perfect carbonara

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. 

Carbonara is notoriously one of the toughest pastas to execute. Even at restaurants, the line between silky and spongy is only ever a two-second distraction away from being crossed. As a result, I only order carbonara at restaurants that specialize almost exclusively in carbonara prep. And I've been disappointed even then. 

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 chancing a 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. In the original posting of this recipe (January of 2017, RIP), I was a fan of 2 yolks to 1 egg. Having tweaked it over the last year, I find that a 1:1 ratio of yolk to egg is ideal for me no matter how I scale the recipe.
  • NO PARM. 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. It is in no way redundant with Parmigiano. 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 Whole Foodsand 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, then wait while you finish the pasta to very-nearly edible al dente. Then, start re-heating the former pork pan. Add the pork back in. then the pasta. Toss these together first. 
  • Mix the eggs, pepper, and cheese first. This was my breakthrough. I add the cheese to whisked eggs in a bowl and an estimate of the pepper. I add it LAST to the pan and immediately begin the twirling process, 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. 

The one area you can be flexible? Pasta shape. Here was the batch from the original post, using linguine fini — kind of a hybrid of chitarra (square spaghetti) and a full sized linguine.

pretty cute right?

c. january 2017

And here's the latest, using bucatini — another classic shape that's more authentic, but a little tougher to work with. Bucatini is thick. Like way thicker than most of its cousins. It's also TERRIBLE when undercooked, so unlike spaghetti (which can quickly finish up in the short time it's tossed with egg), bucatini needs to be edible before you enter the final step. The tossing process just won't give it enough time to finish cooking if it's underdone, and because it's a starchier noodle, you'll feel it. And it won't be fun. For a long time I thought I hated bucatini because of this.

definitely improved the lighting situation since then

definitely improved the lighting situation since then

So why did I republish this post and change it around when the original was also called Carbonara Perfected and clearly this means it wasn't? Because "perfecting" is a loooooong process that (like most hard work) never really ends, and also because it's one of the few dishes I feel actually benefits from some optimization now and then even if you've done it a thousand times. It's worth it to know how to make it for a number of reasons, especially because it involves only simple ingredients that keep for a long time and can be pulled out when you're too tired to grocery shop. And because I've messed it up many times, I do empathize with the fear factor of carbonara, but these directions below are exact enough that a drunk person could pull it off (which 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.

RECIPE

Effortful time: 10 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Serves: 2

YOU NEED

  • 6 oz of long pasta (your choice), plus reserved water
  • 4 oz of guanciale or pancetta, cubed
  • 1 extra-large egg yolk
  • 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
  • Salt

MAKE IT

  1. 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. 

  2. 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. Reserve the pancetta. I like to make it a lil tinfoil house to keep it cozy. Wipe out this pan.

  3. Over in skillet #1, water should be boiling. Add your pasta. 

  4. In a measuring cup, combine the full egg, the separated egg yolks, and pepper. Whip them with a fork until totally combined. Grate in pecorino cheese and whisk into a weird gritty slurry. it's gonna look gross.

  5. When pasta is very nearly done (taste it — it should be fully flexible and edible, since it won't have much more than 20 seconds to finish), use tongs to pull it from the water and into a bowl. Turn the heat off. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the very starchy water and drain. 

  6. THE BIG STEP: turn skillet #2 back to LOW heat. Add the pancetta and the pasta, and toss to combine. Add a splash of the reserved pasta water to loosen the tangles in the pasta (if you undershot your cook time, this can help you close the gap a bit before you add the egg). Then, working very quickly, pour the egg/cheese/pepper mix on top of the pasta, minimizing its contact with any part of the pan's surface — it should stay on top of the pasta. 

  7. 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. You should do this for approximately 20 seconds. Feel free to add a splash of pasta water if things start to get too thick - I didn't need to.

  8. 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, maybe another crack of black pepper.

  9. Wine pairing: I like light, acidic reds with carbonara. For being a dish made with 3 types of animal fat products, it's surprisingly a little light and shy as an end product, and shouldn't be overpowered by anything louder.