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The authentic carbonara
Learning to make an authentic carbonara sauce isn’t just an incredible experience – it’s a must! The process is simple but just as important as the ingredients’ integrity. This traditional Italian dish is made in just a few steps, but each step requires some attention to detail.
The list of ingredients is short, and the recipe sounds easy, but perfect technical execution is not! Carbonara is so quick and simple that people often underestimate the technique required to bring it together.
Carbonara is all about technique—one wrong move and your should-be-glossy sauce will turn lumpy and nasty.
Fear not, though. Use a good recipe, avoid these common carbonara mistakes, and you’re golden.
There are countless variations on the carbonara recipe out there. But if you want to call your dish a “real” carbonara and do as the Romans do, there are a few tricks to keep in mind and some guidelines to follow.
Rule number 1
“keep things simple” to avoid some chefs’ twists on the recipe being seen as an “insult.”
The secret to a good carbonara is more about what you don’t put in it, rather than what you put in it.
Classic pasta alla carbonara, typical of Rome and its surrounding Lazio region, is made with eggs, pork cheek (guanciale), pecorino cheese and black pepper – and, as any Italian will tell you, absolutely no cream.
For the most traditional carbonara, serve it with spaghetti, tonnarelli, bucatini, spaghettini or fettuccine. But it will also go well with any long-cut pasta you have on hand. We also love it with tube pasta like penne or rigatoni.
Most dried pasta manufacturers specify a cooking time, but you should test the pasta after 8 minutes and never cook it for longer than 10 minutes to ensure it is al dente.
If you use fresh pasta, know that it will cook in a very short time, and the term al dente does not apply.
The starch in the water is what helps the sauce adhere to your pasta. By rinsing pasta after it is cooked, you rinse off the starches needed to make the sauce stick to the noodles.
Water to cook the pasta
Adding a generous amount of salt to the boiling water for the pasta is another element of the cooking process that is often overlooked. If the water you have used to cook the pasta has no salt, the dish will not come together.
You’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling.
Retaining a glass of the cooking water after straining the pasta is also crucial to the success of the dish, as it helps achieve creaminess.
This might seem nerdy, but paying attention to the temperature of your eggs will help get your sauce smooth and light. Before you start doing anything else, take your eggs out of the fridge and leave them out on the counter. Cold eggs can lead to clumps in your sauce, and we didn’t sign up for any clumps.
When creating a carbonara, the amount of eggs (both whole and yolk only) is key to a successful creamy texture.
The egg yolks help bind the fat from the pork to the sauce, creating a smooth, creamy texture.
Just enough egg whites will give the hot pasta the ideal texture and appearance, but too much will make it curdle.
I like to use a ratio of whole eggs + egg yolk per person. Some regional variations of the recipe use egg yolks only, while others use just whole eggs.
- For a richer flavour and glossier sauce, use 1.5 egg yolk per person + 1 whole egg per 4 people (0.25 whole egg per person).
- If you are using Egg Yolks only, you’ll need to use 2 egg yolks per person.
- If you are using Whole Eggs* only, you’ll need to use 1 whole egg per person.
*Through much reading and experimentation, I’ve concluded that you should add at least twice as much egg yolk as you’re adding egg white. For example, if you’re making carbonara sauce with 2 eggs, be sure to also add at least 4 egg yolks.
Pecorino Romano Cheese
Spaghetti carbonara with Parmigiano reggiano is a variation of the traditional recipe.
Remember that Italian food is regional: Spaghetti carbonara traditional recipe is an Italian recipe whose origins are in Lazio. The recipe wants pecorino Romano because it’s a cheese born in Lazio, while Parmigiano Reggiano belongs to Emilia Romagna.
For this dish, it’s key to use real, high-quality pecorino Romano cheese. If you’re going to indulge, why not do it right? Trust us; this recipe is worth it.
Make sure it’s finely grated, so it melts quickly into the sauce when added to the spaghetti. This will help it blend in with the eggs rather than become clumpy.
