After pizza, spaghetti alla carbonara is probably Italy’s most famous dish, but also its most controversial. Everybody knows that this plate of bacon-and-egg pasta is supposed to have a rich, creamy, sauce, but few know the real secret of how to achieve it. Outside—and even inside—Italy, people often cheat and add a little (or sometimes a lot of) cream to get the right consistency. But to purists (and even not so purists), cream might as well come in bottles with the number 666 printed on the label. They will tell you, with a stronger than religious fervour, that it is not part of the original recipe. Nor, for that matter are peas.
The official ingredients in spaghetti alla carbonara are: guanciale, eggs, pecorino romano cheese, black pepper, and spaghetti. Anything else is extraneous, even salt (which you really don’t need because of the salty cheese). You’d think with such a simple list it was almost impossible to go wrong, but I have had some really awful carbonaras, often cooked by people who should know better.
Spaghetti alla carbonara is considered to be part of Roman cuisine and it was in Rome that I had my eye-opening experience when it comes to this dish. Instead of the usual watery white cream sauce, with pieces of scrambled egg and pink bacon cubes floating in it, I was presented with a plate of spaghetti, coated in a rich, velvety, yellow sauce, with pieces of crunchy russet bacon. I will never forget the first mouthful and it prompted me into action. Like an ancient gladiator, I set myself the challenge of learning how to make carbonara like a Roman or I would die in the process: morituri te salutant!
After a lot of research, trial, error, and eating some of the best carbonaras in Rome, I finally came across a fool proof method, which is perfectly faithful to the traditional recipe and has elicited the phrase veramente buoni from residents of Rome. Get a pen and paper ready, because I am about to divulge my secrets to you. Ready?
The first thing is to make sure that you have the right ingredients. Many recipes call for pancetta but the real recipe calls for guanciale. This comes from the guancia or cheek of the pig, a cut which is not used in the USA or UK but which is more tender and fatty than pancetta. If you can’t get guanciale I would recommend using streaky bacon, thinly sliced and then cut into strips of about a centimetre in width. If you must use pancetta then buy it sliced and again cut it into strips. Do not, and I repeat, do not use cubes or lardons as these are too thick and will give the wrong consistency.
Use really fresh free-range eggs. These are likely to have dark yolks which will give the finished dish its deep yellow colour. In Italy, you can buy such eggs marketed for pasta gialla (yellow pasta). For the cheese, only pecorino romano DOP will do as it has the right taste and melting point to make the sauce how it should be. At a push, parmigiano reggiano could be used but make sure it’s the fresh, softer kind, since this will melt more readily when you cook the dish. Always grate the cheese yourself and never use pre-grated cheese, especially if its labelled Parmesan Cheese. It’s not the same thing at all.
There is one thing I need to point out as it’s the real secret. Never, ever, ever, add the egg mixture into the hot pan with the cooked spaghetti, as some recipes state, since this will always result in scrambled egg. Instead, add the cooked spaghetti to the egg mixture in a large bowl, preferably the one you will serve the pasta from. The heat of the pasta will cook the eggs and melt the cheese into a delightfully creamy sauce. Any other method will not work. You have been warned.
The quantities below are based on two people. To cook for more, simply add 150g pasta, one egg yolk, 100g guanciale, and 100g cheese per person. Make sure you increase the amount of water and salt, according to the following ratio (100g pasta = 1 litre water + 1 teaspoon salt).
I’ve added further important details to the recipe below, but in summary, these are the important points:
- Use only the following ingredients: guanciale, eggs, pecorino romano, black pepper, spaghetti,
- Use the best quality ingredients you can buy.
- Cook the pasta with the correct ratio of water and salt (100g pasta = 1 litre water + 1 teaspoon salt).
- Beat the eggs thoroughly for five minutes until light and fluffy.
- Always add the cooked spaghetti to the egg mixture never the other way round.
- Don’t add extra salt as the salt in the cooking water and the saltiness of the cheese are enough.
Follow all this advice for the best carbonara you’ve ever eaten and just like you’d find it in Rome.
Spaghetti alla carbonara
Preparation time: 20 mins
Cooking time: 20 mins
Total time: 40 mins
3 litres (6 1/2 pints) water
3 teaspoons salt
200g (7 ounces) guanciale cut into small strips
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
200g (7 ounces) pecorino romano cheese, freshly grated
black pepper, to taste
300g (10 1/2 ounces) dried spaghetti
- Put the water in a large pan, add the salt, cover and bring to the boil.
- Heat a frying pan, add the guanciale and cook gently until crispy, about ten minutes. You shouldn’t need to add any oil, because of the high fat content of the guanciale. If necessary, drain off the fat halfway through cooking to ensure that it ends up crispy. When ready, allow it to cool.
- Put the egg yolks and whole egg into a large bowl and beat them together with a balloon whisk for at least five minutes until light and fluffy.
- Add the grated cheese to the eggs and mix thoroughly using the whisk. Add the black pepper and mix once more. Then add the cooled guanciale and mix again.
- Cook the spaghetti al dente according to the manufacturers’ instructions. When ready, remove a cup of the cooking liquid.
- Drain the spaghetti.
- Add the spaghetti to the bowl with the eggs, cheese, and guanciale. Do not add the egg mixture to the spaghetti in the hot pan. Toss thoroughly so that all the spaghetti is coated in the mixture. If absolutely necessary add a little of the cooking liquid to ensure that the sauce covers all the spaghetti.