This Healthy Chicken Bolognese is a lighter version of a classic. Chicken thighs are slow-cooked in a red wine and vegetable tomato sauce and tossed with aldente whole-wheat spaghetti noodles for a healthy take on a classic bolognese sauce.
My family has a serious love for red sauced-pastas. Especially my littlest, Davis. His stubborn, almost two-year-old self will sometimes decide to go on a hunger strike, but I know if I serve him up a big bowl of pasta with red sauce, I have a sure-fire way to get a little sustenance in his one-percentile body.
I, however, can’t subsist on plain red sauce and pasta both because I get bored and because you know, white-flour pasta multiple times a week does not do a 33-year-old body good.
This means I have to come up with variation upon variation of red-sauced pastas. We’re of course particularly infatuated with my Mom’s Famous Spaghetti and Meatballs, but today’s healthier take on a meat sauce, chicken bolognese is our new favorite.
This hearty red sauce is packed with carrots, celery, and onion (gotta sneak those veggies in!), shredded chicken thighs, and notes of acidic red wine. We toss everything in fiber-rich whole-wheat spaghetti noodles and top it all off with parmesan before twirling in onto forks.
Chicken bolognese is delicious, hearty, healthy, and so easy to prepare.
Let’s get started!
What is bolognese?
Bolognese is at its simplest, a meat sauce. Although unlike a simple meat ragu, bolognese is cooked with lots of veggies, most commonly, carrots, celery, and onion. It’s often cooked with ground beef and bacon or pancetta, simmered for hours in a tomato sauce, and then finished off with a hint of cream.
In our chicken bolognese, we swapped out the traditional ground beef for flavorful shredded chicken thighs, skipped the bacon, and opted out of adding cream at the end (although you are more than welcome to so).
We also cut the cooking time down dramatically from a near two-hour process, down to about 45 minutes. Similar to our short rib bolognese, I added in just a touch of cinnamon for a hint of warmth, which I just love.
Ingredients in Chicken Bolognese
Olive oil. You barely need any oil in Chicken Bolognese, just two teaspoons. You just want enough to sear the chicken thighs. Because chicken thighs usually still have a little bit of fat attached to them, it will render out enough to cook the veggies later.
Chicken thighs. Chicken breasts are notoriously dry, especially when they cooked for a longer period of time. I find that chicken thighs give the bolognese sauce more flavor, and don’t dry out. Plus, when they’re simmered over a low temperature for a long period of time, they shred beautifully.
Veggies. You’ll need carrots, celery, onion, and garlic. Veggies make up a good bit of the bulk of this chicken bolognese, so don’t leave them out.
Red wine. You can use red or white wine here. Depending on my mood, or what I have open, will be how I decide which wine to use. In this version of the recipe, I used red wine. I think it adds a bit more richness to the chicken bolognese. So if you want something a little lighter, use white wine.
Tomato paste. I almost always add a little bit of tomato paste to my red sauces. It adds a more concentrated tomato flavor and helps to thicken the sauce.
Strained tomatoes. I picked up this brand of strained tomatoes instead of my go-to crushed san Marzano tomatoes, but if you can’t find it in your local grocery store. Crushed tomatoes or tomato puree will work as well.
Sugar. You need a little bit of sugar to balance out all the acid in the red wine and the tomato sauce.
Spices. I stuck with pretty simple spices in this chicken bolognese. Dried oregano, salt, and just a hint of ground cinnamon.
Whole-wheat pasta. You could go a few different routes when it comes to pasta for chicken bolognese. In sticking with a healthy theme, I went with a whole-wheat pasta. My kids go nuts for twirling spaghetti on a fork, so that’s what I used. Rigatoni, linguine, papparadelle or penne would also work great.
How make Chicken Bolognese
Brown the chicken. The base of chicken bolognese starts by searing the chicken in just a little bit of fat. As the chicken browns, it leaves little traces of fat and flavor on the bottom of the pan which is a crucial part of the sauce.
You don’t need to worry about cooking the chicken all the way through, it will continue cooking in the sauce later.
