Spaghetti alla Carbonara exemplifies basic, amazing Italian cooking. A few ingredients come together simply, making the point that delicious elegant food doesn’t have to be complicated. It looks delicious and you can knock it out in about 10-15 minutes.
The first time I had Carbonara was during my college days in Cambridge when I went to the Italian neighborhood in Boston called the North End. I had never heard of this traditional Italian pasta dish before then, but fell in love with it at first bite. I’ve heard a few explanations as to the name “Carbonara.” The first is that Carbonara is named after the carbonari (charcoal sellers) who would come into the city to sell their goods. Many people say that carbonara is instead a reference to the black pepper in the dish. No matter what the story, it’s a pasta dish that will please just about anyone.
The traditional ingredients are pasta, pancetta or bacon, egg, Parmesan cheese, parsley, and black pepper. Many restaurants and recipes add cream to Carbonara, but this is not authentic. Garlic is not an authentic ingredient in this dish either, though many people add it – an Italian friend told me that hey, there’s a little garlic in almost everything Italian.
No cream, butter, or oil are necessary in this dish. The creamy sauce is created by the rich combination of egg yolks and cheese. Like other dishes such as Tiramisu and Caesar salad, Carbonara uses raw eggs. The egg yolk heats enough to create a creaminess but not heated so much that it scrambles. Some people fret that using the raw egg creates a risk of salmonella exposure. Salmonella contamination affects 1 in 10,000 eggs (= rare), but it’s always a good call to err on the side of being too careful. I’m pretty paranoid myself, and I have a method of making Carbonara that I’m very comfortable with.
When I make Carbonara, I drain the pasta quickly and within seconds (don’t rinse pasta!) toss it into the egg sauce mixture, stirring it in, allowing the egg to cook on the noodles. With a food thermometer, I have measured the temp of the finished dish to be well above 170° F.
With the bacon or pancetta, you have a few choices. Trader Joe’s sells regular bacon, turkey bacon, or fully cooked bacon. With the fully cooked bacon, you won’t have much in the way of drippings after you heat it up. With the others, you might want to drain off the drippings before adding the bacon to the dish. If you use pancetta, Trader Joe’s sells 4-oz containers of mini-cubed pancetta, ready to cook and use. If you’re vegetarian, you can use fake bacon (“fake-on”) or your favorite bacon substitute. You can also sauté mushrooms and use those instead.
Serve Carbonara very quickly! You don’t want it cold. Carbonara connoisseur will even serve it on heated plates to help retain the heat and creaminess of the sauce (not necessary but a nice touch!)
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
- 1 lb (1 pkg) spaghetti
- 3-4 oz bacon or pancetta (I used TJ’s fully cooked bacon)
- 3 egg yolks
- 1/3 cup Grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- 1/4 cup chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- Add spaghetti to salted boiling water per package instructions.
- Meanwhile, using kitchen shears, cut bacon into 1-inch pieces. Heat and crisp bacon in pan.
- Stir together egg yolks and cheese in a large serving bowl. One Tbsp at a time, stir in about 4 Tbsp of boiling pasta water to the mixture to temper the eggs and prepare them for the hot pasta. You don’t want to shock the eggs with the heat and end up scrambling them. (You want them cooked but creamy.)
- When pasta is done, drain and immediately add to the egg mixture in serving bowl and stir vigorously until pasta is coated. Do not wait and do not rinse the pasta before you do this step. Do it quickly so that the intense heat of the pasta will bring the raw eggs to a safe temperature.
- Stir in bacon, parsley, and black pepper. Serve immediately.
I usually don’t add salt since I find that there’s enough salt from the pancetta/bacon and the cheese, as well as the salt that is introduced to the pasta during boiling. You may want to adjust to your own tastes.