Oh, spaghetti alla carbonara: the ever-so-popular pasta dish with a silky egg and cheese sauce, chewy pieces of cured pork, and lots of freshly cracked black pepper… But I kind of promised you cured egg yolk in the title, didn’t I? Well, I tricked you, but only a little (please, forgive me?). You can actually find the recipe for cured egg yolks in my previous post here. This recipe for carbonara here goes from the assumption that you’re already in the possession of some cured egg yolks, which need to be made 7 – 10 days in advance (…didn’t my previous post convince you to make them?).
You can make salt-cured yolks weeks ahead in order to use them in many different dishes, and I still had some in the refrigerator, so I thought: can’t hurt to sprinkle some on spaghetti alla carbonara too? More egg, more better! The little salty shavings add another eggy dimension and the bright-orange color looks great sprinkled on top of your dish! If you are serving this to guests, they will surely be amazed. Though, if you can’t be bothered by curing the yolks for at least 7 days, I don’t blame you. Just make this recipe without it, it’s already quite luscious and rich on its own… I promise!
I used to think I wasn’t really that fond of carbonara. I was put off by the sticky pasta with its white, jiggly egg-and-cream sauce with pieces of soggy bacon suspended in it that was often served at restaurants. Really, I’ve got nothing against a good cream sauce, but there was just something about the texture of most of these gloopy sauces that didn’t go well with me… Hence, I never really understood what was supposed to be so special about carbonara.
Until years later, when I learned that the “carbonara” I had tasted before were basically a mutated, butchered version advertised as carbonara. I was surprised to learn that a real carbonara doesn’t actually contain any double-cream, or milk (a fact many cooks still get wrong). The silkiness of the sauce is actually created by carefully stirring beaten eggs – preferably with a higher yolk to egg white ratio, and maybe a knob of butter for extra lusciousness – into hot pasta. I then understood that when a carbonara is cooked wrong, it’s real bad, but when it’s cooked well, it’s truly amazing – and yeah: why would someone not enjoy a big plate of velvety eggs, cured pork and cheese for dinner? Now I do too.
Of course, you wouldn’t really want to end up with a scrambled egg pasta, or a big plate of gloopy raw egg soup. The only real challenge of making carbonara is to heat the eggs just enough to form a lovely, silky coating on the pasta without accidentally overcooking the eggs. You can lower the chances of ending up with a pasta-omelet (I know, it does sound yum, but for this recipe you need a sauce) by removing the pan from the heat and pouring your eggs onto the hot pasta – letting the hot pasta cook the eggs rather than the stove. Don’t be afraid, once you get the hang of making a good carbonara it’s really quite easy and it only takes about the time you need to cook the pasta! Besides, scrambled egg spaghetti is still edible and quite tasty, so don’t be too afraid to mess up the first time.
Now, apart from not overcooking the eggs, what makes a good carbonara? I believe I’ve been clear about not using any cream in the sauce (DO. NOT. DO. IT.), but what about the other ingredients? While at its most basic carbonara only involves combining few ingredients – eggs, cured pork, cheese – there are a few small decisions you can make before you start collecting the ingredients.
Your first decision involves choosing your pork. Most easy to find and use is regular smoked and cured bacon. While it’s definitely not the most authentic ingredient to use, you can never really go wrong with bacon, can you? Furthermore, bacon creates a slightly smokier sauce that, while not considered “authentic”, is delicious in its own right. However, pancetta (Italian cured pork belly) is a more commonly chosen ingredient and ranks a bit higher on the authenticity scale. Pancetta probably is preferred due to it not being smoked… the smokiness of bacon – while delicious – definitely could overpower the mild flavor of the sauce. These days, pancetta is also quite easy to find outside of Italy.
Having said all that, the top-of-the-top, the meat considered to be key to making a “true” carbonara, the undisputed king of all cured pork meats is guanciale, cured pork jowl. Some time ago, I learned about guanciale when I came across Antonio Carluccio’s recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara (I hope my use of guanciale in this carbonara recipe pays a little homage to the late chef).
