Make Ahead

Jen’s “Improved” Chicken Liver Ragu

December 13, 2009
2 Ratings
Photo by Ryan Dausch
  • Makes about 5 cups of sauce
Author Notes

My husband is a cocktail geek, and many of his pre-prohibition era cocktail books have recipes for “Improved” versions of various classic drinks. I’ve made a basic chicken liver ragu for years now, and while it was always satisfying, I still felt like it was lacking something. Many cool weekend afternoons and tubs of chicken livers later, I have arrived at this "Improved" version, and I have to say I’m pretty darned happy with it. The missing link, of course, was pork – a bit of pancetta to add both fat and flavor to the livers, which can be a little dry on their own. This recipe makes a lot of sauce – about 5 cups worth – but it freezes really well. For 4 servings, I generally toss 2.5 cups of the sauce with about a pound of hot cooked pasta (wide ribbons like pappardelle, tagliarelli, or fettuccine, or a chunky shape like rigatoni all work well), adding a bit of the pasta water to help the sauce cling to the noodles. —lastnightsdinner

What You'll Need
  • 1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms + 1 cup boiling hot water
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 3 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
  • 1 cup roughly chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped carrot
  • Kosher salt
  • 8 ounces chicken livers, trimmed and finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste
  • 1 ounce Italian (red/sweet) vermouth
  • 1 ounce dry red wine
  • 6 whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes (fresh or canned, about 1 cup)
  • 4 large fresh sage leaves, chiffonade (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1/2 cup cup freshly grated Parmagiano Reggiano, plus additional for serving
  1. Soak the porcini mushrooms in the hot water until softened, about 20-30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the liquid, squeezing out the excess. Strain the soaking liquid through cheesecloth or a coffee filter to remove any grit, and set the strained liquid aside.
  2. Put the onion, carrot, and softened mushrooms in the bowl of a food processor and grind until they are chopped fine – you want the texture of a very chunky paste.
  3. Heat 1.5 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until brown and crisp. Add the remaining oil and the onion/carrot/mushroom mixture, season with salt and cook until the vegetables are very soft.
  4. Add the chicken livers and cook just until they have lost their raw color, stirring occasionally. Clear a space in the bottom of the pot and add the tomato paste, allowing it to toast for a minute before stirring it through.
  5. Add the vermouth and wine and let them bubble up, and then add the reserved mushroom soaking liquid. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with your fingers, then add the sage. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes, then uncover and continue cooking for 20 to 30 minutes more, stirring occasionally and tasting to adjust the salt as needed (you’ll be adding cheese at the end, so don’t overdo it).
  6. Stir in the grated Parmagiano Reggiano off the heat and toss with your hot cooked pasta. Serve with additional grated cheese and a sprinkling of fresh chopped parsley if you like.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Rosalind Paaswell
    Rosalind Paaswell
  • panania
  • essbee
  • sevenfaces
  • Susan Joseph
    Susan Joseph

30 Reviews

Rosalind P. September 28, 2020
I know pancetta is the essence of your changed chicken liver ragu, but I can't use pork. Since pancetta is cured but not smoked, might pastrami (very fatty, succulent, cured but not smoked or cured corned beef provide some of the same flavor/texture profile?
panania May 4, 2020
It was really excellent (both my wife and I loved it), but it didn't look as nice as yours. By the time we were done, it looked like a dark marinara sauce. The flavor was awesome, but I'd really like to get that same presentation as you have. Any suggestions?
beejay45 October 16, 2015
This sounds like it is robust enough to serve over polenta* with a nice crisp salad. Love chicken livers! Thanks for this.

*spellcheck didn't like this, suggestion? "tadpole" Yikes!
Emma March 10, 2015
Thank you for this recipe!! It was delicious. My boyfriend who had never eaten liver loved it too. I'll definitely be making this again.
essbee October 22, 2014
Delicious and so simple to make.

