Tackling Heston’s first Perfection recipe to create the ultimate Spaghetti Bolognese.
The ultimate Heston-at-home recipes (until the actual Heston At Home recipe book is released) are those from the 2006 – 2007 BBC series In Search Of Perfection. It was brilliant food TV, in-depth studies of the origins, ingredients and techniques for modern versions of 15 classic dishes we all love. And Baked Alaska too.
I can’t keep visiting the Fat Duck forever, so my plan to keep getting fresh fixes is to cook every single Perfection dish at home, the main reason for starting this blog. All the Heston recipes from In Search of Perfection create that Fat Duck magic at home, with lots of domestic versions of techniques used in the restaurant. You have to create a makeshift vacuum chamber for Heston’s Black Forest Gateau recipe. Heston’s Perfection Chicken Tikka Masala recipe takes 3 days to cook.
Soon I’ll have a kitchen cluttered with soda siphons and pressure cookers. Heston’s Spaghetti Bolognese recipe is the perfect one to begin with – it’s the easiest of the lot. All you need is a knife and some pans.
Note: This is a very long post, nearly 3000 words, as befits a perfection recipe. I hope you know what you’re letting yourself in for.
Recipe: The recipe for this dish can be found in either Heston’s original In Search Of Perfection book, or in Total Perfection, which combines the recipes from the first and second series of the BBC TV show.
Special Equipment: None
Special Ingredients: Sherry vinegar (most large supermarkets), Rustichella-brand Spaghetti (optional) star anise, coriander seeds.
Time: 8 – 12 hours (depending on how fast you can chop)
Cost: Under £20(£25 if you need to stock up on spices)
Serves: 6 (officially, but more like 4))
STEP 1: Prepping the veg
Do you like chopping? Tough, because this recipe features lots of it. Remember when you watched Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals and wanted a Magimix because it made the chopping look so easy? I had an ache down the right side of my body the next day that made me want one even more. My knives are pretty good, as my chopping skills, but there’s loads of veg and getting through them all took over an hour.
I used to mock a uni mate of mine for putting carrot in his spag bol (though back then mine came out of a Heinz can). Heston uses quite a lot of carrot in his recipe. Who’s laughing now.
STEP 2: Prepping the meat.
This bit is even more gruelling: boning and *mincing* the “bastard” oxtail. I don’t have a mincer so this was done with a knife by hand, after two hours spent finely filleting the shreds of meat from the oxtails.Without a generous butcher (mine just laughed at the request) it’s a difficult, exhausting job. Turning a whole pork shoulder into 1cm cubes was a breeze in comparison.
Oh, for both of the first two steps you might want to have some finger-sized plasters nearby.
STEP 3: Frying the sofforito, onions and meat
I juggled a few pans here to save precious minutes lost chopping.
For the actual sofforito you’re instructed to fry “until the raw onion smell disappears”, so that’s just a matter of stirring and sniffing. Something easy at last!
The caramelised onions take a bit longer. The addition of star anise is kitchen science all Hestonthusiasts will know about. The basic formula to that science is “Fried Onions + Star Anise = Meaty Flavour Compounds”.
You can genuinely taste the benefits right away; almost every one of Heston’s recipes that calls for fried onions uses this technique. Doing this regularly could mean a lot of cash spent at the supermarket Schwartz-aisle. My advice would be to go to an Asian wholesaler where you can pick up a lifetime supply in a massive sack of the stuff.
If you haven’t got any muslin to wrap the star anise in then find something, an old pair of tights if you must. Anything to avoid the risk of biting into a chunk of woody star anise in your finished meal. This is not pleasant, especially if you’re cooking to impress someone. I promise.
For frying the cubed pork and the “bastard” minced oxtail I broke out the cast-iron pan. I luckily got one ages ago for about 1/5th the normal price, but I’m quite lazy so it usually stays in the cupboard stacked under the much lighter frying pans. It’s useful for the next bit of kitchen science in Heston’s Spaghetti Bolognese recipe: The Maillard reaction. This basic formula: “High Heat + Meat = Roasted Meat Flavours”.
To be honest though, if you’re that into Heston that you’ve ended up reading this blog then you probably don’t need me reminding you of the science).
This is best done in batches – so there’s enough room for all the ingredients to touch the bottom of the pan. It may double the cooking time for this step, but there’s no point in cutting corners when the whole point of this recipe is to go the extra mile for the ultimate result.
STEP 4: Slow cooking the meat
It’s (surprisingly) white wine you deglaze the pan with, and add it to the pot with whole milk. The final ingredient here is nothing more exciting than water. I’d have expected stock for a fuller flavour but I guess it’s not necessary. Sorry, Knorr. Then you just set the pot on the lowest possible heat for the next 6 hours. You might have better luck, but when I cooked this it smelled atrocious. The entire house reeked of rendering fat.
