Learning how to make carbonara is part subtly and part skill. It’s essentially bacon, eggs, cheese, and pasta. That straightforward combination of umami-rich ingredients creates a deep pull somewhere in our DNA. It sounds simple enough: Fry up fatty cured pork, scramble some eggs and cheese, boil some pasta, mix. But, ho-boy, does this recipe get bastardized far too often. Learning how to make the best plate of carbonara shouldn’t be hard. And yet…
There are too many recipes out there that have kind of ruined this dish. First of all, many call for adding cream to the sauce. This, inherently, means you’re no longer making carbonara. Carbonara — according to, you know, Italy — is this: Guanciale, Parmigiano-Reggiano (sometimes mixed with Pecorino), spaghetti, a little of the pasta water, cracked black pepper, eggs. That is all you will ever need. In fact, one apocryphal story links the dish to Italian coal miners, who received those exact ingredients as part of their rations and cooked the meal on their shovels, over an open flame.
The key here is dialing in your technique. Is the pan too hot when the eggs hit the pasta? You’re making scrambled eggs. Using bacon instead of Guanciale? You’re in smokey town. Using anything besides actual cheese you grate yourself? Your sauce is going to be clumpy. This dish is truly simple yet hard to execute with precision. We’re here to help you over that first hurdle. In the end, you want a silky smooth plate of pasta that highlights the sharpness of the cheese and the crunch of a great piece of cured pork jowl.
When it comes to the cheese, you really need a nice Parmesan or Pecorino here that’s not pre-grated. Pre-grated parm in the U.S. tends to use wood dust as filler. That’ll make hitting that perfect silky sauce impossible. Get a nice, whole piece of Parmesan from a cheese shop. It’ll be worth every extra cent.
If you can’t find guanciale (cured pig jowl), I’d recommend using un-smoked cured pork belly/bacon. If you can find pancetta, use that. In the end, you want a high-fat content cured piece of meat.