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What is wrong with the way I make ragu (for lasagna?)

(51 Posts)
drivenfromdistraction Wed 19-Mar-14 14:53:56

My lasagnas are not Quite Right. The cheese/white sauce is fine - lovely in fact. But the ragu is not. It is too runny and lumpy, so the lasagna ends up a bit shapeless. Can anyone set me right?

I make it like this:-
- Brown mince, set aside, pour off excess liquid
- Fry roughly chopped (sometimes diced but doesn't seem to make a big difference) onions, garlic and diced carrots
- Put mince back in, stir all together, add two cans of tomatoes.

Cook, covered, at a low heat for 3 - 4 hours. Then layer into the lasagna (with the cheese sauce) and cook that. Comes out just a bit too sloppy. Should i just uncover the pan when cooking the ragu and reduce the ragu down? Or am I missing something more fundamental?

Constructive criticism welcomed!

ilovepowerhoop Wed 19-Mar-14 15:02:18

we have an oxo cube, tomato puree, mushrooms, herbs, Worcestershire sauce, maybe a slug of red wine in ours.

ilovepowerhoop Wed 19-Mar-14 15:03:14

along with the other ingredients I mean

drivenfromdistraction Wed 19-Mar-14 15:16:37

Yes, fair enough, ilove - I don't put mushrooms in because the DC are unfortunately repelled by them. I do put a dash of ketchup puree and sometimes stock in - but was wondering if that made it more sloppy.

Do you cook your ragu down till it is very firm? Is your lasagna a firm shape?

tethersend Wed 19-Mar-14 15:21:01

Are you using the lasagna sheets dry or do you cook them first?

Lulabellarama Wed 19-Mar-14 15:23:22

I cook mine down. I let it simmer away for about 4 hours with no lid, though I do also add wine, so more liquid to start with.

LESuffolk Wed 19-Mar-14 15:24:24

I cook mine down until it has no spare liquid for Lasagne and Moussaka. I fine dice carrot, onion, celery and sometimes for other Ragu, I add fine chopped fennel. The fennel adds a super gorgeous flavour, especially if you want to use the sauce for fish and seafood rather than meat.

I sweat this until it is soft then add a 'worm' of Laura Santini Taste No#5 (a Umami paste). Smashed garlic goes in too, a pinch of sugar (tiny) and salt and it cooks down for another ten minutes. I then add a can of tomatoes and a carton of Passatta plus a glug of red wine. In the Summer I use fresh tomatoes if they are decent ones - not bags of red water. I cook this right down on a V V low heat- using a heavy pan helps. It'll often cook down for an hour and a half. If it looks like it is getting too thick, too soon I add more tomato passatta.

I fry off the beef in another pan with more garlic then combine the two. Continue slowly cooking down until you have a good firm meat sauce.

I sometimes add chicken livers to my meat sauce.

starfishmummy Wed 19-Mar-14 15:29:21

Two cans of tomatoes is perhaps too much liquid. One Italian chef I saw didn't use tomatoes just a can of tomato puree. Or maybe try one can of tomatoes and some puree?

FreeButtonBee Wed 19-Mar-14 15:30:00

I use passata and red wine, no tinned tomatoes. Cook until really dry. Controversial but I also don't add any onion or other veg (just garlic). So it is a dense meaty sauce, not a loose meat 'n' veg sauce.

My lasagne is awesome <smug> wink

rachyconks Wed 19-Mar-14 15:31:35

Mines the same unless I make it the day before. Then it is perfect!

FreeButtonBee Wed 19-Mar-14 15:31:56

oh also, I brown the meat until all the liquid/fat evaporates off/is reabsorbed. By draining it, you are pouring the flavour down the plughole! So at the end I am almost dry frying it. Then add big glug of red wine and that deglazes the pan.

Oh and a dash of worchestershire sauce plus one star anise in the sauce to simmer for the first hour (adds aniseed type flavour of basil without less hassle - a Heston tip, actually)

TinyTear Wed 19-Mar-14 15:35:11

I would use passata and not tinned tomatoes

CountBapula Wed 19-Mar-14 15:43:59

I soften a red onion with a clove of garlic (chopped v small - in processor) plus a grated carrot. Add mince and - v important bit - cook it very slowly on a very low heat. The mince needs to have a soft, fine texture and almost break down. If you fry it too fast, it hardens on the outside, so you end up with chewy lumps of mince floating in watery tomato juice like my mum's [boak] rather than a smooth, thick, meaty sauce.

Add dried oregano, black pepper and a beef stock cube to the mince. Then a good 2-3 tbsp tomato puree. Then passata, a good glug of red wine, a mug of boiling water and a couple of bay leaves. Simmer for a couple of hours on a low heat.

Not frying the mince too quickly is the crucial thing.

roguepixie Wed 19-Mar-14 15:45:23

My recipe (which was given to me by Italian MIL):

Heat some oil in a pan and add finely diced onion, saute, add crushed garlic. Add minced raw carrot (one large or two medium carrots will do - I chop mine in the food processor) and then add minced celery (two or three stalks depending on size). Mix together and saute for a few minutes. Add minced beef, brown. Add at least a pint of stock with tomato puree (those cirio pots are a good size). Add pancetta (a tub or some rashers that have been whizzed around the mixer to turn it to mush) - it will dissolve into mixture. Add black pepper, a little salt, two bay leaves and bring to boil. Reduce to a simmer and leave for a good 2-3 hours, stir every so often. How long you cook it for depends on how thick you want it. You can add a glass of red wine at the stock stage if you want.

It really does come out perfect every time and can be used in lasagne or as a bolognaise sauce. For those who don't like celery - you can't taste it.

drivenfromdistraction Wed 19-Mar-14 15:50:39

Lots of good tips here, thanks.

