I Tried 4 Popular Pasta Carbonara Recipes and the Winner Has an Ingenious Method

published Apr 8, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Headshots: Pasta Queen: Felipe Cortes

At first glance, carbonara is a simple dish: eggs, cheese, cured pork, black pepper, and pasta. What’s there to discuss? But like many of the simplest recipes (omelets come to mind), it’s all about the method. The goal with this Roman pasta is to create a thick, silky sauce (sans any cream or butter, don’t even think about it) from the whisked eggs and grated cheese without scrambling the eggs in the hot pan. 

I’ve made carbonara a handful of times — once in culinary school, and a couple other times for general amusement. It’s a dish that’s fun to make (mostly when it’s time to breathe a sigh of relief that you didn’t scramble the eggs) and even more fun to eat (creamy, salty, cheesy, and meaty in all the right places). I don’t need much of an excuse to make a comforting meal like this, so when the opportunity to test four popular recipes side-by-side came about, I didn’t need to be persuaded to take it on. Here’s how the testing all went down.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Meet Our 4 Pasta Carbonara Contenders

When selecting the contenders for our showdown, I wanted to make sure to have a mix of super traditional recipes along with recipes that introduce slightly different ingredients and/or methods, without straying too far from the classic. I wanted to try out recipes that called for pecorino Romano, Parmesan, or a combination of the two. Additionally, I wanted to look at the difference between using whole eggs versus egg yolks as well as using guanciale versus pancetta versus bacon. Finally, I wanted to get a closer look at the method. Should the dish be assembled in a skillet, in a large bowl, or in a double boiler? Given all of these different variables, here are the contenders I decided to run with.

The Pasta Queen: If you are not following Nadia Caterina Munno’s pasta content on TikTok, you’re simply missing out. Originally from Rome, The Pasta Queen knows real Italian recipes inside and out, so I wanted to include her carbonara to see how it held up against other modernized or Americanized versions.

Serious Eats: I wanted to include this heavily tested recipe because of the clever double boiler method. Rather than assembling the carbonara in a skillet or in a large bowl off the heat, this recipe marries the two and smartly introduces a double boiler. Is the extra effort worth the trouble? You better believe I’m getting my heatproof bowl out so I can be the judge of this one.

A Cozy Kitchen: What intrigued me most about this recipe was the lemon element. Classic carbonara doesn’t call for lemon, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Zesty bright citrus with a creamy, salty, cheesy, peppery sauce? That adds up in my head, so I wanted to see if this fresh addition might make for a superior carbonara.

Damn Delicious: Of all the carbonara recipes that I came across, this one struck me as the most approachable. It teased a 15-minute cook time and an ingredient list that felt a bit more attainable because it called for bacon and Parmesan in lieu of more specialty Italian ingredients, like guanciale and pecorino Romano. Not to mention, it was the only contender that called for garlic and parsley, so I was curious to see if those ingredients would play well in this dish.

How I Tested the Carbonara Recipes

I made all of the carbonara consecutively over the course of one day (I know, just call me “Carbie Barbie”) and enjoyed them all side by side. Although it would’ve been ideal to make all four at once and taste them side by side while they’re still hot, I am just one girl with limited counter space, so that would have ended in absolute chaos. I tasted each carbonara right after completion, taking diligent notes on the flavors, even closing my eyes and imagining eating it while sitting at a Roman cafe. 

I used the same Vital Farms eggs across all the recipes and blocks of Parmesan-reggiano and pecorino-romano that I grated with my microplane (nothing pre-grated, I don’t need any angry Italians in my DMs). I used weight measurements for grated cheese where applicable and used the same brand (Whole Foods 365) of spaghetti for each rendition. Depending on what the recipe called for, I used thick-cut bacon, pre-diced pancetta, or guanciale.

The overall learning from this carbonara exercise was that the type and amount of ingredients was not nearly as important as the method. Each recipe has a different ratio of pasta to cheese to eggs to egg yolks to pork product, and some call for Parmesan, pecorino-romano, or a combination of two, as well as guanciale, pancetta, or bacon. All of these different ingredient substitutes and ratios were not as crucial as the method of assembling the pasta. If you want more cheese, then add more. If you want a higher ratio of meat, then cook off more pork product. If you want a richer, brighter sauce, then use more egg yolks. None of these measurements will make or break your dish.

What will break your dish are incomplete, unclear, or confusing instructions. When the method was off, I had scrambled egg-coated noodles (yikes) and when the recipe was spot-on, I had the most luxurious, creamy, salt-laden sauce. To me, that was way more important than minor details like whether the recipe used bacon or pancetta. You feel me?