In the traditional Roman recipe of spaghetti carbonara, the guanciale is the top ingredient. In fact, the taste, the fat, we could say the juice of the seasoning comes from this little jewel of Italian culinary art.
Guanciale is pure magic, and if you remove its golden fat, carbonara becomes flat and dull. Guanciale has flavour and fat, pancetta is drier.
Guanciale is an Italian cured meat product made with pork jowl or cheeks. Its name comes from guancia, Italian for cheek, sometimes translated with pork cheek lard or jowl bacon. Salted and peppered, it’s left to mature for 3 months.
Make sure you’re using cracked black pepper (not the powdered stuff). A carbonara is supposed to be quite peppery, so don’t be shy.
No spicy pepper. Carbonara is not from Calabrian, the southern region of Italy, famous for spicy foods.
The fat that renders in the pan as you cook the Guanciale comes pre-seasoned as it drips down from salt-cured meat. Plus, the grated Pecorino Romano cheese that you added to the sauce is already pretty salty. So, it may already be salty enough.
Otherwise, season with high-quality Italian sea salt flakes.
Since this dish comes together so quickly, and timing is crucial, be sure to have all of your ingredients and equipment ready to go from the start.
Whisk as you mean it!
Usually, you’re using more egg yolks than whites here, which makes carbonara so rich and luxurious. But there are still egg whites in there. Whisking your eggs to incorporate the whites into the yolks completely will give your sauce a more uniform texture. Think of scrambled eggs. You don’t want streaks of egg white in a scramble, and you definitely don’t want them in carbonara.
Never cook the egg – it is not an omelette!
One of the most common mistakes people make when cooking carbonara is scrambling eggs.
Take the pasta and Guanciale off the heat before adding the egg mixture
You now want to add your emulsified eggs and pecorino and let the pan’s residual heat do most of the work.
This is where most people mess up their carbonara. You cannot mix the pasta and overheat the sauce. The gentle, residual heat from the pasta sets the eggs to create that velvety sauce, not the heat from the pan. So while you’ll obviously need to turn the heat under the pot off completely before you mix in the egg and cheese mixture, you also need to move the pot off of the burner—that metal retains a lot of heat. It will keep your cooking vessel hot long after the flame is gone. Ignore this step, and you’ll end up with scrambled eggs. And while we do love scrambled eggs, that’s not what we’re making here.
Add your eggs immediately (but slowly)
Speaking of adding the sauce to your pasta, you should do that right after taking your pot off the heat. You want the pasta to be as hot as possible to cook the eggs and set the sauce. But don’t pour it all in at once. You should add the sauce gradually so it has a chance to thicken.
While pouring, make sure that the sauce is evenly distributed because you want every inch of pasta to be coated in that velvety sauce. When you add the mixture of egg and cheese with one hand, you should have tongs or a spoon ready for the quick-draw in the other.
Adding a couple of teaspoonfuls of pasta water will do the trick
If the mixture looks too thick and dry, add some residual water.
Carbonara is a dish that needs to be made and enjoyed. The sauce tends to dry out as it cools, so enjoying carbonara while it’s piping hot is crucial! All of your guests should be sitting at the table, ready and awaiting its arrival.
How do I stop carbonara sauce from scrambling?
Carbonara sauce isn’t cooked directly on the fire. It’s just mixed with very hot pasta, so it remains smooth.
When you hear no more sizzling sounds, you’re ready to add the egg mixture. The key is making sure the pan is off the heat BEFORE the spaghetti is added. If you’re unsure when adding the egg mixture into the pan, you can test it by adding a splash of pasta water.
After adding the eggs, the consistency of the sauce should be creamy. Tiny clumps at the beginning will just be the cheese, so don’t panic too much in the first instance.
If you have scrambled the egg, you can whisk another whole egg and a bit of cooking water and add it to the dish. It should smooth it out so you can recover it.
