Nothing says Italian food like pasta carbonara. Carbonara is a traditional pasta dish that’s made with egg, hard cheese, cured pork, and black pepper.
Pasta carbonara is a hearty dish with humble beginnings. It started out as a meal for Roman coal workers in the the 19th century.
As simple as this pasta dish is, it’s also notoriously difficult to get right. Which is probably the reason why you’re reading this blog post.
The first times I made carbonara, the sauce came out runny and would pool at the bottom of the plate. Until I started to wonder, “Why is my carbonara runny?”
Carbonara sauce is made with eggs, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper.
Pasta carbonara can come out runny if the sauce is undercooked. Carbonara sauce is tossed with the pasta and cured pork away from the heat and after they’re done cooking. This cooking technique relies on the residual heat of the pan to thicken the sauce.
When the eggs were not brought to room temperature before making the sauce or the saucepan was taken away from the heat for too long before tossing the pasta with the sauce, the heat may not be enough to thicken the sauce.
Continue reading to find out my no-fail recipe for making the perfect pasta carbonara. My wife still thinks I’ve secretly signed up for culinary school every time I make this dish.
On Authentic Pasta Carbonara
So there is no single way to make pasta carbonara. But there is an true and authentic way. And you can do that by staying as close to the original cooking method and local ingredients as possible.
Authentic pasta carbonara is made with guanciale (cured pork cheeks), eggs, Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly ground black pepper, pasta noodles, and, optionally, white wine. Contrary to popular belief, the traditional way of making pasta carbonara does not include cream, peas, or mushrooms.
You’ll be cooking the guanciale or pancetta in a pan to render out the fat — and use it to flavor your carbonara dish with a deep aroma and savory taste.
This will cause the meat to brown and, to an extent, the browned bits and pieces are going to stick to the pan. These pieces are the most flavorful and you’ll want to find a way to incorporate them in the dish.
This is done by adding a little liquid to the pan close to the end of the cooking process. It’s a technique that chefs call deglazing. When making pasta carbonara, you can deglaze the pan with some of the cooking water from the pasta or, optionally, white wine.
Ingredients for Pasta Carbonara
The best place to shop ingredients for pasta carbonara is the nearest Italian deli. You’re going to need dried tagliatelle, 4 ounces (100 grams) guanciale, 3 large eggs, 1 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, black pepper, and some extra-virgin olive oil.
Tagliatelle, Spaghetti, or Rigatoni
You can use any dried pasta to make carbonara. Personally, I think that tagliatelle is the best shape for this recipe. There’s just something about the way that carbonara sauce clings to tagliatelle cooked al dente. Other pasta noodles often used for carbonara recipes are spaghetti and rigatoni.
Check out my recommendations for the best italian dried pasta brands you can find in most grocery stores. I share why my all-time favorite pasta is De Cecco (and a couple of other Italian companies whose dried pasta is just as top-notch).
Eggs at Room Temperature
The best eggs for any recipe are certified humane pasture-raised eggs by a producer whose eggs you’ve tried and trust. As Huffington Post explains, pasture-raised eggs come from hens that were given access to the outdoors significantly more room (108 square feet per hen) than any other raising and production method.
The logic I apply here is simple and, in a way, naive. Roaming hens and happy hens — and happy hens lay good eggs. Still, I believe that one of the reasons why previous generations were much healthier than ours is that they ate natural food. So I try to stay as close to that as possible for myself and my family (even if it’s costlier).
Guanciale, Pancetta, or (Whole) Bacon
Guanciale is Italian cured pork jowl or cheek. Seasoned with salt, pepper, sage, rosemary, and garlic, then cured for at least 3 months, guanciale has a profound and savory taste that’s perfect for flavoring pasta dishes. It can also be very hard to find (one of the reasons being that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has banned all imports of this meat from Europe).
If you can’t find guanciale, substitute it with pancetta. Like bacon, pancetta is made from pork belly. The difference is that pancetta is only cured, whereas bacon is cold-smoked. The curing process for pancetta is richer in spices and produces a richer flavor. But, in case you can’t find pancetta as well, substitute it with bacon.
