This Smoky, Spicy Pasta is as Close to Carbonara as Vegetarians Will Get

September 25, 2017

For the last few months, I've spent Thursdays and Fridays working in a pork-centric restaurant. I've been a vegetarian (albeit one who's dabbled in fish) for more than twenty years, but since I'm in the pastry kitchen, dealing with doughs, batters, and custards rather than cheeks, chops, and shoulders, my dietary choices have proven no trouble at all.

Well, until about 3 PM during nearly every shift, when the cooks in the savory kitchen start to prep for dinner service. Smoky, heavy smells of cooked pork and rendering fat are ventilated directly into the test kitchen, overpowering any of the fruity sweetness coming off the pots of burbling jam. Our little sugar hideaway is overtaken by pork—and the weirdest thing is, it kind of makes me hungry.

But of all the pork dishes I imagine myself eating in some alternative universe, I dream not of porchetta or ragu, carnitas or banh mi—but of spaghetti carbonara, where the meat is more like the punctuation marks of a sentence than the letters themselves.

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A salty, yolk-rich sauce clinging to long noodles, hiding crispy bits of something savory and smoky? Surely I could approximate that without the guanciale.

In this vegetarian recipe, the smokiness comes not from cured meat but from finely grated smoked mozzarella that gets whisked with the egg yolks, then softened with hot pasta water. The mozzarella won’t melt completely, which means you’ll get some strands of cheese in your final bowl of pasta. As long as those clumps aren’t pieces of scrambled egg, all is well (at least in my book).

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Top Comment:
“When I first made vegetarian carbonara, I sauted a variety of field mushrooms in browned butter with garlic, sage and thyme. I like the idea of smoked mozzarella though - will give it a try for something new!”
— doireallyneedandaccounttopostacomment

As for the crispy bits (the "guanciale"), you'll sauté mushrooms with garlic and chile flakes in a separate pan as the pasta boils. When I first made this recipe, I used somewhat-elusive black trumpet mushrooms, which are particularly smoky, but any type of wild mushroom (or even white button mushrooms) will do the trick. You'll add the mushrooms—and the spicy oil they've cooked them in—to the pasta once it's been coated in the eggy, cheesy sauce.

A tangle of noodles and a strong drink. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Finish the bowl with grated pecorino, a shake of chile flakes, and, if you're lucky enough to have a jar somewhere in your pantry, a fat pinch of smoked sea salt.

As someone who has never tasted carbonara, I cannot rightfully claim that this vegetarian recipe could challenge it—and dare we forget #carbonaragate? But I can say that our test kitchen chef Josh Cohen, who has eaten his fair share of carbonara, proclaimed this “really good"—and that's high enough marks for me.

What the one pasta dish you turn to over and over again? Tell us in the comments below.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Pamela H. September 29, 2017
I used to make carbonara with chopped smoked almonds. They provided crunch with the smoke. Otherwise, following the first recipe I had seen for the dish, eggs, pepper, parmesan, and parsley.
John R. September 28, 2017
We have a nice smoked Gruyere from our local market. That, combine with some well sauted cremini worked really well in this recipe.
I think it's a shame to think vegetarian creations feel the need to mimic or emulate their meat-laden counterparts. When I first made vegetarian carbonara, I sauted a variety of field mushrooms in browned butter with garlic, sage and thyme.

I like the idea of smoked mozzarella though - will give it a try for something new!
Blork September 25, 2017
Hmm. I don't see how you'll get the "essence" of carbonara using mozzarella and not Parmesan or pecorino. Seems like it wouldn't be very "velvety" or at least not in the same way.

At the risk of looking like I'm just self-promoting, I'd like to offer my version of vegetarian carbonara, which I came up with in 2011. Its only real difference from the real thing is that it uses deep-browned crimini mushrooms instead of pancetta or guanciale. (And bear in mind that guanciale is not smoked, so smoke isn't a carbonara thing; rather "porkiness" is, which my method replaces with umami from deep-browned mushrooms.)

Why not give it a try as another alternative? I wrote about it on my blog in 2011:
Sarah J. September 26, 2017
Your version sounds great—can't wait to give it a try, too!
Courtney C. September 25, 2017
Thanks for this recipe! I love carbonara, but can't often find a good vegetarian version. Can't wait to try this.
Sarah J. September 25, 2017
Hooray! Hope you like it as much as I do! :)