Thank you!
sevenfaces June 12, 2014
I am in awe of how this recipe has made me crave chicken livers. SO GOOD. Half an hour total cooking time produced a very thick ragu for me, so I slung in some of the hot pasta water to loosen it up; it coated and clung to the fettuccine very nicely indeed. Yummo!
Susan J. April 13, 2014
Delicious, with ingredients on hand: bacon instead of pancetta, kumatoes instead of plum tomatoes, exotic fresh mushrooms (goldens) instead of dried porcini, marsala instead of sweet vermouth, much less cooking time, and a half recipe: good basic recipe.
Pittsburgher March 3, 2014
I wanted to love this but something was off. Coulda been the livers --Whole Foods only had frozen Bell & Evans, so I used those. Made exactly as recipe says ...Husband did love it so maybe will give it a do-over.
daisy326 November 30, 2013
THIS! OMG this was so, so good. I made it last night and it will be a challenge to not make it every week. My husband and I almost put the whole thing down last night and we're fighting over the little bit of leftovers today. This will definitely be my go-to show off dinner party meal. Thanks for the recipe!
Pat F. November 3, 2013
Is there an adequate substitute for the sweet vermouth? I am somewhat reluctant to buy what would be a lifetime supply for one dish.
[email protected] August 8, 2017
Buy the sweet vermouth, some maraschino cherries, and some bourbon, too. You can make excellence Manhattans. Cheers!

[email protected] August 8, 2017
Seriously, substitute red wine, sherry or port wine for the sweet vermouth. You'll never know the difference.
Kristin D. April 12, 2023
In addition to lee's suggestions, many places carry sweet vermouth in half-bottles (375ml - so only about 12oz or HALF a lifetime :) )
pamelalee October 28, 2013
I haven't cooked chicken livers for years...maybe decades! I want to try this, but I'm not a pancetta fan. Would bacon work or would it ruin it? Thanks!
Susan J. April 13, 2014
Bacon worked for me.
vrunka October 28, 2013
this sounds amazing! I can't wait to try this!
QueenSashy October 28, 2013
love chicken liver and this looks like a winner! congrats on the wildcard!
dulcamara July 8, 2011
Made this last week (with a couple minor variations) for my supposedly liver-averse girlfriend. She's now a convert. I can offer a 3rd-party confirmation here, this is a delicious recipe! I tossed it with fettuccine and served it alongside an arugula salad and Saveur's excellent arancine ( I'm definitely checking out your other posts, this one ends up in our "go-to file".
lastnightsdinner July 9, 2011
Thanks so much! I'm so glad this worked out for you!
dulcamara July 8, 2011
Made this last week (with a couple minor variations) for my supposedly liver-averse girlfriend. She's now a convert. I can offer a 3rd-party confirmation here, this is a delicious recipe! I tossed it with fettuccine and served it alongside an arugula salad and Saveur's excellent arancine ( I'm definitely checking out your other posts, this one ends up in our "go-to file".
Cordelia December 14, 2009
This sounds so great. I will try anything with liver. I make a lot of liver but usually not with pasta, this is one good idea that I will definitely try. I think I'll try with some duck fat (since my other half prefer me not using pork). Also I make kind of a liver ragu with caramelized onion and harissa. You should try that if you like liver. Thanks for posting!
lastnightsdinner December 14, 2009
Thanks, Cordelia! I bet duck fat would be fabulous in this (really, duck fat is fabulous in just about anything :) )
[email protected] August 8, 2017
Duck fat is what the Gods use with which to cook! It's sublime. Try frying potatoes in it. Awesome!
sue4man December 14, 2009
Jen, do you make the pasta or purchase it? I make a similar ragu and serve with saffron infused orecchiette (I add safrron to the cooking water) however the wide pasta noodles look fabulous.
lastnightsdinner December 14, 2009
Hi Sue - thanks! The pasta in the photo above is homemade. Your saffron orecchiette sounds wonderful!
Feeding G. December 13, 2009
I have made the 2007 version several times. It's one of Groom's favorites. I'm really interested to see what the pancetta does to it. I'll let you know!
Feeding G. December 13, 2009
Brilliant as usual. Can't wait to make this one!
lastnightsdinner December 13, 2009
I think the flavor and texture are better than the version I first put up on the blog in 2007, and it's really no more difficult to make - I do hope you let me know what you think :)
[email protected] August 8, 2017
Check out Marcella Hazan's recipe for Pasta with Chicken Liver Sauce. It's sublime!
Rachelle V. September 19, 2019
That is what this is only a little bit ‘improved’.