With all of that said, let’s jump into the details of my creamy, carby adventure.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Most Approachable Carbonara: Damn Delicious

This recipe proves that you don’t need specialty ingredients to create a damn good (sorry) carbonara. Whereas other carbonaras call for guanciale, pecorino Romano cheese, and egg yolks, this version calls for bacon (cured and cold-smoked pork belly), Parmesan, and whole eggs, which all just feel slightly more attainable. In my testing, I didn’t feel like the quality of the dish suffered at all by including these more widely available ingredients. Also, this recipe boldly introduces garlic and parsley, which is probably an addition that will anger any Italian purist, but I felt indifferent to the addition of both. If you want those flavors in your carbonara, then sure, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to toss those in. That said, I don’t really think either ingredient brought much to the overall dish.

However, where I did struggle with the recipe is the method. When followed as written, you’re adding raw eggs to a hot pan, which for me ended up in scrambled eggs. I can admit that this could be in part due to user error (not to mention, this recipe is rated 4.89 stars based on 139 ratings, so clearly there are plenty of folks who have found success with this one). My issue was that my skillet was still very hot from cooking the bacon and it did not have ample time to cool down before the raw egg mixture was added. If I made it again, I would cook my bacon first so that the pan had a bit more time to cool off.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

2. The Most Exciting Flavor Addition: A Cozy Kitchen

A classic dish like carbonara isn’t broken, so there’s no reason to try to fix it. However, in the case of this lemon pepper carbonara, I found the addition of lemon zest to be quite tasty. As written, I didn’t feel like there was enough lemon zest (only the zest of half a lemon per 1/2 pound of pasta) to make a huge difference in flavor. However, once the carbonara was portioned into a bowl and garnished with more lemon zest, I found the bites with zest to be super bright and tasty. If I made it again, I would probably add the zest of 2 lemons per 1/2 pound of spaghetti.

On the method front, this recipe was pretty solid. The dish is assembled in a large bowl, which eliminates any worry about accidentally scrambling the eggs. The only sticking point was that the cheese and egg mixture was super tight and needed some more liquid so that it didn’t clump and was a bit more saucy. Regardless, the real hero of this recipe was the non-traditional lemon zest addition — it just needed a little more.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Most Traditional Carbonara: The Pasta Queen

I was excited to include this carbonara because it felt like the version that would make the ancient Romans (a group that I am working tirelessly to impress) proud. It did require a trip to my local Italian deli (if you’re in Los Angeles, shoutout to Bay Cities) where I learned that guanciale (Italian jowl bacon) is significantly more expensive than bacon or pancetta. So was the guanciale worth the extra time and money? Honestly, it’s hard to say. It rendered way more fat than bacon or pancetta, and I think this excess fat definitely contributed to a richer, thicker sauce. That said, I still think that bacon or pancetta make for a completely fine substitution.

I also referenced this video by the Pasta Queen because she shares some helpful tips. She recommends using 1 egg yolk per person in addition to 1 whole egg, so I took this to mean 4 egg yolks and 1 whole egg per pound of pasta. This created a cheese and egg mixture that was bright and rich from the yolks, yet still saucy enough to easily coat the noodles. She also recommends tempering the egg mixture with some of the warm, rendered guanciale fat, which eased some of my worry about potentially scrambling the eggs (which didn’t happen for me). All in all, this one felt like the most traditional, true-to-history dish out of all the contenders, and the sauce was undeniably thick, glossy, and well-seasoned.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. The Most Clever (and Successful) Carbonara Method: Serious Eats

The folks over at Serious Eats are known for their extensive testing and exacting methods, and they applied that same approach to classic carbonara. Here, they used a DIY double boiler to avoid any direct contact the raw eggs may have with a hot pan while still keeping the vessel warm and over indirect heat. And there’s no extra setup required because you already have a pot of boiling water on the stove from cooking your pasta to use for your double boiler. It all sounds pretty ingenious, right?

This recipe came together without a hitch and made it easy to create a rich, thick, creamy sauce that was piping hot. It was also delicious. The ratio of eggs to egg yolks and Parmesan to pecorino romano was just right. I tested this one with pancetta (cured pork belly), but as I’ve alluded to previously, I found that the pork products used were completely interchangeable.

The only reason this recipe didn’t get a perfect 10 is because while it doesn’t require any additional equipment, it does require the right equipment — a saucepan that’s small enough to support your mixing bowl without the bottom of the bowl touching the water, as well as a large heatproof mixing bowl. But if you have the right equipment, then I’d highly recommend this technique. Method is everything for an A+ carbonara, and this double boiler method (whether it’s traditional or not) has totally converted me.