The Carbonara Formula That Took a Decade to Perfect

And all the ways to riff on it for spring.

May 11, 2023
Photo by Julia Gartland

I never fully appreciated the obsessiveness of recipe testing until I spent the better part of a decade perfecting the Roman classic, pasta carbonara. Turns out, even a dish with just six ingredients—al dente pasta, cured pork cubes, grated Parmesan and pecorino Romano, and cracked black pepper bound with whisked-egg sauce—can take up a hundred variations if you’re relentless enough.

I tested countless pasta brands and shapes, fine-tuned egg and cheese ratios, and flirted with rare, overpriced versions of every ingredient (I see you, $40-per-pound guanciale.) In the end, though, it was mostly a matter of unriddling the egg sauce: tempering whisked whole eggs and yolks with grated cheese and just enough hot pasta water so they envelop the pasta strands in a shiny, custardy coating when combined frenziedly with tongs. Cutting the heat at the right moment helps prevent the dreaded scramble, as does pre-coating said pasta in the warm rendered pork fat before adding the egg mixture.

You may already know this egg sauce’s buttery French cousin: Hollandaise, that suspended elixir of oil and acid whisked furiously with egg yolks over a bain-marie. (Noticing a pattern here?) Or their even more famous room-temp relation—homemade mayonnaise—which can take up countless flavor variations. Unlike mayo and Hollandaise, which rely on tiny air bubbles achieved through whisking to emulsify, carbonara sauce gets its custardy sheen from the intoxicating alchemy that happens when hot pasta is tumbled in beaten eggs warmed with a bit of starchy pasta cooking liquid. Indeed, no matter how many times I make carbonara, few things in my cooking life surpass the breathless exuberance of those final 30 seconds when each element comes together with tongs and a secular prayer.

Fortunately for me, through all those years of screwing up this temperamental sauce, bacon and (accidental) scrambled-egg pasta tastes good even when you’re super annoyed. Less fortunately, it didn’t occur to me until recently that egg sauce lends itself beautifully to all sorts of simple pasta compositions.

Given carbonara’s simple yet decadent, breakfast-y lineup of ingredients, it’s no wonder the preparation takes so kindly to springy additions that would also play well in omelets. I particularly like alliums, soft herbs, lemon, artichokes, and pea shoots, enriched by pretty much any sort of cured pork and hard cheese. I’ve subbed in diced deli ham for the pancetta, added lemon zest and juice, shredded kale, and a few fat garlic cloves. The sauce is lovely with fresh pea shoots or barely cooked asparagus and pecorino. I’ve indulged my allium affinity by sautéing diced leeks or ramps with garlic, and shallots in bacon fat, then adding raw minced scallions at the same time as the pasta before pouring in the tempered egg.

My favorite version of late, however, coincides with the arrival of spring’s first artichokes, though I more often make it with canned for convenience. I start by sizzling cubes of salami (might I suggest the peppered kind?) in a large skillet over medium heat with olive oil with one (14-ounce) can of drained, chopped artichokes (or 6 fresh hearts, chopped) until caramelized, at which point I add the juice and zest of half a lemon. Meanwhile, I prepare my egg mixture while cooking bucatini just until al dente, then combine everything in the skillet until glossy. I’ll finish with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and a shower of chopped chives.

Now all that remains is to offer up my hard-won carbonara sauce for you to learn by heart and riff on to your heart’s content via whatever flavor additions you like. (The quantity below should suffice for 1 pound of pasta.)

  1. Place about ⅓ pound of cubed pancetta, bacon or other cured pork (cubed Spanish chorizo, mortadella, longaniza, or crumbled mild fresh sausage would all work) in a cold, wide, heavy-bottomed pot with a glug of olive oil, if needed. Turn the heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, until it has rendered a good deal of fat and started to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. (If you’re going meatless, bash a few whole garlic cloves and sauté them in 2 tablespoons each olive oil and butter, turning occasionally until softened and just starting to brown. Remove, and smash to a paste with the side of your knife; reserve until the end.)
  2. About halfway through cooking, add sturdier vegetables as desired, like shredded kale, chopped asparagus, and diced alliums. Turn off the heat, and grind in about ¾ teaspoon coarse black pepper.
  3. Crack a whole egg into a liquid measuring cup, and add 3 yolks, beating together until well combined. In a small bowl, mix a scant ½ cup each of grated Parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino Romano; add the cheeses to the measuring cup. Whisk again, until the mixture is well combined. Set aside.
  4. Meanwhile, heat a large pot of generously salted water until boiling. Add the pasta (I like bucatini, spaghetti, or short rigatoni), and cook until just al dente. When you're a minute or two shy of that point, turn the heat back on low beneath the rendered pork until it starts sizzling.
  5. Scoop ⅓ cup of starchy water from the pasta pot, and set aside. Using tongs, add the cooked pasta directly to the pan with the meat. At this point, add your fresh chopped herbs, lemon zest or pea shoots, and the garlic paste. Dribble in a few tablespoons of the pasta water, tossing to coat everything evenly with the fat. Turn off the heat.
  6. Slowly stream the remaining reserved pasta water into the measuring cup with the egg-and-cheese mixture, whisking furiously. (This will temper the eggs so they don't scramble upon hitting the pasta.) Then, immediately pour the tempered egg-and-cheese sauce into the pasta, tossing the whole time to coat each noodle in the sauce. Add a few more grinds of pepper and another generous sprinkling of cheese, and toss again. Taste, and adjust as needed with cheese and pepper. Whatever variation you choose, you can never go wrong with a generous, finishing spritz of fresh lemon juice.

More Carbonara Inspiration

How would you riff on this carbonara for spring? Tell us in the comments!

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Chicago-based food critic & freelance writer

1 Comment

Smaug May 11, 2023
Mayonnaise and hollandaise are emulsions- stable combinations of non-miscible liquids-because of the emulsifiers- substances that bond to both the oil and the water- contained in eggs. Egg yolks cooked in water would be a sort of light custard, I suppose. As with any pasta dish, you will have much better success with saucing it if you make a serious effort to drain it; dripping with water is a poor start.