If you still cannot avoid it, another trick is to temper the eggs: To streamline things, have the beaten eggs ready in a bowl and quickly whisk in a few tablespoons of reserved hot pasta cooking water to temper them. Then toss the pasta with the tempered eggs in the still-warm cooking pot, which will help the mixture stay warm enough to melt the cheese. This makes them less likely to curdle once you toss them with the cooked pasta.
But don’t add too much pasta water, or you’ll make it too runny. Be cautious at this step, only adding ¼ ladle of water at a time.
Tiny Clumps in the Sauce?
This may just be the cheese starting to melt when you first add the egg mixture to the pasta. Keep tossing the sauce through the pasta. As long as you’ve reduced the heat, you should end up with glossy carbonara sauce without scrambling the eggs.
Why did your carbonara come out goopy?
If your Pasta alla Carbonara is coming out too goopy, you probably added too many egg whites. Fix this by grating some more hard cheese on the sauce.
Adding more grated cheese will fix the excessive “egginess” of the carbonara sauce. But it can also make the sauce too thick and sticky.
If the sauce becomes too thick, add a little pasta water to liquify it.
Next time, make your carbonara sauce with more egg yolks and fewer egg whites.
How can I stop the sauce from drying up before serving?
Try stirring through a little extra pasta water to thin it out.
How can I avoid bland carbonara?
Since there are so few ingredients in the recipe, each one stands out. For the best flavour and overall texture in the dish, use the highest quality ingredients you can source. Season with plenty of black pepper to taste, and add an extra sprinkling of sea salt if you prefer.
Serve Spaghetti carbonara immediately, hot and tasty as they are. Cook the carbonara and enjoy it as soon as it is made!
But you don’t want to throw away leftovers after you’ve worked so hard, do you? So, if you need to store it.
- After you’ve cooked the pasta carbonara, cover it with a lid and put it on the kitchen counter to cool for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
- If steam is still coming from the carbonara, angle the lid so the pasta is slightly uncovered for at least 10 to 15 minutes to allow the steam to exit. The less you let it stand in the air, the less dry it will be later.
- Transfer the carbonara to a plastic bag or a food storage container. If using a plastic bag, squeeze all extra air out of it before you seal it closed. If using a food storage container, fill the food storage container as much as you can with the carbonara to avoid extra air.
How long does it last in the fridge?
Carbonara is best eaten immediately, but it will last in the fridge for 3-4 days if stored properly.
Keep in mind, though, that it will dry out more and more over time, so it’s good to consume it as soon as possible, ideally, the very next day of cooking.
We don’t recommend freezing this recipe.
Spaghetti alla carbonara can be frozen, but it will lose quality, as the spaghetti will become mushy, and the egg-based sauce will not freeze well.
Reheat Carbonara on the Stove
- Remove the carbonara from the fridge.
- Put it aside to cool at room temperature. This way, they will heat up more evenly later, and it will be easier to manipulate them.
- Preheat a skillet with 2 teasoons of olive oil over medium heat. It will be best to use a non-stick pan not to burn.
- When the oil has heated, place the carbonara pasta into the pan. You need to feel that the temperature is appropriate because it will form lumps and lose its fine texture if it is too strong.
- Reheat the pasta in the skillet while tossing it for about 5 minutes. It is important to stir and turn the spaghetti to heat on all sides equally and distribute the sauce evenly over the spaghetti.
- Remove the pan from the stove, transfer the pasta to a plate, and serve.
If you notice that the pasta is too dry after heating it, feel free to drizzle olive oil over it to even it all out.
Sprinkle grated cheese over the reheated spaghetti alla carbonara and enjoy.
Reheating Carbonara in the microwave
Even though using a microwave to reheat Carbonara is not recommended, you can still use it, but it can affect its freshness and taste. However, it can help you if you have no other options and need a quick meal.
If you plan to use a microwave to reheat Carbonara, put about two cups of the pasta into a microwave-safe bowl, and cover loosely with wax paper to prevent spattering.
Reheat on high for about 2 minutes.
Drizzle olive oil over the spaghetti alla carbonara if it appears dry.
Sprinkle grated cheese over the reheated spaghetti alla carbonara and enjoy.
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