Spaghetti carbonara consists of pasta coated in an egg-and-cheese-based sauce that’s enlivened with lots of black pepper and bits of cured meat, which in Italy is typically guanciale, though pancetta is particularly common in other countries.
“I think it’s immensely satisfying,” says cookbook author Giuliano Hazan, the source of the recipe I’ve adapted, as well as the son of legendary Italian food authority Marcella Hazan. The richness of the eggs, the substance of the meat and, of course, the flavor and texture of the cheese are a perfect pasta storm.
Lest you think that carbonara is not as beloved in its hometown as the legend is made out to be, let cookbook author and Eternal City resident Kristina Gill set the record straight: “They live and die by carbonara in Rome.” You’ll find it in restaurants and in homes, with perhaps as many opinions about how it should be made as places it’s eaten. “Everybody has the best carbonara, you know,” says Gill.
As Gill and co-author Katie Parla write in “Tasting Rome,” “The origins of the dish are as elusive as the perfect recipe.” There’s general agreement that carbonara first appeared in Rome in the 1950s or 1960s. An oft-repeated legend cites inspiration from the American soldiers after World War II who supposedly mixed bacon with powdered eggs and pasta. Another common theory Hazan explains has to do with the way ground black pepper resembles coal dust, “carbone” being the Italian word for coal.
Part of the beauty of carbonara (beyond its affinity with romance thanks to an appearance in Nora Ephron’s semi-autobiographical book, and movie, “Heartburn”) is its simplicity. A few ingredients put together in the right way yields a sublime result. The danger? With such minimalism, there isn’t much room to hide flaws, as I found out in testing.
To ensure you make your best carbonara just the way you like it, let’s break down the main elements and keys to success.
The pasta. It’s in the name of this recipe, so you won’t be surprised that Hazan likes carbonara made with spaghetti. Longer pasta is ideal for twirling to pick up all the sauce, he says. Other long pastas he suggests are bucatini, which is thicker than spaghetti with a hollow center, and spaghettoni, or wider spaghetti. Pass on thinner varieties such as angel hair and spaghettini (not to be confused with spaghettoni!).
Unsurprisingly, you won’t get consensus on pasta shape. Gill and Parla offer a recipe for carbonara made with rigatoni in their book. The wide, tubular pasta is often offered in Roman restaurants, Gill says, although you may have the option of choosing between it and spaghetti.
Regardless of which shape you use, aim for cooking the pasta al dente, so that there’s still a little bite left. Chef Matt Adler of Caruso’s Grocery in Washington says you can judge this by removing a piece of pasta from the water using tongs or a slotted spoon and running it under cold water (do this only for the test bite). Take a bite — you’ll feel a bit of resistance but not a lot. (Adler’s mother taught him that if it sticks to your teeth, it’s not ready.) Then take a look at the inside of the pasta. For shapes such as spaghetti or linguine, you’ll see a small dot in the center where the pasta’s not yet fully cooked, since it cooks from the outside in. You’ve reached the right level of doneness when the ratio is roughly 90 percent cooked to 10 percent uncooked, Adler says. The pasta will finish cooking as you assemble the dish.
The cheese. Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino Romano are the typical cheeses used in carbonara, Hazan says. Pecorino is a sheep’s milk cheese that is sharper and, you guessed it, from Rome. Parmigiano-Reggiano is mellower and creamier, Hazan says. While I liked a 50-50 split between the two, a slight modification from Hazan’s formula, it’s easy to tweak the ratios to suit your tastes. Use a blend or just one. Experiment and see what you like. How much cheese you use is between you and your stomach. This recipe employs 1/4 cup total for 8 ounces of pasta, which I thought was the right amount for imparting richness and silky texture to the sauce. Too little will be bland and insufficient to coat the pasta, and too much may yield either a gloppy mess or a bowl with clumps of unmelted cheese.
The most important advice: “You should get good cheese,” Gill says. It’s such a primary driver of texture and flavor that it can make or break the dish. Don’t use cheese from a canister, and don’t go for pre-shredded varieties. You’re counting on the residual heat of the pasta to melt the cheese and bring together the sauce, so the cheese must be finely grated. Large shreds or chunks won’t melt properly. You can use a rasp-style grater, such as a Microplane, or the small holes on a box grater, which is my go-to. Head to the cheese counter or your local cheese shop or Italian market. A good cheesemonger or shop will be happy to provide you with a sample.
The pork. In Italy, the meat of choice is often guanciale, which is made from pork jowls, or cheeks. Hazan says it’s richer and sweeter, and somewhat more spiced, when compared to pancetta, which is what I use here and what Hazan includes in his recipe. Pancetta, like bacon, is made from pork belly and has more meat attached than guanciale. Pancetta is often sold pre-diced or sliced in supermarkets in the States, making it easier to source than guanciale, which can be obtained at specialty markets or shops.
