100% Traditional, 100% Do-able. Meet Your New Favorite Carbonara Recipe!
As Iconically Roman as the Trevi Fountain or the Colosseum itself, pasta carbonara is quite possibly our very favorite pasta sauce of all time. It’s definitely in the top three most-craved. Rich and creamy, carbonara sauce is exceedingly, riotously unhealthy and therefore exists purely for joy of deliciousness, for the love of food, of things that simply taste incredible. Spaghetti carbonara — it’s classically made with spaghetti, though of course pasta type is ultimately up to you — is the thing late-night cravings are made of. The 1986 Nora Ephron classic “Heartburn” has a whole delightful scene dedicated to the perfection that is post-drinks, midnight carbonara. And, say what you will about Rachel Ray, but long ago on a TV set far away we remember watching her make a huge pan-full of carbonara and say unapologetically that it was the meal that she most enjoyed whipping up after a late night out and then—and then!!—gobbling up straight out of the pan in bed. The whole scenario was pure decadence, which, dear friends, is what carbonara is all about. Let’s get decadent, as only the Romans can!
What Is Real Carbonara Made Of?
This is a really common question. If you’ve never attempted spaghetti carbonara at home, you’re probably guessing what’s in it based on what it tastes like. Carbonara is kind of cheesy, therefore it has cheese in it maybe? Yep, you’d be right on that one! Carbonara is creamy, therefore it might have cream in it? Well, sure, if you want to give a Roman a heart attack,then go ahead and mention that you’d like to add cream to your carbonara. Carbonara—as literally anyone with even a drop of Italian blood running in their veins will tell you—is creamy but made without cream. No cream! None! The core of carbonara’s magic is cured pig + eggs. Sometimes you’ll see it referred to as the ‘breakfast for dinner’ of pastas, and if you ever had brunch at Prune in its heyday, you may remember that Gabrielle Hamilton had it on the breakfast menu there because, after all, it was (basically) mostly bacon and eggs. Anyway, enough diversions. What’s in traditional carbonara? Our carbonara recipe—which is certainly very traditional—is made up of just a few ingredients:
Cheese. Pecorino Romano is the classic Roman cheese and it’s the most traditional cheese to use to make carbonara. If you prefer Parmesan (or that’s what you can find) it will work just fine and some people even prefer its slightly less sharp flavor. Whichever you use, DO NOT buy pre-shredded cheese. You’ll need to grate it freshly & finely with a microplane grater or with the finest holes of your box grater. And if you’d like to learn all about Pecorino Romano, this is a pretty fun little video about it, just FYI in case you (like we) like to watch videos about cheeses in your spare time.
Cured pig. Guanciale, which is cured pork cheek, is very fatty. It’s the classic cured meat for carbonara and if you can find it, spring for it! You only need 4 ounces and boy, will you taste the ROI. However, if you can’t track it down, pancetta will also make a lovely carbonara sauce. And, in a total pinch, thick-cut bacon will work.
Eggs. Many carbonara recipes call for whole eggs, but we decided to cut right to the chase and are using just the yolks. Yes, the eggs are raw-ish. They don’t (at least aren’t supposed to) get cooked in a way that you’d totally recognize. They shouldn’t scramble (we’ll talk more about that later)—instead, they’ll swirl together with cheese and pasta cooking water and lots of rendered guanciale fat to make an insanely rich and creamy carbonara sauce. Use the very best eggs you can! Gorgeously bright orange yolks, please.
Tips for Making Our Best Carbonara Recipe Perfectly Every Time
Carbonara can intimidate people. Understandably! Though our very traditional pasta carbonara recipe has only a few ingredients, it’s—as iconic, classic recipes often are—all about technique. To create a truly creamy sauce without any cream means paying close attention to the way that you’re combining ingredients—you’ll use heat and timing and kitchen tools in very precise ways to achieve carbonara perfection. There is nothing inherently HARD about this recipe, though. We are simply acknowledging that yes, it’ll require a bit of focus if this is your first time making spaghetti carbonara at home. Here are a few things to know before you begin:
On rendering the fat from the guanciale (or pancetta or bacon). Particularly if you’re using guanciale, be aware that LOTS of fat will come out. Unlike cooking bacon, you’re not going for crispness here so browning it over medium heat instead of high is very important. Working at that slightly lower heat will allow more fat to render out, and that’s a good thing! Fat = flavor. The cooked cured pork will be a bit chewy rather than crisp, and that’s what you want.
A few notes on NOT scrambling the egg yolks. This is the scariest thing about making carbonara. Everyone is scared that they’re going to scramble the eggs and ruin everything. First of all, just relax. EVEN if you scramble the eggs—and you won’t—scrambled eggs and bacon and cheese with noodles wouldn’t be the worst dinner ever. But, there are various techniques for keeping the eggs from scrambling and they all involve gentle heat. Sudden heat changes are what will curdle your carbonara sauce, so just keep that in mind. You don’t want to shock the eggs—a shock of heat is what will scramble them! Our carbonara trick is to temper the egg yolks with some warm pasta cooking water before combining them with the noodles and guanciale. Also, keep the eggs moving constantly once you begin to introduce them to heat—in our carbonara recipe, when we say “pour slowly” or “stir constantly”, you better believe we mean it.
Pay attention to your pasta. Cook it TWO MINUTES less than however long the pasta box or package tells you to. If they say it’ll be al dente after 9 minutes, you cook that pasta for 7 minutes and not a second longer! Why? Because you’re going to simmer the noodles again later for a couple of minutes, and you don’t want the pasta to be mush. The best carbonara sauce in the whole world cannot save mushy pasta.
How Do You Make Carbonara?
We’re so glad you asked. Everyone has a slightly different trick or secret and you know what? They probably all work. Except for adding cream. Don’t do that. If someone tells you that their carbonara secret ingredient is cream, run away quickly and then call and report them to your local Italian embassy. Here’s how to make (what we think is) the BEST carbonara recipe in the world:
Boil the pasta (for 2 minutes less than the package says to).
Brown the guanciale. BTW, whether you’ve got guanciale, pancetta or thick-cut bacon, cutting it into little cubes is the most traditional way to prep it.
Whisk the egg yolks and cheese together and let it come to room temperature while you prep the rest of the stuff.
OK, here’s where stuff gets exciting. You’re going to add some of the starchy pasta water to the rendered fat in the pan where you browned the guanciale. Simmer the pasta in that fat-water situation for two minutes.
Temper the egg yolk-cheese mixture by slowly whisking in 1/4 cup of pasta water.
Start stirring the pasta—tongs are great for this job—really move it around in the pan! Slooooooooooooowly start pouring in the egg yolk-cheese mixture as you move the pasta constantly. It’s happening! It’s happening! You’re making carbonara!
It should look a lot like creamy carbonara now! Quickly toss the browned guanciale into the pasta and dig in immediately!
The Best Carbonara Recipe
Or is it? We obviously think this is the best carbonara recipe on earth—we wouldn’t share it if we didn’t! But we’d love to know how it turned out for you! We’re hoping for raves! If you make it, let us know how you like it! Share a photo and tag us on Instagram using @themodernproper and #themodernproper so that we can see your stuff! Happy eating!