Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O And on his farm he had some chickens, E-I-E-I-O So he took those chickens and grabbed their eggs, E-I-E-I-O And on his farm he had some cows, E-I-E-I-O So he milked those cows and made some Parmigiano-Reggiano, E-I-E-I-O And on his farm he had some sheep, E-I-E-I-O So he milked those sheep and made Pecorino Romano, E-I-E-I-O And on his farm, he had some pigs, E-I-E-I-O So he took those pigs and slit their throats, chopped 'em up, poured salt on top, and made a year's supply of pancetta and guanciale, E-I-E-I-O And Old MacDonald looked at what he had and said, I'm making some goddamned spaghetti carbonara, E-I-E-I-O
And that, friends, is how carbonara—the quick-cooking pasta dish with cured pork and black pepper in a creamy egg and cheese sauce—was born. Except that Old MacDonald was more likely named Giuseppe.
No, seriously. Of all the theories of how carbonara sauce came to be—and there are a lot—the most probable is that it's just an old Roman dish using the kinds of ingredients that have been kicking around the Italian countryside for centuries. Add to that plenty of freshly cracked black pepper, a spice so deeply woven into Roman history that it was twice extracted as ransom by invaders, and you have the building blocks of the famed sauce. But even if you subscribe to one of the other, more spurious origin stories, you have to admit it's a rare and remarkable recipe that includes ingredients from all four of the major farm animals, as defined by the Major Farm Animal Index. (The 1973 version, not the one from '94, which anyone in their right mind would agree was a hot mess—alpacas at number five? Gimme a break.)
While it's fundamentally a simple dish, the challenge of carbonara is cooking the sauce just enough to form a thick, silky coating on the pasta without accidentally scrambling the eggs. I'll get to how to do that in just a second, but first I want to go over a few smaller decisions you'll have to make before starting—namely, choosing your cut of pork, deciding whether to use whole eggs versus just yolks, and picking your cheeses.
First, Pick Your Pork
One of carbonara's origin stories says that it was created to appeal to bacon- and egg-eating American G.I.s stationed in Italy after World War II. But, as David Downie's great Roman cookbook, Cooking the Roman Way, explains, the dish existed under one name or another long before that. (As for the name itself, the tale that carbonara was named after soot-covered coal miners is equally difficult to prove.)
That means that on carbonara's pork authenticity scale, smoked American bacon is down near the bottom. Pancetta, Italian cured (but not smoked) pork belly, is much higher up. At the top is guanciale, cured pork jowl.
But knowing what's most authentic only gets us so far. What about flavor? I prepared three versions of carbonara, using each of those three ingredients. All proved themselves to be worthy options, though there were differences.
Guanciale, as you can see in the photo above, tends to have the highest ratio of fat to lean meat, which means that it renders the most liquid fat as it cooks, creating a more unctuous sauce. It's also often cured with a more generous amount of warm spices rubbed onto its surface; sometimes it's made with black pepper alone, but the guanciale I used in my tests also had a stronger flavor of clove and cinnamon. Those spice flavors come through in the finished dish.
Pancetta, meanwhile, delivered the purest porky flavor, which most of my tasters seemed to prefer. American bacon, as you can imagine, added a hint of smoke, which is pretty darned tasty in its own right and definitely worth considering. It's also an undisputed natural partner for eggs, even if that's not how carbonara came to be. If smoked bacon is all you can get, there's no reason to let authenticity stand between you and a filling bowl of carbonara.
No matter which type of cured pork you end up using, it always helps to chill it well before attempting to dice it, since fatty pork can be frustratingly squirmy at room temperature.
Second, Get In on the Yolk
One of the biggest differences you'll notice when reviewing carbonara recipes from around the world is that some call for whole eggs and some just the yolks. When I started working on this recipe, I was expecting to just call for whole eggs, since it's annoying to have to decide what to do with leftover whites. We have some suggestions here, but let's be honest: Wouldn't it be better to not have to deal with that?
Welp, sorry to say it, but after side-by-side tests, I've become a yolk evangelist. If you use my recipe (and you should!), you'll have leftover egg whites to look forward to.
In my test, I made a single portion of carbonara using 100 grams of dried pasta (my go-to amount for one person) and a single whole egg. I measured that egg by mass and made a second batch at the same time, using the exact same amount of yolk. Take a look at the photo above, because it speaks for itself. The yolk made a tight, rich sauce that coated the spaghetti beautifully, though some tasters found it a little too rich. The whole egg thickened into a nice sauce, but was more watery (remember, I used exactly the same mass of whole egg and yolk, so it's not because there was less egg in the yolk-only batch), and there was really no easy way to tighten it up without scrambling the eggs.
My final recipe, which serves four, calls for mostly yolks, with just a couple of whole eggs tossed in. The result is a sauce with an absolutely perfect texture, just thick and rich enough.