Warning: You do need to keep an eye on this, keeping the water topped up so the meat stays covered. Don’t do what I did, which is pop round to Duke’s to watch Frontière(s) then come home 4 hours later to find the top inch of the mixture bone-dry!
Even after 6 hours it was still a bit pale and sickly, not the rich red/brown delight I was hoping for. I started to worry I’d got the recipe badly wrong. Trust me (well, trust Heston) it will all come together at the end.
STEP 5: Prepping the tomatoes
There’s literally zero rest for you once you start the six-hour simmer. You need to get straight on with this next step.
Several steps, actually. The first being the bloody awkward business of briefly boiling and skinning the tomatoes. Fiddly and time-consuming, I hated it, but since tomato skin doesn’t break down it’s essential for the texture of the finished dish. Hey, you don’t have to do it every time you make a spag bol.
Scooping, salting and sieving the seeds is also a chore. This is our next lesson in kitchen science, and part of how Heston earned his PhD. Tomato seeds (or the pulp around them) are incredibly rich in umami compounds, this step gets the most out of them to help create a supremely rich, meaty dish. That’s an awful lot of salt there, though.
Heston talks about there being a lot of carrot in the dish, but at this point you need to add a third lot of onions along with the tomatoes. Hope you remembered them in your earlier chopping.
STEP 6: Cooking the tomatoes
Along with the onions the tomatoes will spend the next two hours in their pan, most of the time on a low heat.
Next comes the fun part: seasoning. There’s the spice bag, then all sorts of unexpected umami-rich ingredients like Tabasco, parmesan and, controversially, fish sauce. I’ve read a lot of comments from morons and thickos who claim these additions, especially traditionally Asian star anise and fish sauce, will ruin the taste or authenticity. These sorts of comments are pretty ignorant and miss the whole point of Heston’s Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese recipe. It’s not meant to be authentically Italian, it’s meant to be the ultimate, modern version of the British interpretation of the dish. And it’s allowed to use as many modern techniques and ingredients as it likes. Still, you backwards-folk are welcome to put your two-pence in the comments section.
The final part of this step did make me think twice though, pouring a massive amount of oil in to fry the tomatoes. If all that salt before didn’t worry you then this extra saturated fat should. Subway’s Meatball sandwich has got nothing on this recipe. Heston claims you can pour most of this oil off (it’s delicious with pasta). It is, but from the 50ml of oil I put in there wasn’t enough left to fill an egg cup, let alone this small beaker…
STEP 7: Putting it all together
At this point you’ll have tomatoes that have been cooked for two hours and meat that’s been on for six. After combining them, spice bags and all, you’ve still another two hours before your meal is ready. The first time I made this we didn’t eat until 1am. Though posing and lighting each stage of the process for multiple photos, from a range of angles, doesn’t speed things up.
After adding the two components together the result looks far from what you’d expect, it’s pale and thin, with a weak, insipid flavour to match. Again, trust Heston and the fat Duck development team, the next two hours will make all the difference.
Note: with only one hob going this is the best time to think about dessert. For the sake of chef continuity, and because chocolate can be the perfect thing to follow a rich, meat dish, we went with Heston’s chocolate fondant recipe. It’s relatively quick, only uses one hob and a couple of bowls, and gets cooked in the oven keeping your stove clear. There’ll be a Heston V Gordon challenge for chocolate fondant recipes soon.
STEP 8: The actual spaghetti
A good portion of the episode of In Search Of Perfection was dedicated to the sourcing of the actual spaghetti. The Italian original, Ragu a la Bologna, is served with thicker tagliatelle (Heston’s menu at Little Chef Popham features “Tag Bol”).
To keep the dish authentically British Heston still uses spaghetti for his spag bol. His preferred choice is from artisan pasta makers Rustichella. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find this in Leigh Sainsbury’s.
Now I know all Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes are a combination of history, technique and ingredients. Although techniques are what most of us associate Heston with (liquid nitrogen, 72-hour beef etc) the series makes plain that the quality of ingredients is just as important – the Longhorn cattle from the steak episode being the best example. But at £8 a plus postage a pack of Rustichella spaghetti was one ingredient I wasn’t prepared to stretch to.
If you’re making this and feel like splashing out you can find Rustichella spaghetti at Rick Stein’s website.
For the rest of us, the TV show stated that the two key elements in making the perfect pasta are shaping it through bronze dies and slow drying. Look for these details on the side of the pasta packets in the supermarket. In the UK Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Spaghetti, Tesco Finest, Asda Extra Special Linguini, plus any spaghetti from the Jamie Oliver range, all fit the bill. Let me know if you find any others.