Tethers - The lasagna sheets are dry. They're gluten-free ones if that makes a difference (coeliacs in house).

FreeButton - You are right about the draining, I will stop with that. I have thought about not using veg too, but it is a good way to sneak it in for the DC's benefit...

**LES I like the fennel idea. We get it in our veg box sometimes and I can't get anyone but me to eat it if I braise it, so this would be a good way to use it up.

Can't use Worcestershire sauce (gluten) but might try passata - though isn't that just chopped tomatoes? Does it make a difference to the consistency of the ragu?

It sounds like I really need to cook off all the liquid. And possibly dice the vegetables to make them tiny, annoyingly as I'm lazy.

Think I'll have another go next week and just try leaving the lid off the pan while it cooks down and see if that helps.

drivenfromdistraction Wed 19-Mar-14 15:53:17

- v important bit - cook it very slowly on a very low heat. The mince needs to have a soft, fine texture and almost break down. If you fry it too fast, it hardens on the outside, so you end up with chewy lumps of mince floating in watery tomato juice like my mum's [boak] rather than a smooth, thick, meaty sauce.

CountBapula, if my DD wasn't too young to write, I would suspect that I am your mum. That is EXACTLY what's going wrong. I will try cooking the mince on a v low heat. I've got an AGA so don't have much control over the temperature, but will work on it.

pixie - that sounds delicious, I will try that.

DwellsUndertheSink Wed 19-Mar-14 15:56:50

You could also add an egg to the white sauce (whisk it in really quickly as it starts to cook immediately) - this then sets like a custard and when you slice your lasagne, it holds it all together.

FreeButtonBee Wed 19-Mar-14 15:58:40

Passata is sieved tomatoes. No seeds and a thick consistency. should help with the wateriness. Also if you use a stock cube, don't make it up with the full amount of water - maybe only 1/4 of it or just crumble into the mince.

I must admit that I cook my mince fairly rapidly but the point that it needs to be totally cooked our before adding anything else is the main one

ilovepowerhoop Wed 19-Mar-14 16:02:00

dh whizzes the onion, carrot and celery in his wee food processor rather than chopping finely

dashoflime Wed 19-Mar-14 16:04:34

I also think your problem is the tinned tomatoes. You need to either:

Use less tomatoes
Reduce down for longer
Switch to passata or puree

Ploom Wed 19-Mar-14 16:05:53

I base mine on a Jamie Oliver recipe.

Tbsp olive oil heated.
Fry off pancetta & 2 tsps of oregano
Add onion, garlic, red pepper, carrot (I whizz these all up in the food processor to hide veg for the kids) and fry till cooked.
Add mince and brown
Add 500ml passatta & 2 tbsps tom puree.
Season to taste & cook for 30-45 mins.

His lasagne uses creme fraiche instead of a white sauce - have had many compliments about my/his lasagne.

CountBapula Wed 19-Mar-14 16:09:28

If my DD wasn't too young to write, I would suspect that I am your mum.


Yeah, my mum cooks it in a frying pan and whacks the heat right up shock

Have you got a Le Creuset or similar? I cook mine in one of those cast-iron casserole dishes. That also really helps it to cook evenly. And yes, keeping the veg fine also helps. Food processor for that (I got a small one off Amazon for about 30 quid - it chops the onion and grates the carrot too, so it only takes a couple of minutes to prep everything).

LESuffolk Wed 19-Mar-14 16:29:29


I am happy you like the Fennel suggestion. It adds a depth and sweetness that rounds the sauce off.

RE the AGA, try using either a thick bottomed pan such as Le Creuset or cast iron or buy a heat diffuser. I have seen great results also by popping the sauce inside an Aga (again using a heavy casserole) to get the slow low heat you need.

Shimmyshimmy Wed 19-Mar-14 21:04:55

The gluten free ones need to be pre cooked, they do not behave in the same way as wheat pasta. You need to cook the lasagna slowly, mine was better the next day but I think using gluten free lasagna sheets is a bit of an art.
I always fry my mince on a very high heat - I hate boiled mince, I like to fry to a crust and then chop the mince up and fry on high again. And keep going till mince is browned and fully cooked. Clean pan - fry onion and garlic gently, it should not colour, I add wine or beluzu balsamic vinegar and a a couple of tins of tomato and some purée - we like our ragu to be heavy with tomatoes. Cook till thick, taste for seasoning, then layer with cooked gluten free pasta. I don't use a white sauce, instead I use creme fraiche and a mozzarella to top. Grate with Parmesan when cooked and let it sit for at least 15minutes before serving.

ShoeWhore Wed 19-Mar-14 21:17:46

I think you need to take the lid off smile that will give you a much thicker ragu. I think that alone might sort it consistency wise.

I think you need the heat reasonably high when browning mince tbh but then once the wet ingredients are in you need to turn the heat right down so the meat doesn't go dry.

Flavour wise I think you need to really go for it with bolognese bound for a lasagne as the white sauce is relatively bland.

I make a mean bolognese imho. wink Start by frying off some cubes of pancetta in a tiny bit of olive oil until they crisp a little and the fat starts to run. Then add finely chopped onion, carrot, celery, rosemary (ideally fresh but dried will do) and bay leaf. Soften gently for 5-10mins. Add plenty of finely chopped garlic and give it another minute. Turn heat up a bit and add the mince. Tbh the meat is better done in another (shallow) pan, in two lots if necessary so you are really getting it frying not steaming. Once meat nice and brown add to pan with veg, with 2 tins chopped toms, good squirt of tomato puree, good grinding black pepper and a glug of wine if handy. Red lentils are an undetectable and nutritious if perhaps slightly unorthodox addition. Cook over a very low heat for as long as you can.

I get much much better results with mince from the butcher. My friend swears by using half beef, half pork.

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