This slow-cooked lamb ragu has an incredible flavor and rich sauce from simmering luxuriously tender lamb, tomato, red wine, and herbs. It's a show-stopping recipe, fit for a Sunday supper or date night, and perfect for serving with delicate ribbons of pasta.
I first fell in love with saucy, meaty ragus when visiting Florence, Italy. There, I enjoyed many delicious dishes, from ribollita to pistachio gelato to cold fermented pizza dough. The most memorable dish, though, was pici al cinghiale, or pici pasta with Tuscan boar ragu.
The sauce was thick, robust, and meaty, with a subtle earthiness from a sprig of rosemary. From then on, I vowed to create a ragu with just as complex of a flavor, and while boar is not easily accessible around here, lamb indeed is. After several tests, I'm excited to share this delicious lamb ragu sauce with you!
Why You'll Love This Recipe
😋 It's so good. The savory notes of pancetta beautifully complement the tender, melt-in-your-mouth lamb shoulder, the tangy-sweet tomato sauce, and a subtle hint of spicy Calabrian chilies.
📝 It's well-tested. Ragu's aren't an everyday affair, and if you're going the extra mile to procure top-quality meat and dedicate a couple of hours to the kitchen, you'll want it to be worth every minute. Rest assured, I've painstakingly perfected this dish to ensure it's not just good but incredibly delicious.
💪 It's 100% doable. Having taught meat sauces in virtual and in-person cooking workshops, I've included the essential tips necessary for home cooks to succeed and master this recipe!
Lamb Sugo vs. Ragu
At Italian restaurants, I've found certain meat dishes to be called 'sugos' and others 'ragus'. Curious to determine whether my own recipe was a lamb sugo or a lamb ragu, I came across some interesting research:
- A ragu usually refers to an Italian meat sauce cooked with tomatoes and aromatics.
- Sugo derives from the word "succo", meaning juices, and often refers to the drippings leftover from cooking a large piece of meat. According to the blog Kitchen Encounters, a sugo is typically not as thick or complex as a ragu.
- That said, some of the differences are entirely regional. For example, in Florence, what we think of a ragu is actually labeled "sugo."
Based on this information, I landed on classifying this dish as a ragu, but the complexity of the etymology is nevertheless quite fascinating!
Boneless Lamb Shoulder: Compared to a leg of lamb, lamb shoulder has a higher fat content, yielding a juicier texture. You'll want to trim off any excess fat, especially the thicker fat cap, but you can ask your butcher for help with this as well!
Calabrian Chili Paste: Calabrian chili paste offers a fruity, spicy heat, but ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes can also be used in a pinch. I like to use the paste in all sorts of Italian recipes, from my spicy Calabrian chili pasta to spicy vodka rigatoni.
Fresh Herbs: Fresh rosemary adds a nice, earthy flavor to this ragu, but I've experimented with other herbs like a bay leaf or sprig of fresh thyme as well.
Red Wine: Make sure to go with a dry red wine, like a Merlot, Malbec, or Pinot Noir.
Tomato Passata: Tomato passata, or tomato purée, forms the base of the sauce. I love using a homemade sauce when tomatoes are aplenty and store-bought versions in the winter. Mutti is my go-to brand.
For a full list of ingredients and quantities, refer to the recipe card.
Pasta is my go-to pairing with this sauce, but it works wonderfully with creamy mascarpone polenta or crusty bread, too!
Use your favorite pasta of choice here! I personally love using a longer pasta shape, like mafaldine or pappardelle pasta, but if you're up for a project, you could go with a homemade tagliatelle or ricotta gnocchi as well.
Topping: This ragu is plenty delicious on its own, but I like to top it with a dollop of lemony ricotta. Simply mix ½ cup whole milk ricotta cheese with the zest of a lemon, and season with salt and pepper.
How to Make Lamb Ragu
Step 1 - Crisp the pancetta: Set a large dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil and pancetta, and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and crispy. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper towel lined plate (Image 1).
Step 2 - Sear the lamb: Increase the flame to medium-high heat, and add the lamb in a single, even layer. Sear until *very* nicely browned (Image 2), then sear on the other side. Remove the from the pan onto a plate and set aside.
Step 3 - Cook the aromatics: Saute the onions, carrots, celery, and garlic until softened, and season with a pinch of salt and black pepper (Image 3).
Step 4 - Deglaze with wine: Add the Calabrian chili paste, tomato paste, and rosemary. Saute for a couple of minutes until the tomato paste caramelizes nicely. Deglaze with a splash of red wine, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon (Image 4).
Step 5 - Add the liquids and meat: Add the browned lamb with its juices, the pancetta, passata, water, a pinch of salt, and brown sugar (Image 5), and bring to a boil.
Step 6 - Stew: Cover and simmer for 1 hour at a gentle, constant bubble over low heat. Uncover and simmer for about an hour until the meat is tender (Image 6).
