Spaghetti Alla Carbonara is my favorite pasta dish. It’s basically just noodles with fat and cheese, so what’s not to like? When done right, it’s the cheapest gourmet meal you’ll ever have. The problem is, almost no one does it right.
I’m not really a purist when it comes to food, but I am when it comes to this dish. I’ve only ordered carbonara at a couple of restaurants because most chefs throw some bacon in a pre-cooked alfredo sauce and call it carbonara. That’s like putting cream in seafood gumbo and calling it chowder. The best version I ever ate came from a tourist trap in South Beach that had a guy in ancient Roman armor standing on the curb. I don’t know why more restaurants don’t serve the real stuff. It can’t cost them more than a few bucks to make?
Here’s everything you need:
Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
- ½ cup pork jowl bacon (the cured version is called guanciale) or pancetta, cubed
- 1 extra large or 2 small eggs
- ½ cup freshly ground Parmesan cheese, divided
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ pound spaghetti noodles
You might be able to find pork jowl bacon at your grocery store. You want it more salty than smoky, but there’s not that much of a difference between the two. You’re after the fat more than the salt. Just look in the refrigerated section where they keep the salt pork and smoked ham hocks.
Romans insist on using guanciale, which is cured pork jowl bacon, but that’s hard to find in Anytown, USA. I usually opt for pancetta (cured pork belly) because it’s saltier than jowl bacon and softer when fried. If you live in some unmapped backwater and can’t get ahold of any pork jowl bacon or pancetta, then go ahead and use regular bacon – but not anything that has sage or syrup or sugar added. Chop up a few pieces of thick-cut bacon.
As far as cheese goes, you can’t use the shredded parmesan that comes in the resealable bag. It’s just won’t work. You could use the powdered stuff in the plastic shaker, but why not take a couple of minutes to grind some fresh cheese? There should be a panel on your box grater that has tiny, pointed holes meant for grinding cheese and spices. You know, the side you’ve never used? Just scrape the parmesan over that side until you have a half cup of crumbled cheese. Watch your knuckles.
I don’t know why, but I get a little tense when I make Carbonara. Like stir-frying, everything happens really fast. And like baking, it can all be ruined at the last second. If you overcook this dish, the eggs will scramble. If you undercook it, you run the risk of salmonella poisoning (which is incredibly unlikely). Like Goldilocks, you have to find the cooking method that’s “just right.” To begin, drop your noodles into a pot of boiling, salted water. Once the noodles get wet, the clock is ticking. You have about nine minutes, depending on the thickness of your spaghetti.
Cook the pancetta cubes over medium heat. You want to brown them on all sides and render the fat. Resist the urge to turn up the heat.
While the pancetta is cooking, beat the egg(s) in a bowl. The more air you incorporate into it the mixture, the better. Finally, add half of the parmesan cheese to the bowl and mix well.
You should never be stationary during this quick cooking process. Either you’re stirring the noodles so they don’t stick together, shaking the pan to keep the pancetta from sticking, or mixing the egg and cheese mixture to make it fluffier. When the spaghetti is about done, add a big ladle-full of the pasta water to the pan and scrape the burnt pieces off the bottom. This will help to disperse the flavors.
By this time, the pasta should be finished cooking. Strain it and immediately pour the cooked noodles into a serving bowl (preferably one that’s been warmed in a 200° oven). Next, add the contents from the pan to the serving bowl and give it a quick stir. Carefully pour the egg mixture onto the noodles, stirring the entire time. I usually get the wife to drizzle it in a slow, steady stream while I stir the noodles, kind of like what we do when we make mayonnaise.
The eggs will temper and be cooked by the residual heat from the noodles. You’ll know you’re doing it right if the egg mixture gets thicker. Once you don’t see any more runny, raw egg, add the rest of the cheese and the pepper. Season to taste with more cheese, pepper and salt and serve immediately.
If the egg scrambles, you’ve failed. But it’ll still taste pretty good.
The egg is tempered and safe to eat when it gets thick like a yellow/cream colored gravy. Here’s a closer look.
Some people add the egg mixture to the pan and stir for a minute before taking it off the heat. That makes it cook a little faster, but I don’t recommend that method for your first attempt. It’s too easy to scramble the egg. Mix everything in the warm bowl and leave the oven on. If the egg doesn’t seem to be tempering properly, put the whole thing into the oven for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. That will bring it up to the right temperature without running the risk of ruining the dish. Once you know what proper Spaghetti Alla Carbonara is supposed to look and taste like, you can try to to cook it on the stove in the bacon pan. Here’s a tutorial.
I‘ll confess that I sometimes add other ingredients to my carbonara , like herbs, crushed red pepper, garlic, shallot, shrimp, etc. It’s very good with added flavors, but you need to master the original recipe before you try to get creative. And remember that if you add butter and cream, it’s not Spaghetti Alla Carbonara anymore. It seems like everyone thinks pastas need to be buried in sauce to taste good. Sometimes less is more.