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How-To

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

To make this rich, creamy pasta all you need is cured pork, cheese, and eggs

Fine Cooking Issue 92
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Photos: Scott Phillips
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I wish I had a great story about how I learned to cook spaghetti alla carbonara, a classic Roman pasta—a story about an Italian grandmother in a small restaurant outside Rome who took me under her wing and taught me the recipe her mother had taught her. Or maybe I could tell you about my family vacation to Italy during my childhood, when we ate at all the best trattorias, and my love for this heavenly pasta drove me to become a chef.

Unfortunately, the real story is not as sexy. I grew up eating like most American kids, and like most American chefs, I learned to cook by spending long hours in hot, windowless kitchens here in the United States. But when I started working at Lupa, a Roman-style restaurant in New York, I had a chance to cook with some amazing chefs who knew a lot about Italian food (and I finally got to go to Rome, too). That’s when I learned all the carbonara secrets contained in these pages.

Classic spaghetti alla carbonara is as simple to make as it is tasty to eat. There are really only four basic ingredients that go into it: pasta, cheese, eggs, and pork—usually in the form of guanciale (see the panel below) or pancetta—although a few generous grinds of black pepper and some nicely browned onions give it a more complex flavor. You’ll notice that there is no heavy cream in this recipe. That’s because traditional carbonara gets its creaminess only from the emulsification of eggs, fat, and water, with a little help from the cheese.

The key to a creamy carbonara is to prevent the eggs from scrambling. The crucial moment in making carbonara is at the very end, after the pork is cooked, the onions browned, and the pasta boiled. This is when you really need to pay attention, because you’re adding raw eggs to hot pasta in a hot pan, and you don’t want to scramble the eggs. Your final sauce should have the consistency of a thin custard that coats the spaghetti. Luckily, it’s easy to achieve this smooth texture with just a few simple steps.

First, make sure the bottom of the pan is a little wet before you pour in the eggs. Adding a couple of teaspoonfuls of pasta water will do the trick. If the pan is too dry, the eggs will immediately set if they touch its hot surface.

Toss the pasta constantly when you add the eggs. Take the pan off the heat and keep tossing the pasta until the eggs begin to thicken and turn to a thin, smooth custard. Stirring helps reduce contact with the hot pan and aerates the eggs, keeping them from curdling, while the heat of the pan and of the pasta cooks the eggs through.

Whar is guanciale?

In Italy, classic spaghetti alla carbonara is made with guanciale (gwan-CHA-leh)—cured, air-dried pork that’s similar to pancetta. But pancetta comes from the belly of the pig, while guanciale is made from the jowl and has a stronger pork flavor and a more delicate texture. Pancetta is a perfectly good substitute in this recipe, but guanciale’s richer, deeper flavor makes it worth seeking out. Guanciale can be hard to find in the U.S., but it’s available online at Salumicuredmeats.com.

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Recipe

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Fine Cooking Issue 92
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Scott Phillips
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If you’d like to make this pasta for four people, double the recipe, but transfer the pasta back into the pot used for cooking it and then toss it with the eggs and cheese.

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  • skc921 | 03/27/2016

    Someone told me the secret to Spaghetti Carbonara is to just use the egg yolks, not the white- the egg solids that can form if you don't do it right are the whites, and they don't help the overall texture.So I used only egg yolks, and used bacon. In addition, I added a lot of black pepper.The instructions in the recipe are quite helpful. I doubled the recipe, and tossed everything in the large pot instead of a skillet, as recommended.The other secret is using the reserved pasta water. I think it's good to do with almost any pasta dish to kind of pull everything together, but here it's a necessity.

  • maraarte | 01/16/2013

    Sorry to disagree with all the other good reviews of this recipe, but I did not like it at all. It was lacking in flavor and I did not like the consistency of the sauce, even though I used fine quality ingredients, and followed the instructions as written. It was only slightly better after cooking the pasta with the sauce a little more so that the egg was cooked more. Have had great results with many other recipes from Fine Cooking, but not with this one.

  • marcella_from_italy | 09/18/2012

    very good explanation of how to toss pasta! But onions in carbonara is just NOT authentic, I'm afraid. And Pecorino cheese should be used instead of Parmigiano.Also, that's quite a lot of pasta for just two eggs, however large. For me it's 1 egg/person/80 grams pasta (1/2 lb as stated here amounts roughly to 225 grams). This ratio of pasta to eggs gives you a perfectly creamy sauce and you can also cut on the oil (pancetta/guanciale gives off enough fat already on its own).Just my two humble, but very Italian, cents :)

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