Eggs, pork, salty cheese and pasta.
We love all of these things unequivocally on their own—but when married together, they create a magical, deceptively simple Roman dish known as carbonara (see the recipe).
Carbonara, like any great old Italian pasta, is surrounded in myth: When translated, pasta alla carbonara means "in the style of coal miners." Some say the dish was eaten by coal workers in the 19th century and that the flecks of black pepper resemble coal ashes. Others speculate that the dish originated when American soldiers arrived in Rome in 1944 and supposedly cured a hankering for bacon and eggs by mixing them with pasta. However, this theory is also highly unlikely, as the dish is referenced in earlier Italian literature.
And though there is an actual, more than 100-year-old restaurant in Rome called La Carbonara, it doesn't lay claim to inventing the dish.
We do know this: Carbonara is downright delicious, and whatever its origins may be, many a crime has been committed in the name of making the dish. Why so? Well, with so few ingredients, people feel the need to complicate things.
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"It is so often poorly done, because it takes a deft hand," chef Tony Mantuano of Chicago's Spiaggia says. "Because as you say, it has just a few, simple ingredients, which is exactly why it's difficult to prepare properly. It's a dish that relies on timing more so than other dishes. Timing is crucial."
So to help you perfect your next carbonara, let's get a couple of facts straight:
Go guanciale. Tradition calls for guanciale (that's cured pork jowl or cheeks if you want to get technical). Bacon is a no-no. This is an Italian dish, so worst-case scenario, go with pancetta. Get one big slab instead of slices, so it can be cut into fat cubes. And don't throw away the rendered fat! You'll need it for the sauce.
Length matters. Choose dried pasta, and don't think about going for short shapes. "Everything short should be avoided: Spaghetti is the one and only to me, but something similar could work. Don't go for fresh pasta, tagliatelle or such. It makes the dish heavy," chef Christian Puglisi of Relæ in Copenhagen says. We love spaghetti, too, but used its close cousin, bucatini, in our recipe.
The yolk's on you. You don't need the entire egg, just the beautiful golden yolks. Using only yolks adds an amazingly rich mouthfeel to the dish that you don't get by using whole eggs.
Don't be shy with the cheese. This is not a pasta dish where you sprinkle a few wisps of cheese on top. No, this dish demands copious amounts of finely grated, hard, salty cheese. It's an integral part of the sauce as it helps give it that creamy texture. Parmesan and pecorino are classic.
The secrets to the sauce. The rendered pork fat should be stirred with the egg yolks, finely grated cheese and a lot of black pepper in a serving bowl. Add the pasta and toss, adding some of the pasta water to make the velvety sauce and bind it with the pasta. This should happen fast! The residual heat of the pasta and pasta water is essential in creaming the sauce. Once the pasta is evenly coated and sauce has formed, add the crispy guanciale (or pancetta, if using) and toss. It's important to add the crisp pork at this point, so it can cling onto the dressed noodles.
Get creative with your mix-ins (within reason). "Once the creaming technique is applied to al dente pasta, you could put whatever you want in there (but take it easy, please). I made one with a bunch of kale sautéed hard on the pan, almost burnt, in the absence of bacon. It wasn't a carbonara, but it tastes great, and you still get a bit of bitterness and smokiness," Puglisi says. We took a cue from him and made a version of carbonara with kale that was quickly blanched. The clean taste of the greens cuts through the richness of the overall dish, while chopped toasted hazelnuts add notes of brown butter and crunch.
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