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.
We’re still in pretty easy territory here. The first thing I do is get a large pot with plenty of water on the flame. I add in a good punch of salt and put the lid on to speed up the boil.
I cut four 1/4-inch thick slices from the Guanciale. I then cut 1/4-inch sticks length-wise along those slices. Then, I cube the that at about 1/4 to 1/3-inch pieces. You don’t need uniformity here. Bigger pieces and smaller pieces will give the pasta a little more texture. Just don’t make the cubes too small, otherwise, they’ll render off entirely instead of turn into crispy morsels of fatty goodness.
Next, I grate three-ounces of the Parmigiano with the finest teeth on my grater. I leave about one-ounce for grating over the finished pasta later.
Next, I combine the grated parm with two eggs plus one extra yolk in a bowl. I use a fork to scramble the eggs and cheese until the consistency of cornbread batter forms. I crack in a few cranks of black pepper from the mill and give it one more stir.
That’s it. Everything is ready. The key here is to time things. So make sure you have everything lined up and at hand when you start cooking. I also put my oven on its lowest setting and put in some pasta plates. You don’t want to serve delicate pasta on cold plates.
The pasta takes around 8-ish minutes to cook. You’re not finishing this one in the sauce on the heat, so it needs to be cooked fully with a slight al dente.
Next, I grab my heavy-bottomed saucepan. You need a real saucepan here with a thick base. That base will hold the heat of the flame for a few minutes after you remove it from the heat. That’s crucial for later. I put the pan on a medium flame with a glug of olive oil and the Guanciale. It’s essential that you always add Guanciale (or bacon or pancetta) to a cold pan. The process of heating up the pan and meat will render the fat out evenly and thoroughly, allowing for a perfect crisp.
I use a pair of regular kitchen tongs to stir the pasta every now-and-then. You don’t need to stand over the boiling water but don’t leave it alone either. I move it around every minute or two. I also use the tongs to move around the Guanciale.
A lot of fat is going to render out of that pork. Once the Guanciale starts to brown, remove it from the heat. Use a large spoon to scoop off the excess fat (I got half a jam jars worth of fat). Leave a little (maybe a tablespoon) worth of fat in the pan. Do not return it to the heat.
Use the tongs to move the spaghetti from the pasta water to the pan. It’s okay to bring a little water with you with each scoop. The pan should still be hot enough to hear a little sizzle. Once all the pasta is transferred over, use the tongs to the move the pasta around the pan.
This is where things get hard and fast. Make sure you have a whole layer of pasta in the pan. Use a spatula to scoop out all of the egg and cheese mixture onto the pasta. Don’t let the eggs and cheese hit the bottom of your saucepan. That’s too much heat and will start to curdle the eggs.
Use your tongs to move the pasta around in circular motions. You need to be quick here. You want the fat, water, eggs, and cheese to emulsify before the heat can make the eggs seize up. So keep moving those tongs for a good 30 to 45 seconds.
A silky sauce should form within ten to 15 seconds. Keep moving. You should see a smoothness here. If there are small curdles of egg, that means you have too much heat. Better luck next time.
Take a look at the photo below. You can see the consistency of the sauce around the edges of the pan. That’s the aim. It’s coating the pasta but not overwhelming it.
All told, it takes 60 seconds from the pasta hitting the pan to being ready to serve.
I fetch my pasta bowls from the oven and set them out. I use the tongs to swirl the spaghetti into the bowls. I add a few extra chucks of the guanciale on top. I then finely mill some black pepper over the top and finely grate some more Parmigiano over the dish. Done.
The great thing about this dish is that once you’ve dialed it in, it really takes about 15 minutes from start to finish every time. Another great thing about this dish is the taste. The funky guanciale has deep umami to it with a soft crunchiness that’s delectable. The egg and cheese sauce is so silky smooth that you’ll wish you could put it on everything. The sharpness of the black pepper is a nice accent. Overall, this dish satisfies you right down to the cockles of your soul.
Last tip: You’ll know you’ve mastered this recipe when five minutes into enjoying the dish, the sauce is still silky smooth and never clumps.
- Four ounces Guanciale (or Un-smoked Bacon or Pancetta)
- Four ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Half Package of De Cecco Spaghetti no. 12
- Two large Organic Eggs plus one yolk
- Black Pepper
- Olive Oil
- Large Pasta Pot
- Large Saucepan (heavy-bottomed)
- Cutting Board
- Chef’s Knife
- Fine Grater
- Small Mixing Bowl
- Large Spoon
- Pepper Mill