Want to use bacon? While it may raise eyebrows in Italy, no one’s stopping you in your own kitchen. Even Marcella Hazan suggests bacon as an option in her carbonara recipe in “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” It will bring a smokier flavor to the mix, dare I say even more of a breakfast-for-dinner vibe.
Gill says fattier guanciale results in softer bites of meat. Pancetta, like bacon, can be rendered crispier. Think about the texture you’re after and adjust your cook time accordingly. I’m all in on crispy, so I followed Hazan’s advice to cook the pancetta quickly over medium-high heat in a little butter and olive oil in a two-part process. First, it’s cooked until starting to brown. Then it’s reheated until warm and crisp, right before tossing with the pasta. Avoid using a nonstick skillet, which won’t get the meat as dark or crisp.
You can also decide how much meat you want, which is why I am offering a range here. I tested the 8 ounces of pasta made with 2 ounces of pancetta and 4 ounces, and both versions were very good.
The eggs. When I stared down my somewhat intimidating spreadsheet breaking down the elements of nine different reference recipes, this category offered the most variation. Some recipes rivaled custard or ice cream, calling for a half dozen or more yolks. I had a feeling that would be a bit rich for my tastes and, frankly, the thought of having to deal with so many excess whites was a turnoff. Gill suggests one egg per person as a good baseline to start. As a slight tweak on that concept, I liked Hazan’s balance of an equal number of whole eggs and yolks — here that’s one of each.
The whites are rich in protein, so they give the sauce body, Hazan says. The yolks bring richness and luscious texture. An excess of whites can turn things soupy or even slimy, so dropping just one from the sauce here (easy enough to toss into a batch of scrambled eggs) ensured a smooth but stable sauce.
Because the eggs are so prominent, I recommend getting the best that you can buy. Eggs from your local farmers market or farm stand would be great here, especially because they tend to have more vividly colored yolks, which will lend vibrancy to the finished sauce. If you’re concerned about undercooked eggs, pick up a brand that is pasteurized, such as Davidson’s. Hazan says it’s best to have the eggs at room temperature before you start the dish.
The pepper. A generous grind — or many grinds — of black pepper is a signature element of carbonara. Ideally, you are grinding the pepper yourself for the best flavor. Have you had the same peppercorns for years? Might be time to replace them. Remember, each ingredient needs to shine here. If you’re shopping for new spices, Gill recommends swinging by the spice shop so you can experiment with different black pepper varieties, which, as my colleague Aaron Hutcherson recently noted, can boast distinctive flavors depending on where they’re grown. Try them individually or mixed together for a custom flavor profile unique to your carbonara.
The wild cards. Like his mother, Hazan admits to including a few less traditional ingredients in his carbonara — dry white wine and parsley. The wine goes into the hot skillet after the pancetta has started to brown. It’s cooked down to concentrate the flavor so that it can add volume, brightness and acidity to the sauce. Hazan includes parsley for freshness. “I think they go really well together,” he says. After finding an early test a little one-note in terms of salty richness, I agreed that these two ingredients, while not overpowering, added just the right amount of contrast to the dish. If the thought of including them raises your hackles, feel free to leave them out.
Managing heat is one of the most crucial aspects of mastering carbonara. “You definitely don’t want pasta with scrambled egg,” Gill says. The right amount of heat will thicken and set the eggs — cook, if you will, though it can be hard to guarantee they have reached the temperature the government considers a safe threshold — without scrambling them.
There are a number of ways to ensure you are gently but efficiently heating the eggs. In Hazan’s method, “the heat of the pasta seems to be exactly the right temperature to thicken the eggs” while leaving them creamy. The freshly drained pasta goes directly into the serving bowl where you have already blended the eggs and cheese so that the sauce starts to come together as soon as it hits the hot noodles. Some recipes call for the eggs to be tempered, so that they are less likely to scramble or seize up. This can be done with pasta water, but I took another tip from Missy Robbins in “Pasta: The Spirit and Craft of Italy’s Greatest Food, with Recipes.” She uses some of the rendered pork fat to temper the egg and cheese mixture, so as soon as I pulled the pancetta off from its first trip to the burner, I removed about a tablespoon of the fat and incorporated it into that mixture in the bottom of my serving bowl. Not only does it bring up the temperature of the eggs, it also helps the cheese get a jump-start in melting so you don’t end up with unincorporated shreds after tossing.
