoes and protect the texture of the meat from toughening during cooking.
How to make Slow Cooker Bolognese
There is a little preparation involved in making a great and authentic tasting bolognese sauce. This involves sautéing the vegetables, browning the meat, and reducing the red wine; but it’s only around 15 minutes and I can tell you that it is most definitely worth it for the most authentic and tasty bolognese sauce!
What’s more, after you are finished it’s just a case leaving the sauce to simmer into deliciousness in the slow cooker. No hanging around stirring a hot bubbling pot for hours required here!
The steps are:
- Prepare the vegetables. Finely dice the celery, carrot and onion to make a smooth sauce.
- Make the soffrito. Sauté the vegetables in a medium heat pan with oil until the onions turn translucent (around 3-4 mins). Add the minced garlic and herbs and allow them to sweat.
- Season. Transfer the vegetables to the slow cooker and stir through the corn flour and seasoning.
- Brown the meat. Start with the beef (draining away any fat that’s released) and then add the finely chopped pancetta to the base of the pan and cook for a further minute (2-3 mins total). Add these to the slow cooker and drizzle over the milk.
- Reduce the wine. Pour it into the pan the meat was just cooked in. Allow it to bubble on a medium heat until the alcohol has evaporated and the wine has reduced to a dark syrup (2-4 minutes).
- Make the ragu sauce. Add the stock cube, reduced wine, chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, and vinegar to the meat and vegetables in the slow cooker.
- Combine the ingredients. Stir all the ingredients well and cook for 6-7 hours on low.
- Serve. When the sauce is cooked it will be a rich deep red, stir through well and then serve with freshly cooked pasta and shavings of parmesan.
Serve the bolognese meat sauce immediately with freshly cooked pasta. Spaghetti or linguine are the usual choices but it will go perfectly well with any type!
I like to toss the pasta in the sauce before serving to coat it and spread the rich meaty flavour through the whole dish. You can also add some shavings of parmesan cheese on top for an extra burst of flavour.
Alternatively, make a big batch of bolognese and save some for another occasion. It reheats perfectly and I think it actually gives the flavours more time to infuse!
If you need some inspiration for side dishes to go with spaghetti bolognese, here are some ideas:
- Garlic bread – the obvious choice, so of course has to be mentioned! I usually opt for a herby, garlic flatbread.
- Crisp green salad drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar provides contrast against the bolognese.
- A simple tomato and basil salad drizzled with olive oil.
What can you make with leftover Bolognese sauce?
Bolognese sauce is so versatile! If you have leftovers (if!) or you have made a big batch then try one of these ideas.
- Pasta bake – Mix through cooked penne or fusilli pasta shapes and then top with béchamel and grated cheese before baking in the oven.
- Jacket potatoes – Bolognese makes a delicious filling for jacket potatoes – a great option for lunch.
- Lasagne – Use bolognese sauce as the ragu in a lasagne. Layer it in between sheets of pasta, cheese and béchemel sauce. You can even make a slow cooker lasagne!
- Pizza – Bolognese pizza sauce? Why not! Top with mozzarella cheese, red chilli pepper and this tastes great! Also, don’t forget you can make a slow cooker pizza!
Tips for a great Bolognese meat sauce
Here are some ways that you can ensure that your bolognese sauce turns out great every time:
- Avoid large lumps of meat in the sauce by forking through the beef whilst it’s browning.
- Use good quality canned chopped tomatoes to avoid a bitter taste in the sauce. The finely chopped variety will help blend the ingredients together.
- Finely dice the carrots, onions and celery (cubes of 1/2 cm or less are ideal) this will help to make a smoother ragu.
- Dried or fresh herbs can be used. If using dried, it’s best not to use the ones that have been hanging around in the back of the cupboard for years! They do tend to lose thier potency and so you will get a bettter flavour from freshly bought.
When mince cooks it releases fat and water which doesn’t evaporate when cooking in a crock pot, and so would simply sit on top of the sauce. Browning mince first means this liquid can be drained away before cooking. Additionally, the browning process gives the meat texture; raw mince in a slow cooker sauce becomes so soft that it loses structure.
Milk is used to tenderise the meat and also to balance the acidity of the tomatoes in bolognese sauce, giving a greater depth of flavour.
Yes, you can add the pasta to the bolognese sauce around 30 minutes before the end of cooking. Remember to add a little more liquid as the pasta will absorb some of the sauce during cooking.
They are the same thing, bolognese is a sauce of ground beef or veal often combined with pork then cooked low and slow with tomatoes and seasoning. Meat sauce is exactly the same!
Store the Bolognese sauce in an airtight container and it’ll stay fresh for three days in the fridge, or up to three months in the freezer. Reheat thoroughly before serving.
Slow Cooker Bolognese
- 750 g beef mince 10% fat
- 60 g pancetta finely sliced variety, then dice into small pieces
- 2 carrots finely diced
- 2 celery sticks medium sized, finely diced
- 1 onion large white onion, finely diced
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 800 g chopped tomatoes
- 3 tbsp Tomato puree
- 200 ml red wine medium body
- 100 ml milk full-fat or semi-skimmed
- 1 beef stock cube crumbled
- 2½ tsp oregano dried (use 1½ tsp if using fresh herbs)
- 2 tsp basil dried (use 1 tsp if using fresh herbs)
- ¼ tsp balsamic vinegar
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- ½ tsp brown sugar
- 1½ tbsp cornflour
- 1½ tbsp vegetable oil
- Start by making a soffrito by finely dicing the onion, carrot and celery and placing in a pan with the oil. Turn the heat to medium low and sauté the vegetables until the onion is translucent (around 5 minutes). Next add the herbs and minced garlic and cook for a further 1 minute stirring through continuously. Pour all the vegetables into the slow cooker.
- Sprinkle the corn flour, salt, pepper and sugar over the vegetables and mix well.
- Return the pan to the stove and gently brown the beef mince over a medium heat. Fork the mince through to seperate the pieces and drain away any fat. Add the finely sliced and diced pancetta (allowing it to sit on the bottom of the pan so it has direct heat) and cook for a further minute until the pancetta turns pink. Add the meat to the slow cooker then pour over the milk and stir through.
- Now pour the red wine into the pan in which the meat was cooked and turn the heat to medium. The wine will bubble allowing the alcohol to evaporate and then it will reduce to a darker syrup (around 2-4 minutes). Remove it from the heat.
- Crumble the stock cube into the slow cooker then add the balsamic vinegar, tomato puree, chopped tomatoes and red wine syrup. Stir everything well to combine the ingredients and cook on low for 6-7 hours or high for 4 hours.
- Serve with freshly cooked pasta.
- A soffrito is a classic Italian cooking method used for making the base of a variety of sauces, it involves sauteing onion, celery and carrot in oil before adding other ingredients. This creates real depth of flavour in a dish. Ensure that the vegetables are very finely diced (pieces of ½ cm or less ideally) to get the best results and a smooth bolognese sauce.
- Cornflour can be replaced with plain flour if required although reduce the quantity to 1 tbsp as wheat flours are heavier and less will be required to thicken the sauce.
- Fork through the beef mince before cooking to break up any lumps of meat.
- Use finely sliced pancetta if possible rather than the cubes as this will melt easily into the sauce and keep it smooth whilst getting the flavour of the cured pork.
- Use good quality canned chopped tomatoes as they are a key part of the sauce, the finely chopped variety will help blend the ingredients together and create a smoother ragu.
- Some canned tomatoes can have an acidic tang, even after slow cooking for hours, this can be mellowed by adding a little more sugar or a few tablespoons of milk.