Simple Beef Ragu {Slow Cooker, Instant Pot, Stovetop}


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overhead image of classic beef sauce in a slow cooker with a ladle

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.

ladling a spoonful of classic beef sauce over an instant pot


  • 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.

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browning ground beef in a dutch oven
adding tomato paste to ground beef mixture

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:

  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Mushrooms
  • Eggplant
  • Zucchini 
overhead image of classic beef ragu in a slow cooker

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. 

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Simple Beef Ragu over spaghetti on a white plate
4.85 from 26 votes

Simple Beef Ragu

Few things beat the heartiness and versatility of a classic Italian meat and tomato sauce like this Simple Beef Ragu. Take the basic recipe and make it your own – add extra vegetables, fresh herbs, or some spice.
This is a great recipe to scale up. Make it for a crowd or make extra to freeze for later.
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Total: 35 minutes
Servings: 4


  • Dutch Oven, Slow Cooker, or Instant Pot


  • 1 Tablespoon Cooking Oil (olive oil works great; I use grapeseed oil or avocado oil for most everyday cooking)
  • 1 1/2 pounds Ground Beef (93% lean)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon Black Pepper
  • 4 cloves Garlic, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon Dried Basil
  • 2 teaspoons Dried Oregano
  • 1/2 cup Water
  • 1 28-ounce can Crushed Tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon 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.


This is a great recipe to double. Freeze the leftovers or use them to make Lasagna Bolognese.


Calories: 278kcal | Carbohydrates: 3g | Protein: 37g | Fat: 12g | Saturated Fat: 4g | Cholesterol: 105mg | Sodium: 406mg | Potassium: 639mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g | Vitamin A: 17IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 59mg | Iron: 5mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Author: Jess Smith via Inquiring Chef
Cost: $7.00
Calories: 278
Keyword: easy dinner, easy pasta dinner, easy recipe ideas, freezer friendly, make ahead, sauce
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About Jess Smith

Jess is the recipe creator and photographer at She spent nearly a decade as the Chief Recipe Developer for the award-winning meal planning app Cook Smarts. Her colorful, healthyish recipes have been featured in popular online publications including Parade, Hallmark, and HuffPost.

4.85 from 26 votes (26 ratings without comment)

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