The cooking process is the one mentioned before by Heston recipes featured in the Guardian and Times, as well as Heston’s Family Food recipe book. You’re meant to lift the pasta out of the water to stop it getting starchy, but you should pour away most of that water first to make life easier and avoid my slapstick performance with cooking tongs. Then slather it in oil and butter to stop it sticking together.
You can do all this while the finished sauce is off the heat and infusing in step 9.
STEP 9: Finishing Touches
After 2 hours of slow simmering that pale, thin sauce we left in step 7 will have reduced the a magnificently thick, richly flavoured consistency. But there’s a few final things to add. The bouquet garni, parmesan cheese, Sherry vinegar and, since this is a Heston recipe, lots of butter.
When we cooked Heston’s Christmas Dinner recipes (in a Heston V Gordon challenge) it was shocking how much butter went into the meal. This recipe asks for a slightly less alarming 100g of the stuff to be stirred in at the end.
Anyone who’s seen Heston’s other perfection recipes will be familiar with adding butter to finish. The Perfection Bangers and Mash recipe is covered in gelled butter at the end, Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka recipe has a cashew nut butter added to finish and for Blumenthal’s Perfect Roast Chicken you inject melted, chicken-infused butter into the cooked bird.
For Heston’s steak recipe? Blue cheese butter. His perfect chilli con carne? A Bloody Mary butter (or rich spiced butter if you go with the Waitrose recipe). Even his Baked Alaska recipe contains a spongecake that’s fried in butter before being incorporated into the final dish. Basically, if you’re a Heston fan you need to like butter.
The 2011 edition of the Good Food Guide suggests some of the Fat Duck’s dishes are starting to be excessively rich. When you read recipes like this you can see how that’s happened. Can chefs become immune to butter over time?
STEP 10: The Finished Dish
Assembly of the dish isn’t tricky as long as you’re careful. For the best presentation you’ll need a small knife or some scissors to snip away the stray ends of spaghetti. Disposing of these tiny strands will be particularly galling if you paid extra for the Rustichella stuff.
It is worth trying to get the presentation right if you can though – after all the love and care you’ve shown this dish in the ten or so hours it takes to cook you might as well put the last little bit of effort in. Make it a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
And try to be a bit neater than I was.
Heston’s Perfect spaghetti bolognese is exactly that: perfect. This recipe features every element, every flavour and every texture you’d expect from the dish, magnified and intensified. It’s a rich, meaty, unctuous dish whose multiple stages give it an incredible complexity and depth of flavour.
With it’s choice cuts of meat, seasonings and tomato-treatments, savoury umaminess reigns supreme. An object lesson in how unexpected ingredients can bring out the key elements of a dish. I copied a lot of this when trying to replicate the Shepherd’s Pie on Steroids recipe from the British Airways episode of Heston’s Mission Impossible.
And after all this rich meat the decadent, dark chocolate fondant was a perfect dessert.
If you only ever cook one of Heston’s Perfection recipes all the way through then make it this one. If nothing else, this “simple” pasta dish illustrates the best aspect of Heston’s approach to cooking: his ability to identify just what aspects are key to a particular dish and accentuate them. This is spag bol dialled up to 11.
I’d happily make this again, and the only changes I’d make for efficiency and health are:
1. Replace the oxtail with shin or cheek. Nearly as flavoursome, easier to handle.
2. Use tinned tomatoes. It’s cheating, but the tomatoes phase is a massive chore.
3. Less oil for frying the tomatoes. I didn’t use up all the (meagre) leftovers.
4. Omit the finishing butter. Tried without it & didn’t miss the richness. Plus, I care about my arteries.
5. Make twice as much, and freeze the rest. After all this work, why not enjoy more another day.
I’d still include every one of the herbs and spices though. Their inclusion, plus the slow cooking seem to be what give the dish it’s real depth of flavour and complexity. And along with the rich meatiness those were the stand-out features for me.
If you’re interested in this recipe make sure you check out the following:
Kok Robin: The must-read definitive guide to cooking this dish. Brilliant writing and photography.
Cairmen: A dedicated and detailed account of cooking the spag bol recipe. Worth reading.
Roast Potato: One of the internet’s top Heston fans (and outstanding UK blogger) cooks the dish.
Just Hungry: A concise and engaging take on the recipe, with an alternative version worth trying.
The Suburban Farmer: A great take on a simplified version of Heston’s recipe from an excellent blogger.
Heston’s Bolognese Sauce recipe: Alternate recipe from The Times still takes 8 hours, but it’s much easier to make.
Rurbanism – Another fast-track version of Heston;s Perfection recipe
If you liked this post, have tried the recipe yourself, or have an opinion on going to all this trouble for a humble spag bol then please leave a comment.