I'm not a person who tends to repeat things. I don't re-read books. I don't re-date exes. every couple of years I watch Pulp Fiction but that's different. but holy mother of god I have made so much carbonara trying to get this right and it finally paid off.
honestly, getting here was pretty hard. but the internet made it way harder. that's because there's a lot of conflicting advice, all of which claims to be "the way", and none of which actually worked for me in practice. here are the things I tried and why I hated them:
- the "double-boiler" technique — a steel bowl and no direct heat, tossed over the still-heating steam from the pasta water. this was the best of the three reject methods, but at the end, nothing was hot enough.
- the rapid-combine technique — where you dump everything in, stir super fast, and pray. 50% of the time works. 50% of the time scrambles. I imagine people who do this must be ok with the pull-out method, too.
- bowl technique — the classic way to make a salmonella-fearer cringe. you put your cooked pancetta in a bowl, then add room-temp eggs and cheese, then hot pasta. the "heat from the pasta cooks the eggs." this is half true. it "works" if you are ok with soupy, drippy sauce but personally I am not.
then, in September, I went to Rome, the carbonara kingdom of the world, and got schooled. here is all the USEFUL advice, some new, some not, from my people to yours:
- use more yolks. seriouseats has written about this in the past. I found a 2:1 ratio of yolks to full eggs to be best for me. 3:1 was a little much. kinda custardy.
- seriously, fuck parmiggiano. not in life in general, but here, I see people all the time stay in their comfort zone because "sheep cheese" is scary, but. the sheepy sharpness of pecorino is what cuts through the egg fat. I love pecorino. I use it for everything. buy pecorino!
- cured meat works better if it's cubed. fat, tiny cubes that render nicely and still have a chunky texture after they're cooked. if you're privileged, you'll have a deli that does this for you (most store delis will). if you're not privileged, or you're me, you get cubed pancetta from trader joe's and make it work.
- take a break — then use low, direct heat. contrary to all american internet wisdom, most of the italians I spoke to weren't anti-heat. pull the pork off heat, wait and reserve the hot, but still extra al dente, pasta. then, start re-heating the former pork pan. add the pork back in. then the pasta. toss.
- mix the eggs, pepper, and cheese first. this was my breakthrough. I add the cheese to whisked eggs in a measuring cup and an estimate of the pepper. I add it LAST to the pan, which minimizes the overall contact time the egg has with the direct heat. it also effectively cooks it, avoiding the soupy/drippy texture of fully indirect heat but without enough time or heat to scramble the egg. yes, you still have to toss fast — but only to coat, not to combine, which makes it a hell of a lot easier.
- do. not. add. anything. else. to. this. recipe. romans are precise people, and they use 3 ingredients because 3 is the right number. NO GARLIC. NO CREAM. NO BUTTER. NOOOO PARSLEY. none of these things improve the dish. two of these things make it fatter. the other one ruins it entirely. which is which? your guess is as good as any.
the one area you can be flexible? pasta shape. I've done it with spaghetti (great), bucatini (a little off), linguine fini (pictured here, and my favorite, because of its textural similarity to fresh even when dried). you can also do it with rigatoni, but I haven't.
ok so now that I just wrote this post, I suppose I do empathize with the fear factor of carbonara, and haven't really been numbed by the number of botched attempts as much as you'd assume. but, these directions below are exact enough that a drunk person could pull it off (I would know). follow them and you will be ok. and if you make it, tell me how it turns out so I can sleep at night.
Effortful time: 6 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
- 6 oz of long, thin pasta, plus reserved water — I like linguine fini, but spaghetti works just fine
- 4 oz of guanciale or pancetta, cubed
- 2 extra-large egg yolks
- 1 extra-large egg
- 2/3 cup grated pecorino romano
- a LOT of coarsely ground black pepper — you can adjust this to taste, but I use about 12 heavy twists
- tiny pinch of salt
Bring water to a boil in skillet #1 (a deep one) over high heat. Salt the hell out of it. Add pasta. The shallow pan is deliberate — it makes a more concentrated starch-water at the end, which you need to bind the eggs.
Put skillet #2 over medium heat and add your pork product. Cook until rendered and the pancetta is fully crispy but not burnt or charred, about 10 minutes. Save maybe a tsp of the fat and reserve the pancetta. I like to make a lil tinfoil house to keep it cozy.
When pasta is 2 minutes under al dente (linguine fine, as I used, is a fast-cooking pasta, but spaghetti can go about 3 minutes under most package directions), pull it from the water with tongs and turn the heat off. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the very starchy water and drain. Let this pan cool for the next few minutes while you work on step 4.
In a measuring cup, combine the full egg, 2 separated egg yolks, a pinch of salt, and pepper. Whip them with a fork until totally combined. Add your grated pecorino cheese (if you're tempted right now with the parmesan you already have, gtfo this page) and whisk into a weird gritty slurry. it's gonna look gross, sorry.
THE BIG STEP: turn skillet #1 back to LOW heat. Add the pancetta, the pasta, and toss to combine. Add a splash of the reserved pasta water to loosen this mix. Then, working very quickly, pour the egg/cheese/pepper mix on top of the pasta, minimizing its contact with any part of the pan.
Toss! Toss toss toss. Lots of swirly hand movements. The goal is to never let it rest for too long. This cooks the eggs, and since the eggs carry the cheese, the sauce is neatly eggy and cheesy without needing to 'mix'. This is just to cook it.
Pull the heat and immediately portion into bowls — don't let this sit in the pan for any length of time. Give each a little extra pecorino shower, another crack of black pepper, and maybe some flake salt if u fancy.
Wine pairing: I like light, acidic reds with carbonara. Maybe look for a Barbera?