Spaghetti alla carbonara is a rich and decadently creamy pasta dish - made without cream - from simple ingredients: pasta, pancetta or bacon, eggs, Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, and black pepper. The hot oil from the bacon cooks the egg and cheese mixture as all the ingredients are combined in a hot pan.
Simple in concept but challenging to execute without creating scrambled eggs and pasta.
Watch the quick video below from Steven Dolby of Stevescooking, a Chef Tube channel, for tips on how to master this delectable dish.
Carbonara is a very satisfying late night supper or quick school night dinner that is sure to please. After all, who doesn't like pasta, bacon, eggs and cheese?
Spaghetti alla carbonara is a simple dish can be made with a wide variety of pasta shapes. Traditionally, it is made with a long, thin pasta such as spaghetti (shown here), linguini or fettuccini. Personally, I like to use farfalle (bowties, also called butterflies) or shell pasta to catch and hold all those delicious bacon bits!
Pasta alla carbonara (pasta made in the charcoal -or carbon- workers' style) is essentially a peasant dish made with inexpensive, available ingredients. It originates from the latium region (Rome) in Italy, and today can be found on the menus of most Roman restaurants.
I learned to make this dish in Italy using pancetta (a pork belly meat flavored with peppercorns) but I have also seen recipes that use guanciale (pork jowls). Both of these are inexpensive cuts of meat. I now use low-sodium, center-cut bacon as I find the texture more pleasing and I almost always have a package or two in my freezer.
For the cheese...you don't need much so use a high quality Pecorino Romano (a gamey sheep's milk cheese) or real Parmegiano Reggiano (Parmesan) or a blend of the two. Be sure and grate the cheese just before using for the best flavor. If you are short on time, small bags or containers of freshly-grated cheese can usually be found in the deli department - or near the specialty cheeses - of most grocery stores. You definitely want to avoid the cans of pre-grated cheese as these tend to have fillers and can taste really flat.
Whatever pasta shape, meat or cheese you choose, make sure you use quality ingredients and work quickly. While the recipe is simple, the mastery of the dish can be challenging. Read my tips below to improve your chances of achieving a creamy, smooth carbonara - and not scrambled eggs!
TIP: Take the eggs from the fridge and allow them to come to room temperature before adding the cheese.
TIP: Grate the cheese using one of the smaller settings so it's light and fluffy rather than big bits or shavings. This will help the cheese incorporate better with the eggs and produce a smoother, creamier sauce.
TIP: Make sure you use a sauce pan that will be large enough to hold and mix all the cooked pasta. I drain my pasta and return the hot pasta to the cooking pot, off the heat. I then add the hot bacon oil to the pasta, using a plastic spatula to scrape up all the delicious bits. I stir to coat the pasta with the oil, then add the egg mixture, putting it back on the (low) heat only if necessary. Or you can just add the hot pasta directly to the hot pan of oil and then add the egg mixture.
TIP: If you are using bacon, you may want to drain some of the grease from the pan (1 tbs. or so) so the dish isn't too greasy. For a slightly lighter, somewhat heathier version, drain the bacon fat completely and replace it with a good quality olive oil. Scrape up the bits on the bottom of the pan and allow the bacon pieces to flavor the oil over low heat. Make sure the oil is nice and hot before adding the pasta.
TIP: Use some of the starchy reserved pasta water to smooth out your dish.
TIP: The pasta will continue to absorb the sauce even after being plated so it's OK if it seems a tiny bit runny when first served. If it seems too dry, add in a bit of the pasta water and mix gently to smooth it out.