Mention the word “ragu,” and a rich, meaty, tomato-laced sauce typically comes to mind. But sauces containing tomato are a relatively recent addition to the Italian culinary repertoire, not appearing until the early 1800s. Long before then, ragu bianco (a simple, not-too-saucy mixture of any number of chopped or shredded meats, aromatics, and often white wine—but never tomato) was on the menu.
Ragu bianco started out as fare for nobility. Beef, pork, or game was stewed, and the deeply savory cooking liquid was used to dress pasta as one course. Meanwhile, the meat was carved and arranged on a platter for a subsequent course. Eventually, this style of eating was copied by the gentry, who used smaller, less expensive cuts. By the late 17th century, the practice had trickled down to commoners, who ultimately combined the meat and pasta into one dish.
Ragu bianco is still prevalent in Italy, and the sky's the limit in terms of how it can be flavored. I was eager to develop my own version after enjoying a stunning example at Maialino, a restaurant in New York City, featuring large shreds of meltingly tender braised pork punctuated by tart lemon, licorice-y fennel, and salty Pecorino Romano cheese. When tossed with pasta, the sauce formed an incredibly fresh-tasting and satisfying dish.
Almost all ragus, whether red or white, start with a soffritto—a sautéed mixture that typically includes finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery and sometimes meat. I kept the onion but ditched the carrot and celery since I planned on using a large fennel bulb. The fennel would offer an herbaceous sweetness instead of the earthy, mineral-y flavors of carrot and celery.
I softened my soffritto in a Dutch oven with a little olive oil and then added fresh thyme and garlic, stirring until the heady scents of the aromatics were released. Instead of loosening the fond with the usual white wine, I deglazed with lemon juice and water.
Next, I nestled a 1½-pound boneless pork butt roast—a deeply marbled, relatively inexpensive cut from the upper part of the pig's shoulder that we often use in pork braises—into the soffritto. I transferred the pot to a 300-degree oven, where the pork would spend more than an hour in the 140- to 190-degree zone. In that temperature range, collagen breaks down more rapidly than it does at lower temperatures, turns to gelatin, and enhances tenderness, but the muscle protein doesn't overcook.
Sure enough, about 2 hours later, the meat was supple and fork-tender. I removed the roast from the pot, let it cool a bit, and tried to shred it with two forks. That turned out to be quite a chore with such a large piece of meat, but I ignored that problem for the moment and tossed the sauce with pappardelle—wide egg noodles that would pair well with the chunky ragu—along with a bit of the pasta cooking water and a few handfuls of grated Pecorino Romano.
The large bites of pork were perfect, but the rest of the dish was far from it, with a dry texture and little to no lemon flavor. In the frank words of a colleague, I'd served up “the pork version of a bad tuna casserole.”
I gave it another go, this time halving the pork butt crosswise before braising, expecting that the shorter fibers would be easier to shred.
Fixing the wan flavor required a multipronged approach. I wanted to develop more meatiness since the pork wasn't browning much in the oven. I considered searing it on the stovetop before braising, but a simpler solution came to mind: Adding a little cured pork to my soffritto would quickly provide tons of flavor without my having to sear the pork butt.
I diced a couple of ounces of pancetta and simmered it in ⅔ cup of water to draw out its fat and juices. When the water evaporated, the meat started to sizzle in a layer of meaty pork fat that had collected on the bottom of the pot. I sautéed the vegetables and aromatics in the fat and deglazed with just water, holding back the lemon juice until later so its delicate notes wouldn't be obliterated by the long braise.
To get color on the pork without any extra work, I turned up the oven to 350 degrees. Since most of the meat sat above the cooking liquid, I hoped that it would brown at this higher temperature. Indeed, the pork was tawny, tender, and juicy after just 1½ hours. What's more, increasing the temperature had caused the braising liquid to bubble and splatter onto the sides of the Dutch oven, forming a second layer of fond (see “Double the Fond, Double the Flavor”). I pulled the pork out of the pot to rest, put the lid on for a few minutes to let the steam loosen the fond, and then scraped the savory bits from the sides of the pot into the braising liquid.
To finish the sauce, I stirred in not only the tart juice of two lemons but also some of their floral zest. I then shredded the pork—it was indeed easier with two smaller roasts—and returned it to the pot. When I tossed the ragu with the pappardelle, I incorporated a little extra pasta cooking water. The intensified meatiness and citrusy complexity were just right, as were the tender shreds of meat. But the ragu now lacked body.
What was missing? How about butter? Whisking in a few tablespoons gives a pan sauce body, but with chunks of pork in the pot, the butter was difficult to whisk in and the sauce didn't emulsify properly. A colleague suggested trying cream instead. I put together another batch, adding just ⅓ cup of heavy cream to the pot along with ¾ cup of pasta cooking water. What a difference! The pappardelle was now coated with a cohesive, velvety sauce.
In fact, the cream was so stable that I found I could add it to the ragu at the beginning of cooking and get the same results—a boon since it had been cooling down the ragu a bit when added just before serving.
I stirred in plenty of Pecorino before garnishing the dish with the chopped fennel fronds. Here was a lively, luxurious ragu bianco—fit for royalty.
You already know ragu rosso, the king of ragu sauces. But perhaps you haven't met the queen: ragu bianco, which, in our version, trades the tomato for lemon and cream.