Italy Week

The Key to Making Killer Carbonara Without a Recipe

April  6, 2016

Like most good things, carbonara is simple but requires la practica, which I don't say to be off-putting—simply honest. Having written this, you will now of course go off and make the perfect carbonara on your first attempt and wonder what on Earth I was going on about. Good for you.

Photo by Rachel Alice Roddy

The goal for carbonara is one in which the cured pork and its fat, plus beaten eggs, grated cheese, and a hearty slosh of starchy pasta cooking water come together to form a soft yellow cream on the strands of spaghetti or rigatoni.

The way to get there is to understand what happens and when: that if you put drained pasta into a pan with hot pork fat at the right moment, add beaten eggs and grated cheese and enough pasta cooking water, then pull the hot pan from the heat and stir purposefully, you should get a creamy sauce that clings to each tube.

Photo by Rachel Alice Roddy

Having understood this, you'll also understand the need for practice. It can't possibly be any other way. Through practice, you will notice how the cured pork renders and how much fat there is, which will, of course, be different for every piece of pork and stove. Practice will help you find the best arrangement of frying pan, pasta pan, and vessel (cup) for the reserved cooking water so as to make the sequence as easy as possible.

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But most of all, practice helps you become familiar with the sequence of movements. Here's what I have been taught here in Rome (where there are, of course, as many recipes and secrets as there are Carbonara cooks). Think of it as a template to try, practice, and make your own. Read this carefully before you start.

Photo by Rachel Alice Roddy

Frying the pork while boiling the pasta

First, cut 150 grams cured pork into short, thick strips. In Rome, Guanciale (cured pigs cheek) is traditionally used for Carbonara: Purists claim it is indispensable. That said, quite a few Romans I know prefer pancetta. If you can't find either, bacon works, too.

Photo by Rachel Alice Roddy

Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil. Fry pork in a little olive oil until the fat renders and the pieces are golden. Remove the pan from the heat.

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Top Comment:
“If you've ever poured your pasta water down the sink, you've probably noticed that it wasn't any thicker than any other water. That's because there's not enough starch in it to make a significant difference. Adding to this the fact that it tends to contain more or less random amounts of salt, it's use as a cooking ingredient, while having a certain circular charm, is really not that advisable.”
— Smaug

Now, salt the boiling water, stir, add 450 grams pasta, and cook until al dente, which means to the tooth— so firm. Check the pasta packet and start tasting at least two minutes before the end of the recommended cooking time.

Beating the start of a sauce

Photo by Rachel Alice Roddy

While the pasta is cooking, gather your sauce ingredients: 2 large eggs, 2 egg yolks, 80 grams cheese, and salt. As for cheese, the distinctive sheep's milk pecorino Romano, with its salty and piquant punch, is ideal. (But Parmesan works, too, as will a mixture of the two.)

Beat together the eggs, yolks, cheese, and tiny pinch of salt (the salt in the pasta water and cheese has this mostly covered) and whisk. When the pasta is nearly ready, heat up the meat pan again, remove most of the strips of meat to a warm plate; the fat should be hot.

Photo by Rachel Alice Roddy

Bringing it all together: hot fat, pasta, egg mixture

Remove a cupful of pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta, tip it into the hot pan with the pork fat, and stir. Pull the pan from the flame and add the egg mixture, plus a good slosh of pasta cooking water.

Photo by Rachel Alice Roddy

The purposeful stir—a beat almost

Stir and swish vigorously until you have a golden cream. You are watching for the moment when the considerable heat of the rendered fat and your stirring thickens the egg—kept creamy by the starchy water—and transforms into a soft, batter-like sauce that clings to the pasta but still lets everything slide seductively. Eureka.

Add reserved pork and stir again. If it seems to dry or clumpy, add a bit more cooking water and stir again. Divide between plates and serve immediately.

As my Roman neighbor once said, practice may also let you scramble or flood, which is frustrating but still edible, and how else will our hands and hearts learn?

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What do you put in your carbonara, traditional or not? Drop your ideas right into the comments.

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Arthur September 28, 2017
There is another way this and most any pasta can be made: prepare it as if you were making rozotto. Fry the pancetta, add any liquid you wish, a nice stock, i’ve Recently used beet juice from boiling beets and skinning the beets in their liquid, then stir in the egg sauce at the end.
Jessie L. September 22, 2016
How many is this recipe designed to serve?
Blork September 30, 2017
Based on the quantity of pasta (450g, which is basically a pound), I'd say this is designed for 4-6 servings. (4 American servings, six European servings).
Food I. April 7, 2016
I had been intimidated by carbonara, but I made this last night and it was really tasty! (Not picture perfect, but definitely enjoyable.) The timing worked out perfectly. Thank you for the helpful suggestions!
Julie April 6, 2016
I've been looking for a good carbonara recipe -- thanks for sharing this!
mattcoz April 6, 2016
How can you make carbonara without black pepper?
John H. April 6, 2016
I have a particular understanding of carbonara that I seldom find in restaurants. A "carbonara" is a charcoal maker. Most named Italian dished are named for a reason. In this case the real trick is to come close go burning the pork and the onions, sautéing them until they are close to black around the edge. This give both ingredients a sweetness that they otherwise would not have. Proceeding from there with the egg and the cheese is indeed a mater of practice. You do get the feel of it after a few tries.
Smaug April 6, 2016
If you've ever poured your pasta water down the sink, you've probably noticed that it wasn't any thicker than any other water. That's because there's not enough starch in it to make a significant difference. Adding to this the fact that it tends to contain more or less random amounts of salt, it's use as a cooking ingredient, while having a certain circular charm, is really not that advisable.
702551 April 6, 2016
Pasta cooking water does taste more like pasta than plain boiled water. That's the main reason for using it beyond the two facts that it is conveniently available and hot. You're adding liquid that tastes more like what the ingredients taste like.

Saltiness should be adjusted at the end, so whatever variation there is in the cooking water salinity is not that critical.
Smaug April 6, 2016
Yet whenever it's used, the reason given is that it thickens the sauce. As far as taste-nah. If you used spinach pasta it might pick up enough spinach to be measured in a lab, it's going to do nothing for the flavor of the sauce. If you have too much salt, there's not much you can do to adjust it- a good reason not to add it in unknown quantities.
Kelly P. April 7, 2016
Also the pasta water adds a liquid starch to the "slosh" which is what adheres the egg to the oil from the rendered fat
Blork September 30, 2017
Smaug is correct in that the "thickening" effect of pasta water is minimal because there simply isn't enough starch in there to make much difference. However, there is enough to add a velvety sheen (depending on what it's mixing with, how much is used, etc.). Given that it is also right there, already hot, it makes perfect sense to use it if you need a bit of hot water to loosen your sauce. (Why bother to heat up "clean" water when there's hot starchy water right there, ready to go?) Salt isn't really an issue, because of the quantity, and I generally salt the dish with the expectation that I'll be sloshing in a bit of water from the pasta pot.
Jennifer April 6, 2016
Full of helpful hints, for which I'm grateful (carbonara is a favorite dish of my husband's)--but really, any homemade carbonara is likely to beat the ersatz carbonara at many Italian restaurants in the U.S., often a cream-based cousin of alfredo. Why is this? Is it because of a fear of undercooked eggs, or because carbonara is inevitably labor intensive at last minute? I'm curious--a long term peeve.
Fredrik B. April 6, 2016
Probably just a short-cut for creaminess, to always ensure that the texture looks right. It's not uncommon for restaurant risotto to contain cream as well; after all, what's creamier than actual cream? (Not that I'd use it, of course)