Perfect Spaghetti Carbonara
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.
...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
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.
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.
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!
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
- 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
- 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).
- 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.
- Place a fine-mesh strainer in the small bowl. Strain the pancetta and set aside.
- Measure out one tablespoon of the reserved fat from the pancetta into the medium bowl. Discard the remaining fat.
- Whisk the Pecorino Romano, eggs, yolk, and pepper into the one tablespoon of fat until combined.
- 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.
- 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.
- Return spaghetti to now-empty bowl. (This is part of the magic, which I'll explain below).
- 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.
- Add the pancetta and toss to combine. Toss spaghetti frequently, until the sauce has thickened slightly and coats spaghetti, 2 to 4 minutes.
- 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.