What is Pasta Carbonara
Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a relatively modern Roman dish made by tossing hot pasta with Guanciale, and a mixture of eggs, cheese, and black pepper. Adding the hot pasta to the mixture melts the cheese and starts to set the egg, creating a thick creamy sauce that lacquers each strand of spaghetti. The fried guanciale batons add texture and an immense amount of flavor, making Spaghetti Carbonara a dish with an incredibly good effort to taste ratio.
Although there are many origin stories, Pasta Carbonara is most likely a descendant of Pasta alla Gricia, which is made similarly, minus the eggs. Since the name is derived from the Italian word for “charcoal burner” one theory posits that the dish was first created for blue-collar workers working with charcoal. Whatever its origin, the name Carbonara didn’t appear in print until about 70 years ago, which makes this a relatively modern dish by Italian standards.
Ingredients for Carbonara
While many American interpretations of this Roman classic include all sorts of ingredients like cream, garlic, and onions, the original dish only contains five ingredients.
The most common pasta for this Carbonara is Spaghetti, but did you know that this lanky pasta comes in various thicknesses? The thickest variety is called Spaghettoni, and this is what I recommend for making Carbonara as the additional surface area gives the sauce something to cling to. Other suitable alternatives include Bucatini and Linguine.
In a traditional Carbonara recipe, the creamy sauce is made from eggs, not cream. The place where opinions differ is on the ratio of whole eggs to egg yolks. Personally, I like using 1 whole egg to 3 egg yolks. This produces a sauce that’s a stunning golden yellow hue that’s rich, without being cloying. If you want a lighter sauce, you can use 2 whole eggs and no additional yolks. At the opposite end of the spectrum, using 6 egg yolks, and no egg whites creates an ultra decadent sauce, that’s a bit too rich for my tastes.
Although you add hot pasta to the eggs, the residual heat does not fully cook the eggs, so it’s essential to use fresh eggs that you are comfortable eating raw. If you live in an area where the safety of eggs is questionable, I’d recommend looking for pasteurized eggs.
Finally, I like to top my plates of Carbonara with a slow cooked egg. These delights are made by slowly cooking eggs in their shells at 145.5 degrees Fahrenheit for about 40 minutes. The result is a custardy egg with a molten yolk that’s the consistency of cold honey.
I’ve gone on about the wonders of Guanciale in my Bucatini all’Amatriciana recipe, so I’ll save you from that here, but it’s a funky flavorful cured meat made from pork jowls. It can be a bit hard to find, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Otherwise, you can use pancetta, unsmoked speck, or some other fatty cured pork product, but you should be aware that it’s not going to taste quite the same without the Guanciale.
Because guanciale doesn’t render a ton of fat, I add a bit of olive oil to get the browning going. If you’re using pancetta or non-Italian guanciale, you may need to drain off some of the excess fat that your pork product releases before tossing in the pasta.
Pecorino Romano is the traditional choice of cheese for Carbonara, and it’s a hard cheese made of sheep’s milk that’s saltier and more intense than Parmigiano Reggiano. I love the nutty flavor and concentrated umami that Pecorino delivers, but if you can’t find it, Parmigiano will work too. If you do end up substituting a more subtle hard cheese, I recommend adding a bit more of it to make up for the milder flavor.
Because all the other ingredients in this pasta are quite rich and earthy, the black pepper acts as a counterpoint, providing both a refreshing fragrance and peppery bite that helps keep the creaminess in check. How much you add is up to you, but I like to add quite a lot into the sauce and then some more on top of each serving. You want to use freshly cracked black pepper as this will give you the best fragrance.
How to make Pasta Carbonara
With only a handful of simple ingredients, there’s not much to making this Roman classic, but there are a few things you need to get right to make this work. The first thing is that the water you boil the spaghetti in needs to be well salted. I usually add about a tablespoon of salt for every five cups of water.
Once it comes to a boil, add the pasta and stir it for the first thirty seconds or so to ensure the strands don’t stick together. You can make the sauce while the spaghetti is boiling.
For the Guanciale, I like to chop it into relatively large pieces as this allows me to fry them until they’re browned and crisp on the outside, while leaving some of the fat on the inside intact.
The sauce is simply eggs, cheese, and black pepper whisked together. The ratio of whole eggs to egg yolks will determine the richness of the sauce, so you can adjust this to suit your tastes.
When the pasta is done boiling, it’s important to drain it and toss it with the Guanciale first. This lowers the temperature of both the spaghetti and the meat so that you don’t end up with a bowl of spaghetti coated in scrambled eggs. Now you just have to toss the pasta and Guanciale together with the eggs and cheese until each strand of noodle is coated in the heavenly sauce.
guanciale (cut into 3/16-inch batons)
Pecorino Romano (grated)
black pepper (to taste)
slow cooked eggs (optional)
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil (you want about 1 tablespoon of salt per 5 cups of water).
Boil the spaghetti according to the package directions (usually 8-9 minutes).
While the pasta is boiling, saute the guanciale in the olive oil until it's browned on the outside. Remove the pan from the heat.
To make the sauce, whisk together 1 whole egg, 3 egg yolks, the grated Pecorino Romano, and black pepper in a large bowl.
When the pasta is done, drain it and toss it together with the guanciale.
Dump the pasta and guanciale into the egg sauce, and quickly toss the spaghetti together with the sauce.
Plate the pasta, and top with a slow cooked egg along with some extra Pecorino and black pepper.