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Beginner-Friendly Spaghetti Bolognese Recipe

This is an idiot-proof spaghetti bolognese recipe for home cooks who are still building their confidence by trying out classic dishes from childhood. This one might be better than your mom's spaghetti, but shhh — don't tell her that.

Beef mince and rice was a staple weekday dinner when I was a child, but I remember the mince as grim, knobbly grey lumps floating in an oily stew stained orange by tomato paste. The tragic outcome of this unfortunate association has been a total absence of mince from my kitchen as an adult. Fortunately, that has changed forever.

By browning the mince thoroughly before adding the tomato purée, this spaghetti bolognese looks less like something Oliver Twist begged for more of and more like something you would imagine an Italian nonna serving to her clamouring grandchildren. It's an heirloom recipe for sure and anyone can make it, even if your current cooking skills barely extend beyond a grilled cheese. All you need is patience and a dash of common sense.

What you'll need from the shops to make this spaghetti bolognese recipe:

  • Good quality beef mince (lean mince is fine, but something with a bit of fat in it is better)

  • Pasta (spaghetti, tagliatelle, and bucatini are nice shapes for this)

  • A tin of tomato paste (I am loving this soffritto tomato paste from Woolworths, but the plain Woolworths, Mutti, or Serena tomato pastes are also good)

  • 500g of tomato purée (passata is also fine)

  • One white onion

  • About three cloves of garlic

  • Table salt (not the kind in a grinder, the kind you can pick up out of a salt cellar and sprinkle into the food)

  • Dried oregano or Italian herb mix

  • Fresh parsley and parmesan for garnish (optional)

I've anticipated that beginner cooks may have some questions, so I've answered them below for your improvement.

What is soffritto?

Soffritto is the Italian version of the French mirepoix, a ubiquitous trio of finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery that constitute the aromatic base for most pasta sauces and other classic components of Italian cuisine. It is also comparable to the Spanish sofrito, the Portuguese refogado, and the Cajun holy trinity.

What's the difference between tomato paste, tomato purée, and tomato passata?

Tomato paste, purée and passata are all forms of blended tomato. Passata is the purest form of uncooked, puréed tomato that has been strained of skins and seeds. It is typically packaged in glass jars. Tomato purée is similar, but may contain the skin and seeds of the tomato and, although it isn't cooked, it has likely been heated before being canned or jarred. Tomato paste is highly concentrated passata that has been cooked and reduced over heat; it offers the strongest tomato flavour and is typically used to thicken sauces.

Why do you add salt at so many steps in the recipe?

I don't actually understand the science behind this, but adding salt whenever you introduce a new ingredient makes the dish taste savoury; adding a bunch of salt at the end makes it salty. Every time you add more bulk to the pot, you are diluting the salt content — that's why the instructions indicate that more salt should be added when new ingredients are introduced to restore the salt balance. Learning how much to add at every step is a skill that can only be acquired with the frequent tasting of cooked ingredients.

How to make Mom's spaghetti from scratch:

Step 1: Prep your kak

Put a big old pot of salted water (like, a tablespoon of table salt) on to boil. While that's going, prepare the following tools:

  • A wooden or plastic/silicone spatula to push the mince around with

  • Some grabby grabbies (tongs) to grasp the pasta with

  • A dry kitchen towel slung over your shoulder for sexy effect

I strongly recommend using a cast iron pot or Dutch oven for this recipe (and most others) because it is very forgiving to browning; however, if that's out of budget, using a regular pot is fine — you just might have to keep a closer eye on your mince to stop it from sticking or burning.

Finally, chop your onion using one of these methods and either finely grate the garlic or roughly chop it into bits. The show is about to begin.

Step 2: Cook the onion

Heat your pot on the stove on medium heat. When it feels warm against your hovering palm, toss in some oil and the onion. Season generously with a pinch of salt — when I say "pinch", I mean your thumb should be pressed against the centre of the pads of your pointer, middle, and ring fingers, not the fingertips. Learning to season adequately with salt will set your dishes miles apart.

Now, try to resist the urge to stir the onion constantly like a contented Miyazaki animation. Let it make contact with the hot pan. Turn occasionally so that they get an even browning. You'll know it's ready for the next step when it smells delicious, it's softer, and the edges are brown.

Step 3: Cook the mince

Turn the heat up high. Chuck in the mince, season again with salt, and break it up with your spatula. At first, it will turn grey and remain raw in the middle. It will also probably produce quite a lot of liquid and steam. Our goal is to keep cooking until there is no liquid left and the steam is at a minimum.

Cooking the mince all the way will take about seven minutes. Set a timer or listen to approximately 3.5 songs. Resist the urge to mix the cooking mince around; let it brown properly on one side like a hamburger before scraping it off the bottom of the pan and flipping it over so that the browning effect can take place on every side of the mince. Just don't burn it — if it smells bad or gets stuck to the bottom of the pot, turn the heat down.

Once the liquid has all burned off, the steam is minimal, and the meat is browned (no longer pink or grey) on multiple sides, it's time to move on to the garlic and tomato. Before we do that, check in your pasta — if it's done, drain it and set it aside.

Step 4: Add in the tomato

Push the cooked mince to the side for a second and throw in your chopped/grated garlic, tomato paste, and a healthy pinch of dried herbs in the free space in the pan. Let that brown for a few seconds before mixing it through the mince. Bring the heat back down to medium.

The bottom of your pot might look blackened, especially if you are using enamelled cast iron. Do not panic. It can require some elbow grease during cleanup, but it's not generally an indication that anything is being burned into nuclear oblivion.

Next, tip in the tomato purée and (you guessed it) a pinch or two of salt. Bring the heat all the way down low and let the mixture simmer to reduce the liquid. This is a good time to taste the bolognese to see if it needs more salt. Top tip: if it's not savoury enough for your liking yet, add a tablespoon of soy sauce instead of more salt at this step.

It will take about five minutes for bolognese to reduce, but you can take it off the heat as soon as you're happy with how it tastes. If it's not saucy enough, chuck in a splash of reserved pasta water. I like to swill pasta water through the cans of tomato paste and purée before emptying them into the sauce to get the most out of them.

Step 5: Serve

Finally, mix through the cooked pasta. If the sauce is clumping together instead of adhering to the pasta noodles, add a splash of water until it loosens and behaves itself. Plate the spaghetti bolognese with a generous dusting of shaved or grated parmesan and finely chopped parsley.

Don't vomit this up onto your sweater later, okay? It's too good to waste.


The Life & Style Team


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