Third, Choose the Cheese
Last up are the cheeses. This is a Roman pasta dish, so, to me, it just won't taste right without the salty tang of Pecorino Romano, an aged sheep's-milk cheese. But Pecorino Romano alone has an assertive flavor, which is why I and many others like to cut it with the sweeter, fruitier flavor of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I use equal parts of each and whisk them into the eggs and yolks in a mixing bowl, along with plenty of coarsely ground black pepper.
Okay, now it's time to actually cook the dish.
Cooking Pasta Carbonara the Right Way
Let's quickly review the way we finish most pastas: First, we cook the pasta in salted water (but don't make it too salty) , using only as much water as we need to submerge the pasta. The less water we use relative to the pasta, the starchier the water will be, which will help bind and thicken the final sauce.
Meanwhile, as the pasta cooks, we heat our sauce in a separate pan. When the pasta is al dente, we transfer it to the sauce, add some of the pasta water, and finish cooking them together until the sauce has thickened just enough to coat the pasta. If it reduces too much, or if the pasta is still a hair underdone, we can keep adding more water, bit by bit, until the sauce is just the right consistency and the pasta is at its absolute perfect point of doneness. Then we stir in some grated cheese and serve.
With carbonara, though, that universal pasta-cooking method won't work. (Incidentally, it also doesn't work with pesto, which tastes best if the sauce isn't cooked.) The eggs in the sauce make it impossible to simmer the pasta with the sauce for any length of time, lest they scramble.
What that means is that we have to combine the cooked pasta with the egg-and-cheese mixture and cook it without too much fiddling, so that the eggs thicken just enough but don't overcook.
I've met some folks who swear that you can just toss it all together off the heat and serve it, but I've never been able to make that work. The eggs have to cook just enough to reach a light custardy consistency, and we need some extra heat to do that...just not too much.
There are two ways to go about it. The quickest is in a skillet on the heat. The safest is a trick I came up with while developing this recipe. Here are both of them.
Higher Risk: The Skillet Method
Let's start with the slightly faster but also higher-risk method: finishing the pasta in a skillet over direct heat. While the pasta is cooking, I crisp the pork in a skillet with a little olive oil. Then I whisk the eggs with the cheese and pepper in a large mixing bowl.
When the pasta is ready, I drop it into the skillet with the pork and stir it around so it picks up the fat and crispy bits. Then I scrape all of that into the mixing bowl with the eggs and add some of the pasta water. I give it all a good stir so that the pasta is well coated, then transfer it all back into the skillet.
I set that over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with tongs. The key here is to use the pasta almost like a mop, so that none of the sauce is left in contact with the hot pan's surface for too long. That mop-like effect is easiest with a long noodle like spaghetti, which is my top choice for carbonara, but you can make it work even with short pasta like penne, another popular carbonara option.
You'll know it's ready when the sauce tightens up, coats the noodles, and leaves clear trails behind as you stir it. To help regulate the heat, you should feel free to lift the skillet on and off the heat as needed until you reach that point of perfection. As soon as the sauce reaches the right consistency, transfer the pasta to a warm serving bowl. Like scrambled eggs, carbonara can easily overcook through the residual heat in the skillet.
Lower Risk: The Double-Boiler Hack
It occurred to me while I was working on this that I had everything I needed to set up a makeshift double boiler: a pot of boiling water and a large mixing bowl that I can nest on top. As anyone who's ever made an egg-based sauce like hollandaise or crème anglaise knows, one of the best ways to ensure that you don't scramble the egg is to cook it in a double boiler, as the steam heat on the bottom of the top chamber is gentler than a direct flame under a pan. Since carbonara is essentially a savory custard sauce, it's a trick that works just as well here. This is now my preferred method, and the one I'm giving in the recipe linked at the top and bottom of this article. The key is to not drain the pasta pot, since you'll use the boiling water to heat the mixing bowl.
To do it, cook the pasta and pork as usual, and mix the eggs and cheese in a large mixing bowl, just as described above. Make sure to choose a mixing bowl that will nest well over the pasta pot without the bottom touching the water. Then, using tongs and/or a strainer, transfer the pasta to the skillet with the pork and scrape it all together into the big mixing bowl with the egg mixture. Once again, add some of that pasta water and give it all a good toss.
Then nest the mixing bowl on top of the still-simmering pasta pot and stir constantly until the sauce thickens up. You still need to stir constantly, because the egg will eventually scramble even in a double boiler, but this setup gives you some insurance against it happening so rapidly that you don't even realize it before it's too late.
As soon as it's ready, transfer it to bowls and serve. Then eat it right away: This is not a dish that gets better as it sits.
Take a look at this and tell me Old MacDonald Giuseppe didn't know what's up.