The Secret To Authentic Italian Meat Sauce Is Caramelized Pork

For most of us, when it comes time to make an Italian meat sauce to go along with our pasta, we reach for the ground beef. That's what meat sauce is, isn't it? Ground beef, some onions and garlic, tomatoes, salt, and maybe a little basil for some herbaceous freshness. We bubble that on the stove for a few minutes, and voila, we have a classic Sunday gravy. Or do we? While there are several striking differences between American-Italian and authentic Italian food, none may be more so than the secret to an authentic meat sauce. Because, over on the boot, it's not beef that's the star of the sauce. It's pork.

Pork is a staple in traditional Italian cooking. There would be no salami, no mortadella, no porchetta, no prosciutto, and certainly no ragu (or bolognese), if not for pork. The secret to getting that deep, meaty flavor is browning and caramelizing the pork to lock in that sweet, meaty flavor – and cooking all the ingredients thoroughly and in stages. But why, exactly, is pork preferred over beef? What advantage does it have in terms of flavor and what does it bring to the sauce? One word: fat.

Fatty cuts yield the best flavor

Fat is the major advantage that pork has over beef. While there are obviously fatty cuts of beef, pork offers a fattiness beef just can't match. For a ragu, you want fatty cuts like the shoulder, spare ribs, and even hot or sweet sausages. Cut them thick so the fat is able to melt in the sauce and the meat falls apart when pierced with a fork. Their fattiness, and additional spices if you're using sausage, add a rocket fuel-powered flavor boost.

Pork was also the meat of choice because beef was often too expensive for many Italians to afford. Beef became prominent in Italian-American cooking because of its affordability in the United States. Immigrant families found themselves able to purchase the types of meat that they couldn't back in Italy. Hence beef became the more popular option in the States.

It is worth noting, too, that unlike the Americanized weeknight attempts at a classic meat sauce, Italians take things much slower. The real key to a great meat sauce is to allow time for all the flavors to meld together into one savory sauce. Fail to do this, and it doesn't matter how fatty the meat is, you're sauce will not come out as rich and flavorful. So, if you're aiming to make ragu in the traditional Italian method, set aside plenty of time for the sauce to simmer, and use pork over beef. You won't be disappointed.