With just a few ingredients, Spaghetti alla Carbonara is one of those classic dishes that can show off your culinary skills.
It’s a quick dish, but it can be tricky. It requires a certain technique – and the right ingredients – to get that spectacular flavor and beautiful presentation.
At a glance, it seems easy enough: Cook the pasta, cook the pancetta (more on this later) and mix it all together with eggs, cheese and seasoning.
Not so fast. Even Italian chef Mario Batali concedes that it isn’t as easy as it looks. In “Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home” (HarperCollins Publishers), Batali writes that “a true carbonara has no cream, and it can be slightly tricky in its execution.”
Tricky is right. Executing this dish lies in the timing and technique of adding the ingredients off the heat to make that silky, custard-like sauce. The heat from the hot pasta will cook the eggs just enough to form a creamy sauce without adding cream. The sauce should coat – not drench – the pasta. What you want to avoid making is a dish of scrambled egg pasta.
The keys to making a perfect Spaghetti alla Carbonara is adding the ingredients to the cooked pancetta with the skillet off the heat and reserving a good cup of the pasta cooking water in case you need to loosen the sauce. The reserved pasta water also adds more flavor.
Cook the pasta to just barely al dente because it will continue to cook in the skillet. Once you add the pasta, use tongs and toss to coat the pasta with the fat in the pan. When you’re ready to add the beaten eggs and the cheese, remove the skillet from the heat. When you add the eggs and cheese, continue to toss all the ingredients to prevent the pasta from sticking to the bottom of the pan and the eggs from scrambling. This should take just a minute or two at the most.
Don’t leave the pasta in the pan too long or you'll wind up with little bits of cooked egg. What you want instead is a thin coating of the egg-cheese mixture so that the pasta glistens.
And, of course, use quality ingredients. We all know bacon makes everything taste better. In this recipe, I use pancetta, an Italian dry-cured, not smoked, bacon. You can find it at most grocery stores and delis.
In his cookbook, Batali uses guanciale. It’s similar to pancetta (because it’s dry-cured), but it’s made from pork jowl instead of pork belly. Look for it at some Italian markets.
Plenty of recipes for today’s dish do call for cream. If you think it needs it, go ahead and ahead a tablespoon or so. The cream will give the dish just an extra bit of creaminess. It’s purely optional.
Spaghetti alla carbonara
Serves: 4 (generous servings)/ Preparation time: 10 minutes/ Total time: 30 minutes
You can use all Parmigiano-Reggiano if desired.
1 heaping tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces pancetta or guanciale, sliced 1/4-inch thick and cut into large dice
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound good-quality dried spaghetti
4 large eggs
1/2 cup lightly packed, freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup grated Pecorino
Fresh chopped parsley
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the salt.
Meanwhile, in a 10-inch skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta or guanciale and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden and crisp, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package directions but just barely al dente, about 8 minutes. Dip a glass measure or coffee cup into the pasta water and scoop out a good cup of it and reserve. Drain the pasta.
Remove the skillet from the heat and spoon off all but about 2 tablespoons of the fat. Add a few tablespoons of pasta water to the pan and scrape any brown bits from the bottom.
Add the pasta to the skillet, set it over medium heat and toss the spaghetti with tongs to coat it with the fat and finish cooking to al dente, about 1 minute. If the pasta is too dry or starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a little more pasta water. The bottom of the pan should be a little wet so the eggs won’t scramble when you add them.
Remove the skillet from the heat and pour the eggs over the pasta, tossing quickly and continuously until the eggs thicken and coat the pasta, about 1 minute.
The sauce should be creamy and coat the pasta. If needed, add more pasta water a few tablespoons at a time to loosen the sauce. Stir in the Parmigiano and Pecorino. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley.
From Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.
817 calories (38 percent from fat), 34 g fat (12 g saturated fat), 86 g carbohydrates, 39 g protein, 926 mg sodium, 301 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber.