What Is Ragù Sauce?

Ann Casano
Ann Casano
Spaghetti with ragu sauce.
Spaghetti with ragu sauce.

A ragù sauce is an Italian-style sauce made from meat and vegetables, and is typically used on top of pasta. There are a couple of different classical recipes — the Italian Culinary Institute has identified 14 “official” varieties — but the basic concept is simple, giving cooks a lot of room to innovate and improvise. Sauces are typically thick and always contain meat. What sort of meat and any other vegetable additions are usually variable. Certain regions in Italy have traditional sauces with certain ingredients, and many families have their own recipes that have been passed on from generation to generation. In the United States, a commercial brand of bottled spaghetti sauce carries the name Ragú®, and is one of the best-selling prepared sauces in that country.

Basic Concept

Kidney beans, which are sometimes included in ragu sauce.
Kidney beans, which are sometimes included in ragu sauce.

The core composition of this sort of sauce is pretty simple. Most start with meat, either ground or in small chunks; the meat is browned and gently sautéed, often with aromatic vegetables like onion and garlic. Tomato paste and whole tomatoes are frequently added next, but usually only sparingly; in most cases meat is the primary ingredient. A wide variety of other vegetables can be added, too, usually diced or finely chopped. The sauce is typically left to slowly simmer for several hours. This allows the flavors to blend and gives the dish a chance to thicken. Milk may also be added in the later stages of cooking to give the sauce a creamy texture.

Ragù sauce originated in Bologna, Italy.
Ragù sauce originated in Bologna, Italy.

There are a couple of uses for ragù sauce, but it’s almost always paired with pasta. It can be poured atop spaghetti or linguini noodles, and is also frequently used as a filling for meat lasagnas. It’s usually a bit too thick for pizza sauce, but make an interesting addition to calzones, a type of baked filled bread.


The word ragù is derived from the French word ragout, which translates to stew. The French verb ragouter literally means to stimulate the appetite. Legend has it that the French-educated Napoleon brought the concept to Italy, and that it took off during his conquests. The origin of modern ragù sauce can be traced back to Bologna, which is often thought of as the culinary capital of Italy. The traditional “Bolognese style” sauce remains one of the most popular.

Recognized Varieties

Bolognese style ragù is one of several “official” varieties recognized by the Italian Culinary Institute, the country’s leading authority on regional cuisines and cooking techniques. It is typically made with ground beef. Neapolitan ragù, from Naples, and ragù alla Barese is another variation, and is often made with horsemeat.

Possibility for Innovation

Cooks from all over the world have invented their own versions of ragù sauce. Almost any meat can be used, including lamb, fish, pork, or veal; sausage is also a common addition. To add spice to the sauce, red chillies, bell peppers and cumin can be added. There are recipes that also include the addition of kidney beans, Worcester sauce and tarragon.

The key to a true ragù is usually the dominance of meats. In some variations, the meat is actually removed from the sauce once it’s done simmering, and may be served as a separate dish.

As a Commercial Brand

In 1937, Unilever Corporation launched a jarred Italian sauce named Ragú® in the United States. It was America's first national pasta sauce. Ragú® sauces have become the some of the best selling pasta sauces in the United States. Their line of sauces come in 30 different varieties including cheesy, chunky, organic and light. In recent times, Ragú® also boasts that their product contains no additives or preservatives and is all natural.

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    • Spaghetti with ragu sauce.
      By: teine
      Spaghetti with ragu sauce.
    • Kidney beans, which are sometimes included in ragu sauce.
      By: Schlierner
      Kidney beans, which are sometimes included in ragu sauce.
    • Ragù sauce originated in Bologna, Italy.
      By: claudiozacc
      Ragù sauce originated in Bologna, Italy.