The thing to remember when buying guanciale, pancetta, or bacon for carbonara, is to buy them whole — not sliced. Italians cook cured meat to render out the fat and use it to flavor the pasta. This is best done when the cured meat is sliced into thick cubes, not thin slices.
Pecorino Romano and/or Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese
Pasta carbonara originated as a hearty dish for coal workers in Rome. The capital of Italy, Rome is located in the Lazio region. And if you want to make the real thing at home, you should buy the cheese that Italians from Rome and surrounding villages in the Lazio region eat.
That cheese is Pecorino Romano. Pecorino Romano is a hard and salty Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk. The name means “cheese from Roman sheep” in Italian. You can find Pecorino Romano in most Italian delis, grocery stores, and supermarkets. Just make sure that you’re buying Italian imported cheese — the American version, often labeled as Pecorino, is made from cow’s milk and has little to do with its overseas counterpart.
Some chefs mix 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano with 1/2 cup of the less salty Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to make carbonara sauce. Parmigiano Reggiano is another Italian staple cheese that comes from a different region and is made from cow’s milk. It’s matured for a longer time and has a more refined taste.
Once again, buy Italian-imported Parmigiano Reggiano cheese if and when you have that choice. The term “parmesan” is not regulated in the U.S., so not all cheeses labeled simply as parmesan are going to have a taste and texture comparable to the original.
For the curious of you, check out my post about Pecorino Romano vs. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. There, I do a deep dive into the similarities and differences when it comes to these traditional and delicious Italian delicacies.
How to Make Pasta Carbonara
Pasta carbonara is made in three stages:
First, you make the carbonara sauce by mixing together raw eggs and grated Pecorino Romano and/or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and seasoning with a generous amount of freshly milled black pepper.
Then, you cut the guanciale (or pancetta, or bacon) into thick cubes and brown them in a skillet to render out the fat. You deglaze the skillet with white wine or, if you’re cooking the pasta noodles in the meantime, with some pasta water, and turn off the heat.
Finally, you cook pasta noodles, add them to the skillet as soon as they’re done, and toss with the carbonara sauce. You are essentially using the residual heat from the pasta noodles to thicken the sauce. This can (and often is) the trickiest part to making pasta carbonara, because:
- If you do this on high heat, you’re going to end up with pasta and omelette instead of pasta carbonara;
- If you do this when there’s no residual heat from the pasta noodles left, the carbonara sauce will be undercooked and come out runny.
Here’s how to get it right:
Authentic Roman Tagliatelle Carbonara
- 100 grams tagliatelle pasta (50 grams per person)
- 3 large eggs (brought to room temperature)
- 1 cup Pecorino Romano cheese (substitute or mix with Parmigiano Reggiano)
- 100 grams guanciale (substitute with pancetta or bacon)
- black pepper
- sea salt
- extra virgin olive oil
Make carbonara sauce
- In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and milling a generous amount of black pepper.
Cook the guanciale till golden brown
- Slice the guanciale into nice and thick cubes. You're going to render out the fat from the meat, which is why you need that thickness in the first place.
- Brush your skillet with just enough extra virgin olive oil. Preheat it on medium-high heat for 5 minutes.
- Add the guanciale to the hot skillet and cook for 7-10 minutes. Cook until the cubes have shrunk and turned golden brown, and most of the fat has rendered out in the pan.
- About 1-2 minutes before the guanciale is done browning, deglaze the pan with a little white wine and bring down the heat to medium.
- Turn off the heat, but keep the guanciale and fat in the skillet. You're going to toss the pasta in the skillet shortly.
Cook the tagliatelle
- Bring salted water (10 grams of salt per liter) to a boil. Italian chefs often say that to make good pasta, the pasta water "should taste like the sea."
- Cook the tagliatelle until al dente. Read the recommended time on the instructions and, 2-3 minutes before it, start tasting the pasta. When the tagliatelle is cooked enough to not be crunchy, but still has firmness and resistance to it, it's done.
Make the tagliatelle carbonara
- Strain the tagliatelle and add them immediately to the skillet with the guanciale. Pour the carbonara sauce and start tossing the pasta. Toss the pasta thoroughly; you're using the residual heat from the noodles to thicken the carbonara sauce.
- Serve with freshly grated black pepper.