Does milk really belong in bolognese sauce?

Myffy Rigby
Adam Liaw's fifty-fifty bolognese - no milk.
Adam Liaw's fifty-fifty bolognese - no milk.  Photo: William Meppem

Milk, or no milk in your Bolognese sauce? It's a hot-button topic reignited recently by Sydney-based stand-up comedian, amateur home-cook and now viral sensation Nat (no last name, like Madonna) on his YouTube channel Nat's What I Reckon.

His mission is to eradicate bottled sauces and packet foods from Australia's kitchen cupboards, one simple and approachable dish at a time. It's his Bolognese tutorial that's set the internet on fire, though. You see, there's milk in his ragu. 

Spaghetti bolognese and rigatoni with black truffle at Etto.
Spaghetti bolognese and rigatoni with black truffle at Etto.  Photo: Eddie Jim

Don't hit the sick-face emoji in the comments section just yet. The official recipe, registered with the Bologna chamber of commerce back in the 1980s, states the sauce should contain onions, celery, carrots, pancetta, ground beef, tomatoes, white wine and – there it is – milk.

But there's dissension in the ranks of Australia's leading Italian chefs. Guy Grossi, chef/owner of Melbourne's heavyweight Italian restaurant Grossi Florentino, personally does not use milk, preferring his dairy element in the form of parmigiano.

"Milk," he says, "adds a little richness and it may aid in tenderising meat but if you're using quality meat, then you don't need it. The quality of the meat you choose will always show".  

Milk adds a little richness and it may aid in tenderising meat but if you're using quality meat, then you don't need it.

Guy Grossi

Dairy is just the tip of the iceberg in the great Bolognese debate of 2020. The original recipe also states no garlic, though as Mitch Orr, head chef of progressive Bondi trattoria CicciaBella says, "I put garlic in everything." Who doesn't?

Sugar is perhaps more divisive still. Grossi was brought up not adding sweeteners, arguing that if you cook the onions down gently and slowly enough, they'll provide the natural sweetness. That said, Orr will use a little maple syrup if the tomatoes are more bitter than he'd like.

The chef, famous for applying Asian cooking techniques to Italian sensibilities, says using sugar as a seasoning is hard for westerners to get their heads around, but it works. He hastens to add that you should only add sugar at the end after the tomatoes have completely cooked down, otherwise you can run the risk of an unbalanced sauce.  

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Then, of course, there's the meat. Traditionally for Bolognese, the recipe states beef mince and pancetta. Which is fine, says Orr, as long as the mince has a high fat content. Orr likes to use veal osso bucco in his recipe over mince for depth of flavour and the gelatinous quality he gets from using a cut of beef with bones in it. And, while it may be a little more Firenze and a little less Bolognese, Grossi likes the addition of chicken livers and a little bit of nutmeg, which he says adds depth to a tomato-based ragu.  

Really, though, the secret to a good ragu isn't whether or not you put milk in your bolognese, or garlic or if you're one of those people who insanely adds mushrooms and capsicum. No, the secret to the kind of ragu where the flavours are built carefully – that balance of sweetness and richness, where flavours don't compete but work in perfect harmony –is time.

"You can't rush it," says Guy Grossi. "It's not the kind of dish that you can whip up when getting home late from work. It just won't have time to develop flavours and simmer into a nice thick sauce." 

Chef Guy Grossi of Grossi Florentino eschews milk, preferring his dairy element in the form of parmigiano.
Chef Guy Grossi of Grossi Florentino eschews milk, preferring his dairy element in the form of parmigiano. Photo: Supplied

As Nat says: "grab a fork and get it up ya."