If you’re wondering how to make carbonara, this post has you covered. Or, if you’re looking for a clean-out-your-fridge recipe but also want a decadent meal, then keep reading. With only just a few ingredients, that are likely already in your pantry, this authentic Italian dish will turn heads on its way to the dinner table — making you exactly what you are, the winner of dinner.
If you know me, you know I’ve always been a proponent of whatever you can eat, you can make yourself. From hummus, bread, to homemade stock. I find comfort in knowing what I’m about to eat, was made by me. And, one of my favorite dishes to make (and eat!)? Carbonara. The pancetta, the pasta, the sauce, the touch of black pepper – everything about it is perfection.
So when Brianna Bond, a writer and chef-owner of The Wholesome Kitchen, a personal chef business based in Chicago, told me she had a killer carbonara recipe, I had to ask her to share it with all of you. She’s cooked in Rome for a year and is an avowed Italophile. Brianna leads annual food tours through Italy and writes a weekly column about seasonal, mostly Italian cooking on her blog. Who better to tell us how to make carbonara and exactly what it is?
What is carbonara?
Carbonara is a member of the Roman holy trinity of pasta dishes. It stands alongside cacio e pepe and amatriciana as the essential canon epitomizing the Roman pasta tradition. No trip to Rome is complete without enjoying a plate of this beautiful pasta, whose signature shiny gloss is the product of eggs amalgamated with pasta water and a touch of pork fat. I like to think of it as the Italian’s version of eggs and bacon, only much more delicious. With a little practice, you can readily recreate this classic comfort dish at home.
Pasta: Carbonara is always made with dried pasta. Spaghetti or spaghettone are classic in Rome. I also like carbonara made with rigatoni, whose tubular shape and ridged surface are particularly effective at capturing the unctuous sauce and crispy pieces of guanciale.
Guanciale: Guanciale is cured pork jowl. It can be tricky to find, although most Italian specialty markets sell it. Pancetta makes a fine substitute, and bacon will do in a pinch. Try to purchase a whole piece so you can dice it to your preferred size.
Eggs: Some recipes suggest using only yolks while others recommend using whole eggs. I prefer the richness of pure egg yolks, but I’m a hedonist at heart.
Cheese: Pecorino romano is a sharp, aged sheep’s milk cheese that’s omnipresent in Roman cooking. It is quite salty. In this recipe, I add Parmesan in almost equal measure to tame some of the pecorino’s salinity. I tend to under-season my pasta water slightly to account for the saltiness from the cheese and guanciale.
Black pepper: Please, I beg of you, use freshly cracked black pepper from a pepper mill. It’s one of the most important elements to this dish, and pre-ground pepper just will not do.
Method: The trick to carbonara is to heat the eggs enough to create that beautiful silken texture without overheating and scrambling the eggs. You can finish the pasta either in a sauté pan or in a bowl using a double-boiler. I’ve made it both ways, but I prefer the double-boiler method, which I learned from Sarah Grueneberg at Monteverde. This helps you control the heat and ensure the eggs don’t overcook. If this is too fussy for you, use a stainless steel or non-stick sauté pan, but turn off the heat just before adding the eggs so they don’t scramble.
- 4 pasteurized eggs yolks
- 130 g/roughly 4 oz (1/2 C) guanciale, or pancetta, diced
- 20 g/3T pecorino romano, grated
- 30 g/¼ C Parmesan, grated
- 1 t freshly cracked pepper
- 300g dried pasta, such as spaghetti or spaghettone
- Kosher salt, to taste
Set a large pot of water on the stove to boil.
In a medium-sized stainless-steel bowl, whip the egg yolks with several good grinds of black pepper until well incorporated. The base of the bowl should be wide enough to sit on top of the pasta pot as a make-shift double boiler.
In a cold, 8-inch sauté pan, add the guanciale/pancetta and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Over medium-low heat, render the guanciale/pancetta until crisped on the outside and tender inside, about 7-10 minutes, stirring periodically to evenly color and crisp the guanciale/pancetta. Strain the guanciale/pancetta and set the liquid fat to the side.
Once the water has come up to a boil, add a couple of tablespoons of salt to the water and drop the pasta into the water. Gently jostle the pasta with tongs or a carving fork to separate the individual noodles and prevent them from sticking together. Cook the pasta to al dente.
As the pasta finishes cooking, temper the egg yolks by whisking in 1 tablespoon of the rendered guanciale or pancetta fat and 3 tablespoons of pasta water.
Strain the pasta by scooping it out with tongs into the bowl. Keep the heat on the pasta pot and place the bowl over the pasta pot. You do not want the bowl to touch the water, so pour out a little water if need be. Add a ½ ladle of pasta water and whisk vigorously with tongs or a carving fork. This strong-motion coupled with the heat from the pasta pot will catalyst the formation of the silky smooth sauce.
At this point, the sauce should be somewhat loose, almost soupy. If needed, add another kiss of pasta water to thin it out. Now add the guanciale and cheeses and whisk vigorously again to incorporate the cheese, which will tighten up the sauce and give you the perfect texture. Adjust with more pasta water as needed.
If you’re using a long noodle, twirl the pasta around the tongs to plate in one tall, attractive pile. Garnish with a touch of pecorino and black pepper. Serve immediately; pasta waits for no one.