Dehydration Project: Bolognese Sauce

The latest batch of dehydrated food has been a good old bolognese sauce, and I thought I’d describe the cooking method and recipe here.

Beyond Spag Bog

We’ve all cooked Spag Bog in our time, that bedsit favourite made out of minced beef, tinned tomatoes and tomato puree. While this has always been a firm favourite it really bears little resemblance to the italian dish which is very subtle and deep in its taste.

The Real Thing — Italian

While in Italy this sauce may be complex there is no authentic recipe. This is something that is made in every home and everybody has their own version. Even in Bologna you would be hard pushed to find two people using the same recipe.

Most italian versions would start with the ‘holly trilogy;’ of onion, celery and carrot. This adds a floral note to the sauce (I’m beginning to sound like a TV chef here!). As I’ve said before, dehydrators loose taste and so the extra complexity of these vegetables is a good thing — the floral tastes do make it into the reconstituted meal.

Meat is more often than not fried separately, allowing it to caramlise on the outside. I’ve seen this made with ground beef and pancetta (streaky bacon) or 50/50 with ground beef and ground pork.

The sauce is the made up with wine (red or white — though I use white) and chicken stock. Tinned tomatoes seem optional but tomato puree is usually there. The trick is to not drown everything with tomato but to allow the other flavours to come through strongly.

Fresh herbs add another layer of flavour. Fresh oregano is often to found here as is thyme and bay. Some people add lots of fresh basil. Mushrooms may or may not be used. Some folks (though not all) add milk to the sauce.

All of these ingredients are traditional. I have one contemporary touch which I picked up from Heston Bluemenhal and that is to add some ground star anise to the sauce. Star anise is one of those ingredients that is strong in umami, one the basic tastes (along with sweet, sour, salt) that was only identified in 1908. Umami is particularly suited to bringing out the taste of meats. Mushrooms are also high in umami as soy sauce (monosodium glutamate) and fish sauce. I certainly think this addition does give you something extra, although Italian grandma’s (or Nonnas) would probably explode!

Whatever recipe is used the trick to a bolognese is long cooking. I would always cook mine for at least three hours. The sauce is better if it sits overnight.

Adapting for Dehydration

You can now see why this is such a complex sauce. No doubt others of you will have other suggestions and ideas as well. What I try and do is to work out which things work when the sauce is blasted by a dehydrator for 18 hours or so.

Dehydration will destroy subtlety but it will retain a certain level of complexity. So, when dehydrating.

Use carrot and celery together with onion and garlic. I sweat these in a very small amount of sunflower oil. You can simply sweat them in a small amount of water. Th trick here is to not dehydrate fat.

Don’t bother browning the meat separately. Stick to lean beef and avoid bacon and pork, which are both too fatty. I tend to ground my own mince in a foot processor, buying lean stewing steak or frying steak from the supermarket.

I think white wine adds flavour where red wine simply dominates.

Don’t bother with him made stocks (if you use them), simply use a decent cube.

Don’t be too heavy on the tomato paste. Tomato takes a long time to dehydrate.

Do add your herbs. You won’t end up with a very herby dish, but you will know that they are there. I think oregano, thyme and bay work better than basil when you are dehydrating.

I do add mushrooms , mainly because they add a nice texture to the rehydrated dish. But slice them thinly as they can also take ages to dehydrate

I still cook the sauce for my three hours.

I will often store the dehydrated sauce with pasta that has already been cooked. Simply cook as normal and dry on a separate tray. As the pasta has already been cooked it will re-hydrate very quickly. If you make your own pasta you’ll find that you can still tell it is homemade even after you have dehydrated it.

So, there’s my system. No doubt you dehydrators have you own variants. I’d love to hear about them!


  1. Hi Andy

    A great dish I made recently was a chilli con carne stew. I made a veggi chilli as usual (I use quorn mince but you can use mince meat) and added some stock to make it runnier. I then added pre cooked pearl barley and some good quality small pasta shells and boiled until the sauce had thickened before dehydrating. A good filling one pot dish.
    Qourn mince is good to use for deyhdrating as it contains very little fat and dries out well.

    • James: I often mix carbohydrate like that. Vegetable chillies work very well, as do the meat ones. I’d forgotten about this — I must get out and do some more dehydrating!

  2. Andy
    Your post has given me a boost to get dehydrating in the next couple of days. Off on a week long Northern Highland Coast to Coast in 10 days so need to get my food sorted. I think that a couple of portions of spag bol could well be in order. Do you know if it really matters if you mix the cooked spagetti with the sauce prior to dehydrating or if they should be done seperately? They will both end up in the same pan when rehydrating at camp. Have you noticed that dehydrated food always has a distinctive underlying odour no matter what the food is?

    • Doesn’t matter James. I tend to dry pasta separately because you can dry it at a lower temperature – but it will work quite happily your way,

  3. I find that tomato-based sauces dehydrate quite well. I use a Jamie Oliver recipe that is closer to a meaty ragu rather than this celery / carrot combo. The recipe uses minced beef, pancetta, onion, garlic and rosemary. The sauce is made from tinned tomatoes, tomato puree and red wine. The result is a very rich, savoury sauce that rehydrates extremely well.

  4. I make mine with Quorn mince, heavy on the garlic as I enjoy the stronger flavour. I always add my pasta to the sauce before dehydrating …

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