I’d argue carbonara is just about everyone’s favorite Italian dish. It’s a traditional Roman dish consisting of pasta, eggs, cheese and cured pork — usually guanciale, but often substituted with pancetta or bacon in the States. Americans lovingly refer to it as the American counterpart of a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.
It’s simple, decadent and delicious when executed properly. With only four main ingredients, it would seem like a no-brainer weeknight staple. When it’s done right, you have a beautiful, silky sauce coating your noodles, but one wrong step and you have a scrambled egg disaster.
Even seasoned chefs find it intimidating, because you only get one chance to get it right. Lucky for you, we have a few tips to ensure success every time, plus a killer recipe below.
Grate your own cheese. The first step to success is to avoid the prepackaged grated cheeses from the supermarket. Not only will hand-grated cheese melt better into the sauce, but it will taste better (pre-shredded cheeses are coated in a powder to keep it from sticking together). I like to use a combination of Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino Romano cheese. The Parmesan adds a nutty flavor while the pecorino adds a salty, tangy bite.
Use room temperature eggs. In order for the sauce to come together, you need to start with room temperature eggs. If you add cold eggs to hot noodles, you run the risk of the sauce breaking into scrambled eggs.
Use mostly yolks. For an extra creamy sauce, it’s best to use mostly egg yolks. The egg whites tend to make carbonara watery, but too many egg yolks can make the sauce too custardy. The solution? Five egg yolks and one whole egg. It’s the perfect ratio. Save any leftover egg whites for a healthier omelet or that meringue you’ve been wanting to try.
Don’t forget to save the pasta water. Before draining your noodles, save some of the pasta’s cooking water to add to your sauce. It helps to thin out the sauce as needed and the starch ensures it all comes together cohesively.
Turn off the heat. This might be the most important step in making carbonara. Before adding the eggs and cheese to the pasta, you MUST turn off the heat. If you don’t, you could overcook your sauce and turn it into scrambled eggs. The residual heat from the hot noodles and pasta water will cook the egg yolks without scrambling them.
Work smart and fast. Adding the egg and cheese mixture to your pasta is the moment of truth. You only get once chance, so make sure you grab all the utensils and ingredients you’ll need before you start. Once you add the eggs, quickly stir everything together with tongs until the sauce thickens. Don’t stop stirring until you’ve reached the consistency of a thickened heavy cream.
Warm your serving bowls. Don’t ruin all your hard work by adding hot noodles to a cold bowl ― you’ll run the risk of it seizing up and separating. Pop your serving bowls in a low oven for a few minutes until they’re warm to the touch.
Garnishes are everything. Lastly, I like to use fresh parsley and lemon zest to brighten the dish and add a pop of color. It’s untraditional, but I think it enhances the flavors and elevates the final product.
12 ounces dried spaghetti
5 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano
4 ounces diced pancetta
Freshly ground black pepper
Lemon zest and chopped parsley, optional
Kosher salt, to taste
1. Preheat oven to lowest heat setting. Put serving bowls in the oven and heat until warm to the touch, about 5 to 10 minutes, removing only when the pasta is ready to be served.
2. Bring a large pot of salted boiling water to a rapid boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the used cooking water and set aside.
3. In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the whole egg. Stir in cheeses and set aside until ready to use.
4. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook until crispy, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside.
5. Add cooked spaghetti to skillet and toss noodles in pancetta drippings. Add 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water. Turn off heat.
6. Working quickly, add egg/cheese mixture to noodles and keep tossing until combined and a glossy sauce has formed. Add more pasta water as needed.
7. Add cooked pancetta back into pot and stir until combined. Check for seasoning and add salt if needed.
8. Divide pasta into warmed bowls. Garnish with freshly ground black pepper, lemon zest and parsley (if using). Serve immediately.