Most ragùs begin with il soffrìtto, a mixture of chopped aromatics sautéed over low heat for several minutes to soften them, and sometimes caramelize them. Providing a rich concentration of flavors and textures, build real satisfying ragù upon the foundation of soffritto.
Soffrìtto reflects regional cuisine and adapts to local custom. In cooler climes and mountainous areas mostly situated in northern Italy among the Alps, Dolomites, and down to the Apennine Mountains, the aromatic trio of carrot-celery-onion is standard. Especially in Emilia-Romagna, shallots can substitute for onion and inner celery stalks are preferred because they are tenderer with less fibrous strings. These stalks are white celery or il sèdano biànco.
In warmer climes from central Tuscany through all of southern Italy and the islands where sun beats down relentlessly, often carrots are not included or are reduced in quantity because they can be too sweet for hot weather. Salt provides better balance for these conditions. Therefore, add sweetness with red onion rather than yellow onion to your soffritto.
To this mixture, salumi such as prosciutto crudo, pancetta, coténna that is the rind from prosciutto crudo or pancetta, or Tuscan-style pancetta called rigatìno, is included often. It is beneficial to overall taste and texture because salumi adds a subtle depth of flavor and smoothness. Do not underestimate their importance for these simple ingredients common in Italian cuisine are fundamental to the particular recipe.
Soffrìtto: past participle of Italian soffrìggere,
meaning to fry lightly, to sauté, to brown
Soffrìtto must be slowly sautéed until a very fragrant, flavorful base is created – so do not rush. Be sure there is enough oil or butter to convey flavor and surround ingredients so they do not dry out or burn. When finished, it is not mushy due to overcooking or crunchy due to undercooking. Keep it softened in texture while retaining shape so it blends easily when adding other ingredients to the pot. Without a robust soffrìtto, ragù presents itself as lackluster and is a mere wimp of a sauce. Who wants that? In the photo, diced orange carrot, celery, yellow onion, and pancetta ready for sauteing.