Some cooks prefer mixing the sauce in a double boiler, or a bowl set over a pan of simmering water, which is one of the methods Gill and Parla share in their book. The duo calls the method “foolproof,” and it has the benefit of a gentler but persistent heat, even more so than the residual warmth of the pasta. This can be especially helpful when making bigger batches with larger amounts of cheese and eggs.
Hazan warns against putting the eggs directly over the heat of the stove, which is one way you can easily end up with a scrambled sauce. Gill says she has seen chefs do it in restaurants. She and Parla include a recipe variation for this method, too, in which the drained pasta is added to the pan in which you’ve cooked the meat, before putting it back over low heat while you stir in the egg and cheese mixture. It may not be the method for nervous beginners, but it’s certainly an option if you’re confident in your ability to avoid overcooking the eggs. For this method, Gill and Parla say to avoid using a nonstick skillet.
Timing goes hand in hand with heat. It may take a few tries to get into your groove — it did for me — but ideally you’ll sync up the different stages of the process so that you’re working efficiently and putting your best plate of pasta on the table. Start by getting the water boiling (it always takes longer than you think!), then get the pancetta cooking. While that’s happening, assemble the sauce ingredients in your bowl so they’re ready as soon as the pasta is done, because, as noted above, the residual heat is what brings everything together. When the pasta is almost done, slide the pancetta back onto the burner to reheat and ensure last-minute crispiness. After too often finding pancetta piled on the bottom or sides of the bowl, I decided toss the pasta with half the meat and then add the rest so that there’s still plenty on top that doesn’t get left behind.
Carbonara is one of those dishes best eaten as soon as its made so that the sauce is warm and glossy and not gloopy and cold. Bonus points if you warm your plates in the oven, assuming they’re oven-safe. It’s more hoops than I wanted to go through, but you could also choose to mix the pasta in one bowl and have a separate bowl warmed in the oven or with the pasta water you drain off to buy yourself extra time when you’re ready to serve.
If you happen to have leftovers, refrigerate them and reheat in a skillet with a little butter and/or olive oil until warmed through and slightly crisped in spots (the crispy bits are what my colleague and carbonara aficionado Olga Massov’s family fights over). “The thing is not to expect to be able to bring it back to what it was originally, because you can’t,” Hazan says. Enjoyable, yes, just not the same.
Practice. If you’re anything like me, your first carbonara may be far from perfect. Don’t beat yourself up. With practice, you’ll be cranking out better batches in even better time. Truly, the prospect of a stick-to-your-ribs bowl of pasta made with a handful of pantry and refrigerator staples that comes together in a shade over half an hour is well worth the effort. And it may soon become a family go-to, even on harried weeknights. Says Hazan, “it’s certainly an easy dinner to put together.”
- 1 large egg, at room temperature (see above)
- 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature (see above)
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino Romano
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley (optional)
- Fine salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 to 4 ounces pancetta, diced (may substitute guanciale or bacon)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons dry white wine
- 8 ounces (227 grams) dried spaghetti
Fill a large pot with about 3 quarts of water, place over high heat and bring to a boil.
While the water is coming to a boil, prepare the rest of the ingredients. Using the large, shallow bowl you’ll be serving the pasta in, combine the whole egg, egg yolk, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino Romano and parsley, if using. Season with a little salt and a generous amount of black pepper. Using a fork, whisk until thoroughly combined but not so much that you beat a lot of air into the mixture.
In a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat, combine the pancetta, olive oil and butter and cook until the pancetta begins to brown but not long enough to make it crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the wine and cook until reduced by half, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Carefully remove about 1 tablespoon of the rendered fat and add it to the egg mixture to begin to temper the sauce, quickly whisking again with the fork.
When the water comes to a boil, season with 1 tablespoon salt, add the spaghetti and stir until all the strands are submerged. Cook according to the package instructions, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente, or mostly done with just a little bit of bite left.
When the pasta is almost ready, return the skillet with the pancetta to medium-high heat. When the pasta is done, drain, reserving 1 cup of the water, and transfer it to the serving bowl, tossing vigorously with tongs or stirring with a wooden spoon until thoroughly coated with the egg mixture. Pour half of the pancetta into the bowl, toss again, and add pasta water as needed to achieve your preferred sauce consistency. Add the remaining pancetta without stirring so you have plenty visible on top. Serve immediately.
This recipe has been updated with more specific guidance on salting the pasta water.
Per serving (1 1/4 cups pasta), based on 3 and using 2 ounces carbonara
Calories: 529; Total Fat: 23 g; Saturated Fat: 9 g; Cholesterol: 153 mg; Sodium: 518 mg; Carbohydrates: 58 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 2 g; Protein: 18 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from “Giuliano Hazan’s Thirty Minute Pasta: 100 Quick and Easy Recipes,” by Giuliano Hazan (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2009).