Few things beat the heartiness and versatility of a classic Italian meat and tomato sauce like this Simple Beef Ragu. This version includes instructions for the slow cooker, Instant Pot, or stovetop. Take the basic recipe and make it your own – add extra vegetables, fresh herbs, or some spice.
Here’s how to do it!
How to Build Flavor in Ragu
Pretty much every Italian-inspired meat sauce is good, but some are decidedly better than others. Like many other combos of meat and tomatoes (chili and taco meat to name a few), ragu tastes better if it simmers for a long time and tastes even better if made a day or two ahead. Time allows the simple flavors to develop and build off each other. The slow cooker and Instant Pot both give this ragu the flavor of having simmered for a long time. If you prefer to use the stovetop, let it simmer low for about 30 minutes and consider making it up to 48 hours ahead and reheating it.
- Ground Beef – A lean ground beef (93% or more) works best in this ragu. The sauce will have great flavor, thanks to simmering or pressure cooking. Using ground beef with a higher fat content than 93% tends to make the sauce feel a bit too heavy.
- Crushed Tomatoes – Be sure to use crushed tomatoes (a puree) in this sauce. Crushed tomatoes will give the sauce substance but provide enough liquid to stand up to the long cook times.
- Garlic, Dried Basil, Dried Oregano – Use these to add savory / herbal notes to the finished sauce.
- Sugar – The addition of sugar at the end of cooking is optional, but it helps to add balance to the sauce. A bit of sweetness balances the acidity of the tomatoes.
Add Vegetables to Ragu
It’s easy to add vegetables to ragu. They add flavor and often nearly disappear into the sauce, making it an easy way to add extra nutrition. Saute the vegetables in oil until they’re starting to turn soft (5 to 7 minutes) before adding the ground beef. Here are a few ideas:
30 Dinner Challenge
This meal is a great fit for the 30 Dinner Challenge – 30 nights of dinner at home to help you save money, eat healthier, and discover inspiration in the kitchen! It’s not too late to join us in the challenge. Just share what you’re cooking and eating at home throughout January on Instagram with #30dinnerchallenge. We love seeing what you’re cooking!
Freeze This Meal
Simple Beef Ragu is a great sauce to freeze. Cook it using your preferred method and then allow it to cool completely. Store in freezer-safe bags or another freezer-safe container. Remove as much air from the container as possible to prevent freezer burn. Freeze for up to 6 months. Then just reheat and serve.
Other Italian-Inspired Meals
- One Pan Italian Turkey and Meatballs – With a similarly simple tomato sauce, this is a favorite at our house.
- Mini Italian Meatball and Orzo Soup – I call the meatballs in this soup “cheater’s meatballs” because they’re just made from Italian sausage – simple to make and add a lot of flavor.
- Italian Sausage Soup with Tortellini and Kale – This soup is a complete meal and includes tortellini which everyone always loves!
- Slow Cooker – This recipe can be made in a 4-Quart Slow Cooker or 6-Quart Slow Cooker. These are my favorites.
- Instant Pot Duo – This can also be made in a 6-quart pressure cooker like this Instant Pot. (I use this version to test all meals on this site.
- Dutch Oven – Want to make your ragu on the stovetop? A sturdy pot with a thick base will help prevent the sauce from burning even if it’s left to simmer for an extended period of time.
Simple Beef Ragu
- 1 Tbsp Cooking Oil (olive oil works great; I use grapeseed oil or avocado oil for most everyday cooking)
- 1 1/2 lbs Ground Beef (93% lean)
- 1/2 tsp Salt
- 1/4 tsp Black Pepper
- 4 cloves Garlic, chopped
- 1 Tbsp Dried Basil
- 2 tsp Dried Oregano
- 1/2 cup Water
- 1 28-oz can Crushed Tomatoes
- 1 tsp Sugar
- Heat oil in a large heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. (Note: if you are going to cook the entire sauce on the stovetop, be sure to use a pot that will hold all of the ingredients.)
- When oil is hot, add beef, salt, and pepper.
- Cook beef, breaking it apart with a spoon or spatula, until cooked through, 8 to 12 minutes.
To Cook Sauce in the Instant Pot
- Combine cooked beef, garlic, dried basil, dried oregano, water, and crushed tomatoes in the bowl of a 6-quart Instant Pot / pressure cooker.
- Stir well.
- Set pot to “sealing” and pressure cook on high for 6 minutes.
- Leave sauce to release naturally for 10 minutes and then manually release any remaining pressure.
To Cook Sauce in the Slow Cooker
- Combine cooked beef, garlic, dried basil, dried oregano, water, and crushed tomatoes in the bowl of a 4 or 6 quart slow cooker.
- Stir well.
- Slow cook on low for 4 to 6 hours. (Note: It’s best to cook this on low; many slow cookers get so hot on the “high” setting that they can cause a tomato-based sauce to burn.)
To Cook Sauce on the Stovetop
- Add garlic, dried basil, dried oregano, water, and crushed tomatoes.
- Stir well.
- Let sauce cook until it begins to bubble, 5 to 6 minutes.
- Reduce heat so that the sauce is barely simmering and give it another good stir.
- Place a lid on the pot and let it simmer gently for 30 minutes to let the flavors develop.
- Check the sauce occasionally to be sure it isn’t burning on the bottom and to reduce the heat if needed.
For All Cooking Methods
- Stir sugar into the finished sauce. Taste and season the sauce with some salt and pepper or a bit more sugar, if needed until it tastes balanced.
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