Spaghetti Carbonara is an ala minute pasta stirred in with an egg and cheese mixture, sizzling smoked pork jowl and a few tablespoons of the pasta water. From a motley roman heritage to your table, we’ll explore carbonara, one of the classic and favorite pasta dishes of Italy.
Like many Italian dishes, the exact origin of Carbonara is obscured by the mists of time like steam off a boiling pot of pasta.
It is likely from the Lazio region of Italy, a safe speculation since it includes Rome. While all roads may no longer lead to Rome, we still feel the impact of Roman cuisine. Although even that is speculative.
Further speculation is that the name Carbonara derives from ‘carbonaro’, a charcoal burner, which leads to thinking it was a dish for charcoal workers, and transfers to “coal miner’s spaghetti” in the US. Keep in mind there is even the secret society Carbonari fighting for citizen’s rights a couple hundred years ago.
Odd US tie in
Lastly, sounding particularly speculative is that the name first appears and is associated with WWII American GIs, their version of scrambled eggs with local foods included, in an article published in 1950. How’s that for a wild etymological path?
For a dish that is cured pork, hard cheese, pasta, egg and black pepper. it certainly has an interesting back story. Likely the Carbonara name is actually from this press mention. In the same culinary family, and also from Lazio, is a dish called Pasta alla gricia. This uses the fat from guanciale to glaze the pasta, the pasta water, freshly ground black pepper and Pecorino Romano, however it has no eggs in the dish, perhaps anther origin source.
Makings of Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Among things we do know is that spaghetti is the most common pasta associated with the dish. Yes, you can easily make it with fettucine, rigatoni, or a host of other noodle shapes, but for pasta carbonara, spaghetti is your first, and traditional, choice. Hence the common moniker spaghetti carbonara.
Regardless of your noodle, this dish relies on the pasta cooking water from the pasta pot. This is actually a common technique for pasta dishes like Aglio Olio (link to our article) and many more. The reason for this is it brings over some of the starch of the cooked pasta to give a little more texture to the carbonara sauce and keeps the raw egg from binding up to become scrambled eggs. Here’s a breakdown of the other ingredients.
Guanciale is the most common meat used and is often found in Italian recipes to add flavors and richness. Think Italian bacon from pork belly or the pork jowl.
Pancetta is a close second, also their version of thick cut bacon, it is usually not considered as rich as the guanciale from pork jowl. Wherever you source the lardons for your pasta carbonara, the meat fats are an integral part of the best carbonara sauce.
Possibly the most important ingredient, although we never sell bacon short around here, is the cheese.
Pecorino Romano or parmigiano Reggiano are what folks will expect in a classic pasta carbonara. The combination of rich and intense flavors is what makes the carbonara recipe work filling out the rich sauce.
Eggs and Pasta water
You heard it right, beaten eggs and pasta water are the last two main ingredients to fill out the creamy sauce that makes spaghetti carbonara so tasty. Finish with freshly ground black pepper. This simple ingredient list is part of why pasta carbonara is almost considered Italian fast food.
Here’s your carbonara recipe recap. Cook the pasta al dente in water with a bit of olive oil and kosher salt.
While that cooks, brown your cured pork in a Dutch oven or heavy skillet. Remove the meat leaving the oil. Drain pasta and keep some reserved pasta water. Toss the pasta in the oil to coat, add ground black pepper liberally.
In a medium bowl whisk a couple large eggs with the grated pecorino Romano and parmesan cheese.
Keep stirring constantly while you add the egg and cheese mixture, adding your hot pasta water as needed to keep a creamy texture. Toss in your meat, serve immediately with a little more cheese and pepper over the top.
Making Amazing Carbonara
So that is what makes up good carbonara. What is not included in spaghetti carbonara is heavy cream. And if you think that is an option just look a few years back to the falderal of the French video showing a one pot carbonara recipe with creme fraiche (heavy cream) and – gasp – farfalle, or bow tie, pasta. Apparently, they used a meager amount of parmesan cheese…but the damage was done, the Italian people were incensed that their classic roman dish was blasphemed against.
In contrast to many Italian dishes with a simmering pot of red sauce, or the accumulated components used to build a lasagna and then bake it, pasta carbonara is easily a one pot dish, maybe two depending. Most of the time a carbonara recipe calls for a Dutch oven, which is great at heat retention.
So, brown off your bacon or such and set aside with fat. Boil and drain the hot pasta, reserving some pasta water, set it aside. Put the pork fat back in Dutch oven, add pasta and coat well, add pepper and meat bits. Whisk your eggs, quickly stir into the pasta, adding pasta water as needed to keep a creamy consistency. Stir in about half your grated cheese, serve immediately garnished with remaining cheese.
Some carbonara recipes call for just the egg yolk. The logic likely being that egg whites can toughen up a somewhat, the egg yolk stays creamy and softer in part because it cooks at a higher temperature than the whites. Regardless, we are in the school of using a whole egg.
Some would argue that the raw egg is not getting cooked since it never sees high heat when making carbonara. ‘High’ is relative, even though the yolk cooks at a higher temp, that is only a medium heat at 150, certainly not needing the 212 of boiling water. Between the hot pasta and the pasta water you certainly are exposing the egg mixture to enough heat to be safe.
Spaghetti carbonara is definitely a great dish to serve at a dinner party. It comes together quickly, has few ingredients and is not an especially complex dish to cook. Like virtually any pasta dish from Italy, carbonara literally brings a lot to the table. Served family style of if you dish it up, your family and guests will enjoy the experience.
From the humble roots of the carbonari, simple charcoal makers, or the secret society that later used the name, we’re happy carbonara as we know it eventually found its way into the mainstream and to our table.