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.