Updated: Aug 26, 2021
By decree of the Unione Italiana Food, a conglomeration of two Italian food trade associations, the 6th of April is International Carbonara Day (recipe link). The goal of this annual observation is to showcase the classic Roman pasta preparation, and encourage debate on what should and - more importantly - should never be constituent ingredients in a plate of carbonara. Simply put: it is an opportunity for Italian home and professional cooks to post recipes and photos tagged #mycarbonara, and reclaim the original preparation from the huns and vandals who might dare to include peas, ham, or worse, cream, and desecrate the pasta’s good name.
This, my friends, is a noble holiday.
A plate of good carbonara is truly one of life’s most memorable experiences. The first time you taste it, you immediately recognize the symbiosis of eggs, cured pork, and black pepper, but as a pasta, it’s unlike anything you may have had before. Trying to replicate good carbonara has always frustrated me. I may have attempted to make it a dozen times, and suffered eleven spectacular failures. There’s nowhere to hide bad technique with carbonara. At just five ingredients, it’s deceptively simple, but everything - from heat to ingredients - has to be in perfect harmony. Screwing it up is easy; a lot of really good restaurants still do! And you should screw it up at least a few times. There’s no better way to learn the “feel” of how and when a carbonara comes together than through practice. It is a fine line between velvety, creamy, smoky pasta that’s one with its sauce, and a liquidy mess of pasta and scrambled eggs. When you nail it, though, you deserve to brag about it on #mycarbonara.
Traditionally, carbonara is comprised of these ingredients: guanciale, eggs, pecorino romano, black pepper, and pasta. Here are a few notes on each:
Guanciale: A lot of people substitute this for pancetta, and I can’t blame them since a good guanciale is hard to find. We’re fortunate in Baltimore that The Wine Source carries a very good guanciale. Check with your local import store, or wherever you buy cured Italian meats. If they don’t have it, you’re welcome to use pancetta, but ask them politely yet firmly to start stocking guanciale. You’ll need it for pasta all’amatriciana and making the mind-blowing carbonara cocktail from Katie Parla’s Tasting Rome cookbook.
Eggs: Two key things regarding eggs: if refrigerated, let them come to room temperature, and only use the yolks. Europeans don’t refrigerate eggs because they don’t sanitize their eggs (which strips the shell’s protective outer coating) like Americans do, which is why we have to refrigerate ours. Neither way is “better” per-se, but this is important to remember since Europeans are adding room temperature ingredients to a dish that’s very fussy about heat. The egg out of your fridge is basically an ice cube and that will throw your pan out of whack. By using just the yolk of the egg, you’re eliminating a lot of excess water (which is essentially what egg whites are) that will thin your sauce. Whites and yolks cook at different temperatures, too, so better to stick with the flavorful yolk.
Pecorino Romano: I love pecorino romano, but sometimes it can really overwhelm a dish. I usually cut my pecorino with a little parmigiano reggiano, something in the order of a 70/30 ratio.
Black Pepper: Use the good stuff out of the grinder, not that dried-out powder in your shaker.
Pasta: This is where the shadowy food conglomerate is going to come after me, but I think you should use whichever pasta you have on hand for this. Tradition dictates spaghetti, and possibly rigatoni, but if you have a good pasta on hand that works well in rich sauces, use it. I used tagliatelle for ours and they haven’t fined me yet.
Pasta for 2
3oz. guanciale (85g), diced
3 egg yolks
½ lb dried tagliatelle, spaghetti, or pasta of your choosing (250g)
s + p
1---Crack 3 eggs, separating the whites and yolks. Set the yolks aside in a bowl, and allow to come to room temperature. With a fork, break the yolks and gently whisk together. Add roughly a half-teaspoon of crushed black pepper to the eggs. Shave the pecorino and parmigiano into the bowl, and mix with the eggs and pepper. Stop shaving cheese when the mixture becomes a thick paste as pictured below.
2---Bring a large pot of water to boil. When boiling, add about a tablespoon of sea salt to the water and then add the pasta (if using dried pasta. If using fresh pasta, wait until the next step is completed).
3---In a still-cool sauté pan, add the guanciale. Turn the heat on the pan to medium-high, and cook the guanciale (about 5 minutes). If the guanciale heats-up with the pan, more fat will render out.
4---When the pasta is nearly finished cooking (i.e., still toothsome or al dente), use a spider strainer or tongs to remove from the water (but keep the pasta water handy!) and immediately place into the pan with the guanciale. Add about a half-cup of the pasta water to the pan, another half-teaspoon of fresh cracked black pepper, and toss the pasta to coat in all of that guanciale fat and starchy water. Let the water cook off by about 2/3rds.
5---Turn off the heat on the pan. Add the cheese, egg, and pepper mixture. Follow with about another half-cup of the reserved pasta water. Slowly stir to incorporate for about 2 minutes. If the sauce is too thick, simply add more pasta water to evenly spread the sauce throughout. Remember: it’s easier to thin sauce than the other way around, so feel free to start conservatively with pasta water and - as you stir - continue to add water until the desired consistency is reached.
6---When the sauce comes together evenly with the pasta, serve on a warm plate, and garnish with freshly grated parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano.