My tagliatelle alla carbonara came out surprisingly bitter the other night. Which left me kind of puzzled. I had used the right ingredients. I had followed the right technique. What could have gone wrong and how could I have missed it to make carbonara that came out so bitter?
I ate the carbonara and made myself a cup of hot chocolate to wash away the bitterness. Then, I opened my laptop and started researching if other home cooks had experienced the same problem.
I came across eight reasons why pasta carbonara can come out tasting bitter. In this post, I’m going to summarize them.
Why did your carbonara come out bitter?
Pasta carbonara can come out tasting bitter mostly because of the cured meat or cheese. You could have forgotten to trim the skin off the slab of meat, browned the meat cubes on excessively high heat, or used sub-par, pre-grated cheese with an acidic flavor.
To understand why each of these can be a problem, keep on reading. I’ve broken down the eight most likely causes of bitter-tasting carbonara into easy-to-dissolve chunks (cliché food-blogger’s pun totally intended).
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Cause No. 1
What happened? You forgot to trim the skin off before browning the guanciale. The herbs and spices burnt, giving your carbonara a strong bitter taste (especially if you deglazed the pan).
How to prevent it? Before you cut the guanciale in thick cubes and brown it over medium heat, make sure to trim off the skin. The exterior of the guanciale has an unpleasantly strong flavor to it because it came in direct contact with the curing salt (including the herbs and spices in it).
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Cause No. 2
What happened? You burnt the pork by cooking it on excessively high heat. If you used medium-high or high heat, you could have brought the pork fat above its smoke point of 370°F (185°C).
How to prevent it? Render the fat from the guanciale, pancetta, or slab bacon gently by browning it over medium heat. The cubes will come out crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.
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Cause No. 3
What happened? You used thin slices instead of thick cubes of cured pork. Or you cut the pork into too small pieces. This made it easier for the meat to burn as it browned.
How to prevent it? Don’t use sliced meat for carbonara. Buy slabs of guanciale, pancetta, or bacon that you can slice, dice, or cut into pieces of any size you want. When making pasta alla carbonara, cut the meat into ½-inch (1.25-centimeter) cubes.
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Cause No. 4
What happened? The guanciale was cured in curing salt, a mixture of table salt and sodium nitrite (NaNO2). Nitrites are a food preservative that inhibit bacterial growth. When burnt, they can add a bitter taste to your food.
How to prevent it? Try using guanciale from a different butcher. Nitrites are not necessarily a bad thing as they help to preserve your food. When meat with a high concentration of nitrites is cooked over high heat, it can develop a bitter and unpleasant flavor.
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Cause No. 5
What happened? The guanciale was old. You can tell by the yellow color of the fat on the exterior of the slab.
How to prevent it? Trim any yellow fat from the guanciale and throw it away. Use only pieces of guanciale with white fat and a pink, red, or dark red color of the meat. The fat that’s closer to the muscle tissue of the guanciale can also look pink.
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Cause No. 6
What happened? You used too much Pecorino Romano. Sheep’s milk yields cheese that’s noticeably tangier than that of cow’s milk. The intensity of flavor of some Pecorino Romano cheeses can simply be too much.
How to prevent it? Use a 50/50% mix of grated Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for your carbonara sauce. The sweetness and nuttiness of the parmesan balances out the acidity and strength of the pecorino.
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Cause No. 7
What happened? You used sub-par cheese. This can happen especially if you used pre-grated cheese from the supermarket. Pre-grated cheese has additives, like starch, cellulose, and natamycin, which can add an unsought-for taste to your carbonara.
How to prevent it? Traditional pasta alla carbonara makes the taste of your cheese stand out (since it has no garlic, onions, heavy cream, or fresh herbs). This is good news if you used an expensive and high-quality cheese. And bad news for most of the ground hard cheese carried by most grocery stores.
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Cause No. 8
What happened? Guanciale, pancetta, and slab bacon contain plenty of fat. When you brown them, the fat drips down from the cubes and into your frying pan. Which means you don’t need to use any (or much) olive oil.
How to prevent it? Don’t use olive oil when making carbonara. You’ll get all the fat you need as you brown the thick cubes of cured meat. If you’re using less fatty meat and think that some olive oil is a good idea, don’t use too much. Olive oil has a bitter taste, which can really stand out in a few-ingredients dish like carbonara.
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Sometimes, your carbonara just doesn’t work out, even if you followed the recipe and used the correct technique.
Don’t get frustrated. Cooking is all about trial and error. And, unless you made all of the ingredients yourself, you can’t really control all the factors in the equation.
For example, I found it interesting that a number of customers of one of the best-selling guanciale cuts in an online retailer had reported that they bought this guanciale to make carbonara—and, despite doing everything right, it came out incredibly bitter.
Interestingly enough, I saw the same on a couple of cheeses, one sold in blocks and another grated, as I was scavenging the web for some very specific keywords.
If that’s the case with you, keep a note of the ingredients and make sure to experiment with them until you find your favorites. Then simply stick to what works.
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