Cook the vegetables. Once the chicken is brown, remove from the pan and set aside. Add all of the vegetables to the pan along with any accumulated fat. Cook the veggies until they’re slightly softened.
Reduce the wine. Pour in the red wine and simmer until it’s reduce by half.
Add all of the other ingredients. The next part is easy. Add all of the ingredients, bring to a boil, add the chicken back, cover and simmer for 25 minutes.
Cook the pasta. Once the sauce has simmered for 25 minutes, remove all the chicken from the sauce. Drop the pasta in salted, boiling water. While the pasta cooks, shred the chicken and then add back to the pan.
Assemble. When the pasta is aldente, use tongs to transfer it to the sauce along with about a cup of pasta water. Toss everything together. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with lots of parmesan cheese.
Can I make chicken bolognese in advance?
Yes! I would definitely make chicken bolognese in advance. If you’re worried about the pasta overcooking, you can either cook the pasta right before serving and then toss it with the warm sauce, or undercook your pasta so when you go to re-heat it later it doesn’t overcook.
Do I have to use chicken thighs?
I wouldn’t suggest using chicken breasts for this recipe. If you think you don’t like chicken thighs, chicken bolognese is the perfect recipe to give it a try again. They’re perfectly tender, flavorful and stay nice and moist during cooking.
Substitutions and Tips and Tricks for Recipe Success
- If you want the chicken bolognese to have rich finish, add in a splash of heavy cream to the sauce along with the pasta water.
- Feel free to use your favorite whole-wheat pasta.
- If you want to up the veggie factor, double the amount of carrots and celery. You should have to make any other adjustments.
- I used about 1 cup of pasta water, but you may want to use more. The consistency of the sauce is completely up to you.
- A rule of thumb you should always go by is to cook with a wine you’ll drink. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just make sure it’s drinkable.
What to serve with Chicken Bolognese
- This Chopped Tuscan Salad is SO easy to throw together because you can pick up everything at the grocery store’s salad bar.
- I’ve shared this Kale and Brussels sprout Salad so many times, but I’d be remiss to not bring it up here. It’s so easy to throw together, healthy, and completely addictive.
- If you’re looking for a warm veggie, then these Creamy Peas with Pancetta would be perfect. The buttery, crisp peas are paired with salty pancetta, shallots and super easy cream sauce.
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1/2 cup diced onion
- 1 cup diced carrot
- 1 cup diced celery
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 1 tsp kosher salt, plus more for seasoning, divided
- 1/2 cup red wine (I used a pinot noir)
- 1 tbsp. tomato paste
- 26 oz strained tomatoes or tomato puree
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp dried basil
- parmesan cheese rind
- 3/4 lb whole-wheat spaghetti
- Dutch oven or large pot
- Heat a large dutch oven over a medium heat. Add oil. Season chicken thighs genrerously with salt and pepper on both sides. Once the oil is hot, add the chicken to the pot. Sear until golden brown, flip and sear on the other side. Remove from the pan and set aside. Leave any residual fat in the pan.
- Add onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the pot. Saute over a medium heat until slightly soft and fragrant, about 3 minutes.
- Pour in red wine and use a wooden spoon to scrape up all the bits at the bottotm of the pan. Stir in tomato paste. Stir in strained tomatoes, water, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, sugar, basil, and parmesan cheese rind. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Place the chicken back in the pot, turn down to low and cover with a lid. Continue to cook for another 25 minutes.
- While the sauce cooks, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil.Season with salt. It should be as salty as sea water.
- Once the sauce has simmered for 25 minutes, drop the pasta in the water. Give it a stir.
- While the pasta cooks, remove the chicken from the pot, use two forks to shred. Add back to the pot and give it a stir.
- Once the pasta is just under aldente, use tongs to transfer the pasta to the sauce. Reserve pasta water. Add 1 cup of the pasta water to the pasta and sauce. Remove the parmesan cheese rind. Toss everything together over a low heat. Season with salt and pepper.
- Serve with shredded or grated parmesan cheese.