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How to Make Pasta Carbonara
Choose your cheese
Any good, hard, flavorful aged cheese will do, but for the best, most traditional carbonara, try one, or a combination, of the following:
- Pecorino Romano The most traditional choice, Pecorino Romano is a very salty sheep's milk cheese with a firm, crumbly texture and a slightly sharp, buttery, nutty flavor.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano Often imitated, never duplicated, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a firm, crumbly, slightly oily cow's milk cheese known for its savory umami and rich, complex flavor.
Pick your pork
- Guanciale The most traditional choice, guanciale is a richly flavorful, salt-cured, unsmoked pork cheek. Unfortunately, it is generally the most difficult to find and likely the most expensive.
- Pancetta Often used in place of guanciale, pancetta is a seasoned and cured pork belly. While it lacks the flavor intensity of guanciale, it is still an excellent choice and generally easier to find.
- Bacon Like pancetta, American bacon comes from the belly of the pig. It is typically salt-cured and then smoked and may contain sweeter elements such as brown sugar or maple.
I received my first lesson in making pasta alla carbonara several years ago as a university student--but the lesson didn't come in the classroom.
My college had partnered with the town of Ariccia, Italy, to produce and sell Porchetta Originale, a deliciously fatty and flavorful pork product, and I was enlisted to promote it.
One football-Saturday, a team of Ariccians came to assist those of us lacking the requisite Italian charm in passing out samples of Porchetta to tailgaters.
Already fascinated with food culture and in lust with Italian cuisine, I implored the Ariccians to disclose their favorite foods from home.
"Pasta alla carbonara," one of them said definitively with a thick Italian accent. "But not what you can get here in the States. We don't use cream like you do here. The creaminess comes only from the yellow of eggs."
Aptly reading my raised eyebrows as a sign to elaborate, he said, "It's simple," and proceeded to show me with large air gestures how to whisk the cheese into the yolks, slowly temper the eggs with the pasta water, and toss the pasta in the sauce to coat. His miming was so enthusiastic and my appetite so large, it was as though we were in a kitchen with real bowls and eggs and whisks, instead of passing out toothpick-speared samples of porchetta to college football fans on the quad.
The following summer, I visited Italy.
At a small, street-side bistro in Rome I tasted my first authentic carbonara. Rich with the flavors of guanciale and Pecorino Romano, very slightly spicy, and just creamy enough to coat the pasta, it was everything I'd been promised it would be and like nothing I'd found stateside.
These days, with the prolific influence of the Batalis, the Bastianiches, and their compatriots, I imagine there are "ristoranti" in the US offering up carbonara that would get the seal of approval from the Ariccian...but searching for one takes a whole lot longer than whisking up a bowl of delicious, authentic pasta alla carbonara at home.
Note: This dish contains quasi-raw egg yolks. The yolks are "cooked" by the addition of hot pasta water and should not be a concern for most people, but if you are pregnant or your health is otherwise compromised, you may want to avoid this dish or attempt using a pasteurized egg product in place of the raw yolks, just in case.
- large pasta pot
- large bowl
- cheese grater
- chef's knife and cutting board
- skillet or saute pan
- heatproof slotted spoon
- large spoon or ladle
- 8 oz dry pasta
- 4 large egg yolks
- 4 oz hard cheese, such as Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 4 oz thinly shaved guanciale, pancetta, or bacon
- 1-3 cloves garlic, depending on preference
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Why salt the water?
Salting the water seasons the pasta itself so that the sauce isn't the only tasty article in the bowl.
Since some of the pasta water will be added to the sauce, some of the salt will end up there as well, so over-salting could be a concern.
Two teaspoons of salt in the boiling water should suffice for this dish.
Cook the pasta:
This dish comes together in about as much time as it takes to boil the pasta. While you're waiting for the water to boil and for the pasta to cook, follow the instructions in the next section to begin preparing the sauce.
- Put a large pot of well-salted water over med-high heat and bring to a rapid boil.
- Add the pasta to rapidly boiling water and boil for 8 minutes or until almost cooked through. Remove from heat, but do not strain.
While you are waiting...
- Place the egg yolks in a large bowl. Grate the cheese over the egg yolks, saving a small amount of cheese to grate over the served bowls of pasta. Whisk the cheese into the yolks and set aside.
- Dice the guanciale, pancetta, or bacon and place in a large skillet or saute pan over med-high heat to crisp and render out the fat, stirring with a heatproof rubber spatula, wooden spoon, or heatproof slotted spoon if necessary. Once crisp, remove from the heat and use a heatproof slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a small bowl, reserving the fat in the pan.
- Mince the garlic and add it to the rendered fat in the pan along with the crushed red pepper flakes and black pepper. Stir the garlic and seasonings in the still-hot pan, allowing them to infuse the fat as it cools for a minute or two.
Put it all together:
- Gradually whisk the warm (but not hot) fat into the yolk-cheese mixture. Very slowly stream one ladleful of warm pasta water into the mixture, whisking quickly as you go, to temper the eggs. Continue adding pasta water in this fashion just until your sauce is the right consistency to coat the noodles. It should be somewhat thin but still creamy.
- Strain the pasta and add it to the sauce, tossing to coat. Stir in three quarters of the crisped meat. Distribute the pasta among 2-4 serving bowls, grate the remaining cheese over the tops of each, and garnish with the remaining guanciale, pancetta, or bacon.