*Note: This recipe was updated in February 2021, original posting from April 2020. As I learn new things, I want to make sure the recipes reflect it. Updated photos to follow.*
I should be in Italy today. Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a little kink in our 10th anniversary trip… If you want to call “cancelled altogether” a “kink”.
It’s fine. I realize that this problem is a privilege to have – we aren’t sick, after all. It could be infinitely worse and – we’ll reschedule. Maybe for early fall, if Italy is allowing in US tourists by then? In the meantime, (as a consolation prize) we’ve decided to have Italian-inspired dinners for the entire 9 nights that we should have been on our trip – and Carbonara seems like a very good place to start.
Carbonara is one of the four classic Roman pasta dishes. Each of the classic Roman pasta sauces are based on the same basic principle – emulsify fat and starchy pasta water. Your fat comes from cheese, pork, or both. All of the recipes consist of, at minimum, pasta, cheese, black pepper, and pasta water.
The simplest sauce (in ingredient list but arguably not in execution) is Cacio e Pepe, which consists of Pecorino Romano cheese, toasted and freshly ground black pepper, and starchy pasta water, emulsified. If you add guanciale (or pancetta), you have Gricia. If you add tomatoes to Gricia, you have Amatriciana. If you remove tomatoes from Amatriciana and add eggs, you have Carbonara. Obviously, I’m going to the simplest of descriptions here, (don’t crucify me) but that is the general idea.
Cabonara is probably my favorite of the Roman classics (though Amatriciana is giving it a run for its money). It’s silky, creamy, salty, and pungent. If you make it with guanciale, which is considerably more difficult to find, in my experience, it is also a little funky- in a very good way. I prefer guanciale, but I don’t live in a market where those kinds of products are readily available, so I always sub in pancetta. Pancetta is great, I love it too. My lack of guanciale is not keeping me from eating Carbonara when I want to, you get me?
The real key to this sauce, as I mentioned, is emulsifying the starch in the pasta water with the fats from the pork and cheese. The egg is your binder – your emulsifier. It’s a little sunny tasty fail safe. It is very important that the pasta be hot when you add it to the egg and cheese, because the heat of the pasta is what is going to cook the egg- but not TOO hot, or the egg will scramble.
You’ll note we are only using yolks in this recipe. I usually save the whites for a scramble the next morning. Waste not, want not, right?
- 1 lb dry pasta – spaghetti or rigatoni are my favorites for this dish
- 4 oz diced pancetta
- 4 egg yolks, whisked
- 1 cup Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated, plus more for garnish (smallest holes on your box grater or, if you have a microplane, even better)
- Freshly ground black pepper
Add diced pancetta or guanciale to a large skillet and set it to low heat. Allow the fat to render out slowly. (Painfully slowly, if you ask me, but it really does work best if you let it go slow.) You are looking for most of the fat to render out, and to be left with pancetta that is golden brown and slightly crisp without being crunchy like a bacon bit. You want to leave some chew to it.
Meanwhile, get your pasta going. Your pasta shape will determine the way in which you will boil it. As I mentioned, starch is a priority.
Spaghetti or other long, thin pasta: Use a skillet wide enough to fit the spaghetti laying down. Lay the pasta in the pan and add enough cold water to cover the pasta by about an inch. Half an inch works if that’s all you have room for, just make sure the pasta is well submerged. Bring to a boil on medium high heat, adding a big pinch of salt once the water is boiling. Stir very often with tongs to prevent the strands from sticking to each other or to the bottom of the pan.
Rigatoni or other short-cut pasta: Bring a 3- or 4-quart pot of water to a boil and add salt. Drop in the pasta and stir occasionally. This size pot will be a tighter squeeze than you might normally use for boiling pasta, but the smaller amount of water means the starch will be more concentrated.
Cook pasta until just al dente, following package instructions on timing. Reserve the pasta water! Ideally, all of your sauce components will be ready to go the moment the pasta is done.
When the pancetta is golden brown but still a little chewy, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside in a small bowl for later. Reserve the fat in the pan.
When the pasta is ready (2 minutes shy of package instructions, or very al dente), transfer it to the pancetta fat pan with tongs, spider or slotted spoon, along with a couple of tablespoons of starchy pasta water – reserving the rest of the cooking water in the pasta pan for now. Don’t drain or rinse the pasta – you want the starch to help the sauce cling to the noodles. Stir/toss to coat the pasta in the pancetta fat, then add about 3 tablespoons of pasta water.
Remove the pan from the heat, add your beaten egg yolks, and stir/toss quickly to combine. You’re looking for a glossy sauce, so if it’s looking a little thick, add another tablespoon of pasta water at a time until you’ve achieved the consistency you desire. Sprinkle in the cheese a little at a time while stirring, moving quickly, so the pasta doesn’t have time to cool down. Grind in some black pepper, to taste.
Serve immediately – carbonara is only at its best when it is very fresh and very warm. (Butts in seats before its done!)