This pasta carbonara uses simple ingredients but delivers restaurant-quality results with a combination of cooking techniques. Get ready to enjoy classic Italian comfort food made right at home.
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This carbonara recipe is inspired by an unforgettable culinary experience I had while traveling to Rome. I’m a big fan of hearty tomato sauces like bolognese, but the simplicity of this pasta dish has won me over. Rich eggs, finely grated parmesan cheese, and generous amounts of cracked black peppercorns deliver a luxurious sauce. Plus, crispy pieces of cured pork adds a savory bite that brings everything together.
This homemade version only requires a handful of ingredients. However, the trickiest part is not overcooking the egg proteins. Otherwise, you’ll end up with scrambled eggs instead of a smooth sauce. Not to worry, I’ll share multiple solutions. Tempering the eggs and using the pot of hot pasta water to serve as a double boiler ensures gentle cooking.
Long and slender noodles like spaghetti, bucatini, or linguine are good choices. Other types of pasta like shorter penne, gemelli, or cavatappi also work well. You want a noodle that will hold together well with vigorous stirring.
Cook the pasta
To start, I like to season the pasta water with salt. You will also be using some reserved water for cooking and thinning the sauce. Salting the water will make this pasta dish more flavorful. I use one tablespoon of kosher salt for every four quarts of water and one pound of pasta.
I prefer to use spaghetti and cook until al dente. Tender with just a tiny amount of chew in the center. The pasta will continue to cook in the sauce, so you don’t let it overcook in the water. Timing is crucial here. Adding hot pasta into the egg mixture will cook the eggs.
While the pasta is cooking, fry up the pancetta. They’ll be done just about the same time. Don’t drain the water! We are going to turn the pot into a double boiler (bain-marie) to cook the sauce.
Cured pork selection
The three most common types of cured pork used to make carbonara are guanciale (seasoned pork jowl), pancetta (Italian pork belly), and smoked bacon. All add a deeply savory taste and richness.
Choose based on if you’d like more spiced notes like pepper and cloves with fattier guanciale, a more neutral flavor from pancetta, or smokiness from American-style bacon. My local market sells pancetta, but bacon is more widely available.
Cook the pork
Cut the pork into ½-inch thick strips. They will shrink as they cook. Saute the pieces in a large skillet over medium heat. Wait for the fat to render and the meat to turn deep red and crispy. The grease is packed with a ton of flavor, so don’t drain it. I reserve about 3 to 4 tablespoons in the pan to toss with the hot spaghetti. It’s so good!
Aged grated cheeses like Parmesan, parmigiano-reggiano, or pecorino-romano add an excellent fermented tangy and salty taste. I like the nutty flavor of Parmesan, but you can blend it with pecorino-romano for a more intense and spiced taste. You will whisk the cheese together with the eggs. As it heats up, the melted fat and protein will help cling to the sauce but not be overly cheesy and heavy.
Make the sauce
I combine two whole eggs and four egg yolks to make the carbonara sauce. The extra fat in the egg yolks prevents the egg whites from curdling so tightly together when cooked, reducing the chances of scrambling.
You can use the leftover whites to make ricotta pancakes the following day, royal icing for cookies, or even a lemon meringue pie for dessert. Whisk the eggs with the grated cheese and freshly cracked black pepper. The magic happens as the eggs gently cook with the pasta.
Temper the eggs
Before cooking the sauce, toss the spaghetti and pancetta with the egg mixture in a large bowl. Make sure it’s heatproof, like a metal mixing bowl. It should be large enough to fit on top of the pot used to boil the pasta but not touch the water inside. Once the noodles are coated, temper the eggs by gradually adding a half cup of hot starchy pasta water.
The tempering process also helps to gently cook the raw egg, but keep it smooth. The starches also coat the egg proteins, creating a buffer to reduce the chances of curdling. Coagulated eggs will be small little granules that look like tiny cheese curds. You can add more liquid for a looser sauce if you’d like.