Step 7 - Shred the meat: Allow the sauce to cool slightly, then shred the meat with two forks or your hands (Image 7). Discard the rosemary sprig.
Step 8 - Serve: If serving with pasta, I recommend bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil while the sauce is cooling. Cook pasta until al dente, then toss in the ragu with a bit of pasta water until it clings nicely to the sauce (Image 8). Serve hot, and enjoy!
To achieve that "all-day-slow-cooked-flavor", resist the urge to constantly stir the pot. Allowing the ingredients to brown and caramelize is essential for the Maillard reaction, which builds a complex flavor profile.
Constantly turning the lamb or stirring the tomato paste prevents this crucial process, and this is the number one mistake I've noticed in my cooking workshops with home cooks.
Instead, step away for a few minutes and let the ingredients work their magic. This simple act of patience allows some of the best flavors to develop naturally, ensuring your dish reaches its full potential.
I like to cover the pot for the first hour, so that the lamb has time to tenderize and soften without drying out. I finish by simmering uncovered to help reduce the sauce.
When simmering uncovered, ensure the meat is nicely coated in the sauce to prevent it from drying out. If you find the meat is drying out, or the sauce is reducing too quickly, you can cover the pot again.
Leftover ragu can be stored in an airtight container for 3 - 4 days in the fridge. The flavors will continue to develop over the next day, so you can easily make it a day in advance and reheat it just before serving.
Best Slow-Braised Lamb Ragu
For the ragu:
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 ounces thick-cut pancetta, diced into ½-inch cubes
- 1 ½ pounds lamb shoulder, trimmed of excess fat (especially the fat cap) to 18 ounces | cut into 2 or 3-inch pieces
- Salt and black pepper
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 1 medium carrot, finely diced
- 1 stalk celery, finely diced
- 6 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 ½ teaspoons Calabrian chili paste, or ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 1 cup tomato passata, freshly pureed or store-bought
- 1 cup water
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
For lamb ragu pasta (optional):
- 12 ounces dried pasta, such as pappardelle, mafaldine, or cavatelli
- ½ cup whole-milk ricotta cheese, homemade or store-bought
- Zest from 1 lemon
- Salt and black pepper
- ¼ cup finely minced parsley
For the lamb ragu:
- Crisp the pancetta: To a large dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, add olive oil. Set over medium heat, and saute pancetta for 4 - 5 minutes until crispy. Remove from the heat, and transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Set aside.2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 4 ounces thick-cut pancetta
- Sear the lamb: Season lamb with a generous pinch of salt and black pepper on all sides. Increase the heat to medium-high, and arrange meat in a single layer. Sear on the first side until nicely browned, about 5 - 6 minutes. Flip and sear the other side until browned, about 3 minutes. Remove the lamb from the pan and transfer to a plate. Note: You may need to do this in 2 batches. Do not overcrowd, which can prevent proper searing.1 ½ pounds lamb shoulder, Salt and black pepper
- Cook aromatics: In the same pan, saute the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic until soft and lightly browned, about 8 - 10 minutes, over medium heat. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.Note: Reduce the heat if the aromatics are browning too quickly, or add a splash of water to help deglaze the pan.1 medium onion, 1 medium carrot, 1 stalk celery, 6 cloves garlic
- Add the pastes: Stir in the Calabrian chili paste, tomato paste, and rosemary. Saute for an additional 3 - 4 minutes until the paste caramelizes, transforming from bright red to brick red, and begins sticking to the sides of the pan.1 ½ teaspoons Calabrian chili paste, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- Deglaze: Increase the heat to medium high and add the wine. Cook for 3 - 4 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half and the alcohol smell dissipates.1 cup dry red wine
- Simmer: Stir in the reserved lamb, pancetta, tomato passata, water, a pinch of salt, and brown sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, at a gentle, constant bubble for 1 hour. Uncover and simmer for an additional 45 minutes - 1 hour and 15 minutes until the lamb is completely tender. Note: When simmering uncovered, ensure the lamb is completely submerged in sauce to prevent drying out.1 cup tomato passata, 2 teaspoons brown sugar, 1 cup water
- Shred the meat: Cool slightly, then remove and discard the herb sprigs, and shred the lamb with a fork or your hands. Season once more with additional salt and pepper as needed.
- Serve: Serve hot, alongside crusty bread, polenta, or pasta (recipe below).
For the lamb ragu pasta (optional):
- Cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta, and cook until just before al dente. Drain and reserve 1 cup pasta water.12 ounces dried pasta
- Make the lemony ricotta: In a small bowl, combine ricotta and lemon zest, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.½ cup whole-milk ricotta cheese, Zest from 1 lemon, Salt and black pepper
- Finish cooking: Transfer the pasta to the ragu and toss to combine. Cook over medium-low heat for about 1 - 2 minutes, until the sauce clings to the pasta, adding any pasta water as necessary to loosen the sauce.Divide amongst serving bowls, top with a dollop of ricotta and a garnish of parsley, and enjoy!¼ cup finely minced parsley