Perfect Spaghetti Carbonara

Updated on July 27, 2018
Carb Diva profile image

Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

What Makes Carbonara Unique?

Several weeks I wrote about how to achieve the best pasta and sauce combinations. For example, a delicate angel hair requires a sauce equally demure—a drizzle of virgin olive oil or a simple pesto are best. However, a sturdy, thick pasta can stand up to a bolder sauce—a bolognese, for example.

A friend who read that article noted that of all the combinations I had enumerated, I failed to mention the best pasta dish of them all, spaghetti carbonara. In my defense I presented the following:

"Unlike the other combinations described above, carbonara is not a sauce paired with a specific pasta. The heat of the pasta is itself a component of the sauce. Carbonara is so unique, I think it deserves its own article."

So, let's begin.

Non-controversial bacon and eggs
Non-controversial bacon and eggs

Who Knew...

...that “bacon and eggs” could be so controversial? Well, they aren’t unless you combine them with pasta, and then the tales, premises, and anecdotal theories begin to fly. There are numerous stories on the origin of pasta carbonara. In my opinion, none of them are very convincing, but I’ll let you decide.

  • The name is said to come from a dish made in the Apennine Mountains. There, woodcutters used the spoils to make charcoal. They cooked a dish of pasta, eggs, and cheese over that charcoal (carbonari in their language).
  • A la carbonara means “coal worker’s style” and so refers to a dish that, because it was heavily dusted with black pepper, appeared to be adorned with coal miners’ dust.
  • After the liberation of Rome in 1944, food was scarce. Allied troops aided the starving populace with military rations. Powdered eggs and bacon were part of the package.

And, then there is this story from Clifford A. Wright, a renowned food historian and premier source of EVERYTHING related to the food, cooking, and traditional recipes of Italian and Mediterranean food:

In the province of Ciociaria, in the region of Lazio, about halfway between Rome and Benevento, pasta was seasoned in a Neapolitan style with eggs, lard, and pecorino cheese. During the German occupation of Rome during the World War II, many middle class families dispersed from Rome into this region to escape the oppressiveness of the occupation and learned about this dish. After the war, Roman cuisine became very popular throughout Italy and this dish, now transformed into carbonara, became a prime example.

Who to believe, and does it really matter? Let's just examine each of the elements of a carbonara to make it perfect.

The Perfect Components

The Spaghetti

This is where it all begins, the foundation. This is not the place for angel hair pasta. Nor should you consider whole wheat, gluten-free, or any pasta shape other than traditional, true spaghetti.

Pancetta

If we wish to do as the Romans, we will purchase guanciale, cured pork jowl, for our carbonara. It tends to have the highest ratio of fat to lean meat, which means that it creates a more rich, unctuous sauce. It's also often cured with a more generous amount of warm spices rubbed onto its surface (cloves and/or cinnamon). Those flavors come through in the finished dish. But guanciale is difficult-to-impossible to find. I'll give you a hall pass on this one, and recommend that you select pancetta.

What, no bacon?

Bacon. Pancetta. What's the difference? They are both "ham-ish" products, and they even look alike, but they're not the same.

  • They are both cured and are made from the pork belly (not the rear leg).
  • Both are also considered "raw" and need to be cooked before eating.
  • However, pancetta is typically sold either diced or in paper-thin slices.
  • Bacon is cured, but it's also smoked.

So, pancetta is akin to bacon, but it is not smoked. A subtle difference perhaps, but if you want to achieve a perfect pasta carbonara, pancetta is your protein of choice.

Eggs

A dish that incorporates dozens of ingredients might be unforgiving of a few "less-than-perfect" choices. However, in a dish such as spaghetti carbonara, the number of ingredients is a short list. Therefore, what few ingredients there are must be of the highest quality.

Let's talk for a moment about eggs. You can purchase a dozen large eggs for $1.00 on sale. But (in the words of Martin Luther), 'what does this mean'?

Low-cost eggs at your local grocer are barn-raised. That means that the chickens subsist on a diet of grains and manufactured pellets. On the other hand, free-range or pasture-raised hens eat a more natural diet; in addition to chicken feed, they are able to consume greens and bugs.

In a side-by-side comparison, you will see that the free-range or pastured eggs have darker, almost orange yolks. But what about the taste? Many food bloggers have conducted blind taste tests with their friends and discovered that there is no distinct difference in the flavor of the eggs. However, Mother Earth News tested eggs from pastured birds and found that they have

  • 1⁄3 less cholesterol
  • 1⁄4 less saturated fat
  • 2⁄3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta-carotene
  • 6-7 times more vitamin D

than conventional (barn-raised) eggs. So, I don't know if they taste better, but they are better for you. And, since you will be able to actually see the color of the eggs in the final product, I think that the free-range/pastured eggs are the better choice.

Pecorino Romano Cheese

Romano cheese. Pecorino Romano cheese. They are not the same.

Romano is a domestic cheese (United States) made from cows milk. Pecorino Romano is made from sheep's milk and can only bear that name if it is produced in Lazio (the province that includes Rome), in Grosseto in Tuscany, and on the island of Sardinia.

