Spaghetti alla Carbonara: when it's good, it can make your eyes roll back in your head with pleasure. It lurks there, beckoning, batting its eyelashes on Italian menus. When you don't order it, you usually end up wishing you had.
Do you ever make it at home? Seems easy enough, right? It's basically just bacon, eggs, and pasta. But like most things with few ingredients, there is a technique that binds all the magic together and if you don't have really great ingredients and a grasp of a few key pieces of technique, you'll be let down — possibly with scrambled eggs on your pasta.
To help you avoid this bummer and give you the opportunity to experience a classic in its greatest form, I spoke to several ace chefs and got the scoop on how to make really authentic spaghetti alla carbonara.
Lidia Bastianch gives a nice history of carbonara in her book Lidia's Italy in America. She says the dish originally comes from the Apennine hills of central Italy near Rome and was a shepherd's favorite. As they meandered in the pastures with their flocks, they carried bacon, made cheese as they went and only used eggs if they were lucky enough to have some.
The majority of chefs agree that "true" carbonara has guanciale and not bacon or pancetta, although both alternatives make fine substitutions. My experience is that if you can get your hands on guanciale, it will make a noticeable difference. Most chefs, though not all, say no cream, and just about everyone says that under no circumstances do peas belong in carbonara.
The key to good spaghetti alla carbonara, like any good piece of cooking, and especially this one, is the quality of the ingredients. But what about those ingredients? For a dish with so few, there is a lot of debate. Cream or no cream? Onions and garlic, or not? Anything green in there? Whatever your inclination, get the best quality possible, even if it's peas.
Want to hear more? I asked around and spoke to a few well-known chefs — here's what they said:
Mario Batali told me it's about "great eggs, guanciale, pecorino, and black pepper." The carbonara at his NYC Osteria Lupa is one of my favorites. He garnishes the dish with a few very thin slivers of green onion which adds a nice pop of flavor and color, though I'm not sure it needs it.
Jody Williams, the chef/owner of Buvette and formerly of Gotino in New York City (and a woman who knows her Italian food after living in Italy for several years) says there is a northern Italian tradition of adding a splash of cream. "It's always made with spaghetti and never garnished with anything."
Nate Appleman, co-author of A16: Food & Wine told me to only use dry pasta because the texture is better for clinging on to the sauce, and because carbonara was a peasant dish and only high society Romans would have access to fresh egg pasta.
And then, from a very informal Twitter survey:
Jane Bills (@LetThereBeBite) Carbonara: Keep it simple: egg, maybe some cream, no onions. Purists say guanciale; I don't mind pancetta. See: Da Giggetto Roma
Luisa Weiss (@wednesdaychef): No cream! Just egg yolks and pork and the judicious use of starchy pasta water...
Vinoroma (@vinoroma): Yolk/whole, pecorino romano/parmiggiano are the discussion points here. Def. guanciale, not pancetta. one trick I use is freezing & thawing the eggyolks - make for creamier "sauce", less chance of curdling. egg & pasta have to meet away from heat, too.
Jacopo Romei (@jacoporomei): Crisp bacon, black pepper in egg, parmigiano. don't let the egg get solid. no cream, no garlic, no onion. that's all.
Marlena Spieler (@marlenaspieler): NO CREAM!!!!!! no wine either! the eggs and cooking water, along with grated cheese,pancetta fat, make it creamy!
Beth Kujawski (@beth4158): Biggest carbonara pet peeve: the inclusion of pea and/or onions. No, no, no!
Krista Ruane (@kristaruane): Secret: warm eggs up in bowl of warm water before using so you don't start from fridge cold.
Laura B. Russell (@laurabrussell): Pet peeve = cream in carbonara
...and there was this unusual take on Carbonara:
Alex Schaumburg (@Alex60173): Peppered bacon, aged asiago, cream, eggs, home made tagliatelli, parsley, garlic and orange zest.
So, how do you make spaghetti alla carbonara? Obviously there are many, but here is my way. As always, leave your thoughts in the comments.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound dry spaghetti
4 large eggs, as fresh as possible
8 ounces guanciale, pancetta or slab bacon, cubed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino
Freshly cracked black pepper
Bring about 6 quarts of generously salted water (it should taste like the ocean) to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente. When the pasta is done, reserve 1/2 cup of the water, then drain.
While the pasta is cooking, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the guanciale and sauté for about 3 minutes, or until the meat is crispy and golden and has rendered its fat. Turn off the heat.
In a small bowl whisk the eggs and the cheeses until well-combined.
Return the guanciale pan to medium heat, and add half of the reserved pasta water to the pan. Toss in the spaghetti and agitate the pan over the heat for a few seconds until the bubbling subsides. Much of the water will evaporate
Remove the pan from the heat and add the egg mixture and stirring quickly until the eggs thicken. The residual heat will cook the eggs but work quickly to prevent the eggs from scrambling. If the sauce seems too thick, thin it out with a little bit more of the reserved pasta water.
Season liberally with freshly cracked black pepper. Taste for seasoning; depending on the kind of pork used, it may not need any salt.
Divide the pasta into bowls and serve immediately.
This post was originally published May 2012.
(Image credits: Sara Kate Gillingham)