Carbonara is easily one of my favourite pasta preparations. It’s a close call between it and ragu. I was first introduced to it many moons ago, through Knorr packet sauces at home. While this tasted good at the time, I eventually gathered that it probably wasn’t terribly authentic, containing what I remember as pieces of freeze-dried peppers.
A few years later – in 2007 to be precise – I was watching a TV show called Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escapes and saw a carbonara recipe. This was not the first time I had encountered a recipe for real carbonara, but it was the trigger for me to attempt making it myself, the “authentic” way — whatever authentic means these days.
The first time I made it, it was a disaster. It ended up as garlicky, scrambled egg spaghetti, sprinkled with parsley to hide my screw-up. It took a while for me to recover. I had to defeat that damned eggy sauce.
Many, many journeys into the golden gates of carbonara heaven later, I’ve figured it out. Family and friends have often asked me how I do it, so let me try to break it down.
While I would highly recommend everyone to follow the carbonara rulebook, I always replace the guanciale with smoked bacon or pancetta, and pecorino (while talking about pecorino, you should try the other famous Roman pasta, Cacio e Pepe) with parmesan, as it always lives in my fridge. It’s mostly a matter of convenience and availability for me.
I also like to add garlic, parsley and the occasional vegetable; thinly sliced brussel sprouts during winter and leeks or asparagus in spring. Another thing I never do, is to use whole eggs. Egg whites won’t cook at such a low temperature, so I just use yolks. Sacrilege, I know.
What can go wrong? Following are the issues I’ve encountered.
Problem: The eggs curdle.
Solution: Make sure that the heat of the pan has been reduced sufficiently after frying the bacon. I always add the eggs last, after the cheese. It’s better to add the eggs to a pan that’s too cold, than ripping hot. Increase the temperature slowly. In most cases the temperature of the pasta should be sufficient to cook the eggs.
Problem: All the cheese gathers into a big white ball in the bottom of the pan after it’s been added.
Solution: I’ve found that adding a handful of cheese at a time works best. Incorporate the cheese well between each handful. You will see some who make a paste out of eggs and cheese, but I feel that you have more control this way.
Problem: The end result isn’t creamy, like when chefs do it.
Solution: This is simply down to the amount of eggs or egg yolks you use. I like to use 2 when cooking for myself. Remember that the key to all pasta cooking is adding the starchy pasta water to the pan in the final stages. The starchy water and egg yolks will give you the creaminess.
You’ll note that I haven’t included a recipe. I personally almost never cook from recipes (aside from baking or pastry), preferring to do things by intuition. There are millions of recipes out there anyway, like the one above or from the Italian culinary Jedi Master, Antonio Carluccio.
Repetition is the key to improving technique in any discipline. The carbonara is the perfect culinary example.