So, they are made from different kinds of milk, in different parts of the world. Is there really a difference in taste? Taste testers at America's Test Kitchen expressed a definite preference, saying that domestic Romano is milder, softer, less aromatic, and more like Swiss cheese; it's aged for about 5 months. Conversely, Pecorino Romano is sharper, funkier, more crumbly, and has those distinctive little crystalline bits near the surface. It's aged for at least 8 months.

Pecorino Romano is the clear winner in taste-tests and the one that is more authentic when preparing a perfect spaghetti carbonara.

What ISN'T In Carbonara?

  • lemon juice and/or lemon zest
  • green peas
  • Cream. Absolutely NO CREAM!

The Recipe

Equipment You Will Need

  • 10-inch saute pan
  • silicone spatula
  • liquid measuring cup
  • measuring spoons
  • 1 fine mesh strainer
  • 3 mixing bowls (1 small, 1 medium, 1 large)
  • colander for draining pasta
  • tongs or spaghetti "fork" for tossing pasta
  • large stockpot for cooking pasta

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces pancetta, cut into small dice
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3/4 cup (about 2 1/2 ounces) grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 3 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound dried spaghetti
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 2 quarts water

Directions

  1. Place pancetta and 1/2 cup water in a 10-inch saute pan over medium heat; cook until the water evaporates and the meat begins to sizzle (about 8 minutes).
  2. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the pancetta is browned and the fat has been rendered out, about 5 minutes more.
  3. Place a fine-mesh strainer in the small bowl. Strain the pancetta and set aside.
  4. Measure out one tablespoon of the reserved fat from the pancetta into the medium bowl. Discard the remaining fat.
  5. Whisk the Pecorino Romano, eggs, yolk, and pepper into the one tablespoon of fat until combined.
  6. Meanwhile, bring the 2 quarts water (no more than that) to boil in the stockpot. Add spaghetti and salt to pot; cook, stirring frequently, until al dente.
  7. Set the colander into the large bowl. Drain the spaghetti into the colander, reserving the cooking water. Save 1 cup of the cooking water in the liquid measuring cup; discard the remainder.
  8. Return spaghetti to now-empty bowl. (This is part of the magic, which I'll explain below).
  9. Slowly whisk 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water into the Pecorino Romano mixture. Then gradually pour that mixture over the spaghetti, tossing to coat.
  10. Add the pancetta and toss to combine. Toss spaghetti frequently, until the sauce has thickened slightly and coats spaghetti, 2 to 4 minutes.
  11. If the sauce seems too thick, dribble in a bit more of the reserved pasta water.

What Makes This Recipe Work?

  • Simmering the pancetta in water pre-cooks it so that, when browned on the outside, you can be assured that it is fully cooked on the inside. If you simply brown the pancetta in the pan, the exterior can begin to crisp (brown) too much.
  • Cooking the pasta in a lesser amount of water ensures that the remaining "pasta water" is rich with starch.
  • Adding a portion of the pasta water to the egg/cheese mixture helps to (1) temper the eggs (warm them gently so that they don't scramble) and (2) aids in emulsifying the total mixture.
  • Draining the pasta water into a large bowl, and then measuring out a portion and discarding the rest might seem an innocuous step, but that initial baptism of boiling pasta water warms the bowl. You want a warm bowl for the final tossing/mixing of pasta and eggy sauce. Otherwise, the ingredients are shocked (cooled too quickly) and you will end up with a congealed mess.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Lum

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Nyesha, you are so very welcome. I hope you enjoy it.

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        8 months ago from Northeast Ohio

        Linda, you're on. I'll give it a try. I never had pancetta before.

      • Journey * profile image

        Nyesha Pagnou MPH 

        8 months ago from USA

        Thanks for sharing this great pasta recipe!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish, that makes my day! The pasture-raised simply LOOK so much better, healthier. Thanks for stopping by.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        8 months ago from USA

        My father will love this recipe. He is a foodie and a retired food scientist. He can always tell me what’s missing. I like that you presented information on pasture raised chicken’s eggs vs. the other kind. If people can’t do it for one reason maybe they can do it for another.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Kristen, it is one of my favorite comfort foods (and guilty pleasures). Do please give it a try. I really don't think you'll be disappointed.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Thanks Peggy. That's what I try to do.

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        8 months ago from Northeast Ohio

        Great lens, Linda. I've seen two Spaghetti Carbonara recipes on AllRecipes.com. But I haven't done it yet. Maybe I'll give it a go next month. Thanks for sharing your information on it.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        8 months ago from Houston, Texas

        A delicious spaghetti carbonara is a palate taste treat! It is also an inexpensive meal to prepare. You did a great job on explaining how to make it and what ingredients are best used for flavor enhancement.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you Bill. Now, the question is did I truly wear you down, or does it simply sound THAT amazing? (I prefer the latter). I will add your question to the mailbox. Catch ya next week.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        8 months ago from Olympia, WA

        The inevitable happened: you wore me down with your recipes until I finally succumbed to your expertise.

        I would eat this gladly!

        I'm not sure my doctor would approve, but I would eat this daily, on the sly, without him knowing about it.

        End of statement!

        By the way, I am told by that same doctor that I have to lower my cholesterol....for your Mailbag....recommended foods besides fish and nuts????

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, delishably.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://delishably.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)