Compared to the other two pieces of cured pork, guanciale definitely has the highest fat content, which means it creates an even richer sauce when its rendered-down fat is combined with the eggs. I don’t think I have to further explain why I decided to use it after reading about it. Sadly, it’s not always easy to find (so far, we’ve only found one deli here in Athens that sells it). Anyway, while there definitely are some minor differences between these three types of pork, they will all lead to a great carbonara, so use whatever you can find.
Let’s move on to the second decision you’ll have to make, which involves the cheese you plan on using. Since carbonara is said to originate in Rome, the first obvious choice for a cheese would be Pecorino Romano, a salty, strong-flavored sheep’s-milk cheese. Pecorino, though, has a peculiar flavor that some people definitely will not like. This explains why it’s quite common to substitute Pecorino with the more popular Parmigiano-Reggiano, or to use equal parts of both cheeses to find a nice middle ground.
Last, but not least, you can decide to use whole eggs, or just the yolks. Using whole eggs obviously means less waste and it results in a bit of a lighter sauce (though you can always use the egg whites to make this pavlova), while using only the yolk creates a very rich coating on your pasta. I lean heavily towards the richer variety, by whisking together 1 whole egg and 4 egg yolks (plus one grated salt-cured yolk). Some people may find using nearly only yolks a little too rich (just wait till you find out I also add a big knob of butter), if so… maybe you shouldn’t look for carbonara recipes on a site called ‘the glutton life’… Just kidding, you do you.
I’d say these are the three most important decisions and technically you could start cooking your dish now. For the pasta, I like to use spaghettoni, the largest size of spaghetti, but, naturally, regular spaghetti will do just as fine. Personally, I like to add some garlic in the first step of cooking to flavor the oil and I also add butter before adding the eggs to the pasta, but these decisions are totally optional… As are the cured egg yolks I wrote about at the beginning of this post, though they’re definitely worth the effort!
[the recipe below has been slightly edited on 29/01/2019: the previous recipe didn’t mention adding one salt-cured yolk to the actual sauce.]
Super Rich Spaghetti alla Carbonara (with Salt Cured Egg Yolk)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 big garlic clove, crushed
- 1 large egg, plus 4 fresh yolks
- 1 cured egg yolk, plus one for serving (optional)
- 100g Pecorino Romano, grated
- 150g guanciale, or pancetta
- 400g spaghettoni, or regular spaghetti
- 100ml cooking liquid from the pasta
- 30g butter, cubed
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
MethodNote: the recipe for salt-cured egg yolks can be found in the previous post on this blog.
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg, fresh egg yolks, grated cheese, and a good amount of black pepper (if you are using salt-cured egg yolks, finely grate one into the mixture). Set aside.
- In a big pot, bring water to a boil. When the water is boiling add a generous amount of salt (it should be as salty as the sea).
- Cook spaghettoni al dente in the big pot of salted water.
- While your pasta is boiling, heat olive oil in a frying pan and add the crushed garlic. Fry garlic for about 2 minutes and remove garlic from pan.
- Cut the guanciale into medium-sized chunks and add to the hot pan. Fry until the guanciale starts to release its fat and turns slightly crispy, but still remains a bit chewy.
- Drain the spaghettoni, but keep about 100ml of the cooking liquid.
- Add the pasta and reserved cooking liquid to the frying pan with guanciale. Stir.
- Remove pan from heat.
- Add the cubed butter to the frying pan with the pasta and meat. Stir until butter has dissolved.
- Make sure your frying pan has been off the heat for at least a minute or two before pouring your egg and cheese mixture onto the pasta. Stir until the sauce starts to thicken slightly and forms a nice coating around the pasta. Don’t overcook the eggs. I repeat, don’t overcook the eggs.
- Serve immediately and sprinkle on some extra cheese, extra pepper, or in my case: some extra shaved cured egg yolk.