Cook the sauce in a bain-marie
To complete the cooking process, boil the pasta water and put the bowl of pasta on top. Now you have a makeshift bain-marie or double boiler. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water, or it will get too hot! Just pour off some of the liquid as needed.
The trapped steam will heat the bottom of the bowl. After constantly stirring for a few minutes, the egg sauce will tighten up and get shiny, smooth, thick, and stick to the spaghetti. Stirring distributes the heat to prevent hot pockets in the bowl. Without motion, the eggs will solidify.
Serve this with
- Caesar salad
- Mixed green salad with balsamic vinaigrette
- Rosemary focaccia
- Garlic bread
- Puff pastry cheese straws
It’s a savory custard sauce made with a higher ratio of egg yolks to whole eggs. Grated cheese like parmesan, parmigiana-reggiano, or pecorino-romano is added. Freshly cracked black pepper gives a slight spiciness to add flavor dimension.
No, carbonara uses the fat and protein in gently cooked eggs to create a luxurious sauce. Alfredo sauce uses heavy whipping cream to add richness.
Raw eggs are used to make the sauce. To reduce the chances of food poisoning from salmonella, use pasteurized eggs. As the eggs thicken in the double-boiler, this is a good indication of the thermal process also inactivating the spoilage organisms.
You pose a greater risk of scrambling the eggs versus using a bain-marie. This process is due to the uneven direct heat below the pan. If going this route, transfer the pasta and egg mixture to a larger pan. Heat over medium-low heat, and constantly stir until the sauce thickens up. Use the pasta to move any sauce you see on the bottom of the pan. If it sits too long, the sauce will curdle.
Why you should use a bain-marie for cooking the sauce
The key is not to curdle the eggs in the carbonara sauce. Just cook them enough to thicken the consistency. It’s similar to making a hollandaise sauce. If the pan’s heat on the stove is too high, the eggs will curdle between 144 and 158°F (62 to 70ºF). Using a bain-marie allows the steam to gently heat the bottom of the bowl, creating a warm surface to cook the eggs. The sauce gradually warms and thickens at around 149ºF (65ºC).
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- 4 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 pound spaghetti, bucatini, or linguine
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 5 ounces pancetta, bacon, or guanciale, cut into ½-inch thick pieces
- 4 large egg yolks
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, parmigiano-reggiano, or pecorino romano, plus more for garnish
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper, plus more for garnish
- In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Add the salt, then stir to dissolve. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 to 12 minutes. Meanwhile, as the pasta cooks, prepare the pancetta or bacon. Make sure to reserve the hot pasta water to use later for making the sauce.
- Heat a large pan over medium heat. Add olive oil. Once hot, carefully add the pancetta. Saute until crispy, stirring every minute, about 6 to 7 minutes. Turn off the heat, reserving 3 to 4 tablespoons of grease in the pan. Set aside until pasta is ready.
- Add the hot pasta straight from the boiling water into the pan. Keep the pot of pasta water on the stove, it will be used to cook the sauce.
- In a large metal mixing bowl, whisk the eggs, egg yolks, parmesan cheese, and black pepper to combine. Add the hot pasta mixture to the bowl with the egg mixture and toss to combine until noodles are coated with the sauce.
- Gradually add a ½ cup of hot pasta water to the noodles. Stir constantly to combine until a lightly thickened sauce is created that coats the pasta.
- Bring the water to a boil. Place the bowl of pasta over the pot, making sure that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Discard some water as needed.
- Constantly toss and stir the pasta until the sauce thickens, is smooth, and coats the spaghetti, about 3 to 5 minutes. Make sure to stir and incorporate the sauce on the bottom of the bowl, so it does not curdle. If desired, gradually add more water for a thinner sauce—season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve immediately topped with parsley, parmesan cheese, and freshly cracked black pepper.
- Recipe Yield: 8 cups
- Serving Size: 1 cup
- Storing: Cool the pasta and transfer to an airtight container. Refrigerate for up to 3 to 4 days.
- Reheating: Place pasta in a microwave-safe bowl for individual portions. Cover with plastic wrap. Heat in 15 to 30-second intervals, stirring in between, until hot.
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