Spaghetti alla Carbonara: Classic Comfort Food
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Spaghetti alla carbonara is classic comfort food at its best. Learn our foolproof techniques for turning a handful of basic ingredients into pure magic.
Why we love this recipe
It doesn’t get much better for comfort food than spaghetti alla carbonara. It’s quick to make from ingredients that are easy to keep in the house. And it’s quite easy once you master a couple of simple techniques. We think of carbonara almost like grown-up mac and cheese that also appeals to the kids. Sometimes it’s just exactly what you want, and there’s no negotiating.
Just a few simple ingredients come together to make a positively magical plate of comfort food. You’ll need:
- Very fresh eggs. You’ll use two whole eggs and two yolks, saving the two extra whites for another recipe, like meringue cookies or pavlova (or just add them to your next frittata or batch of scrambled eggs)
- Pecorino Romano cheese (and Parmigiano Reggiano too, if you like)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Thick bacon, guanciale, or pancetta. Guanciale (cured but not smoked pork jowl) is the traditional meat for this dish, but to be honest, we almost always use really good bacon instead. We like the smoky flavor, but more importantly it’s what we tend to stock — and carbonara should be all about convenience and comfort.
- A couple of smashed garlic cloves
How to make spaghetti carbonara
Here’s the thing about this recipe. It’s basic and simple, and you’ll totally master it, promise. But it can seem intimidating the first couple of times for two reasons.
First, it’s important to get the timing right so that all the elements will be hot at the same time. Second, you don’t want to scramble the eggs. Our method makes it easy to avoid that common pitfall.
Here’s how you’ll make a great batch of spaghetti alla carbonara. You can see all the steps in action in the video that accompanies this post.
- Start with a very large, heatproof mixing bowl. This is what you’ll use to toss the whole dish together at the end, so make sure it can accommodate a pound of spaghetti.
- In the bowl, whisk together the eggs and egg yolks, half the grated cheese, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Set the bowl aside for now.
- Fill a large pasta pot halfway with water and add plenty of salt. Don’t be shy here. We’re talking a couple of tablespoons.
- Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil. When the water boils, cook the spaghetti just shy of al dente — one minute less than it says on the package. Don’t drain the pasta water. You’ll use it later.
- While the water comes to a boil, add the diced bacon, guanciale, or pancetta and the smashed garlic cloves to a large pan and then set the pan over medium heat. Starting from cold and using moderate heat gives the fat a chance to render so the meat won’t stick to the pan without additional cooking fat.
- Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is nicely browned and a lot of the fat has been rendered. If there is more than about three to four tablespoons of fat in the pan, spoon out and save the extra for another use.
- Turn the heat to low and carefully stir 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water into the contents of the pan, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom.
- When the pasta is ready, use tongs to transfer it from the pasta pot to the pan with the bacon in it. It’s fine if some of the cooking water clings to the spaghetti as you transfer it. (Leave the rest of the cooking water in the pasta pot.)
- Stir the spaghetti to coat with the bacon fat/water emulsion and cook for a minute, then turn off the heat.
- Now back to the big bowl. Give the eggs another good whisk, and then slowly whisk in 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water. This step helps to temper the eggs, meaning it brings up their temperature slowly so they won’t scramble.
- When the water is incorporated, tip the entire contents of the pan into the bowl with the egg mixture. Use tongs to stir it all up very well, coating all of the spaghetti strands with the sauce.
- At this point, you’ll use visual cues to decide whether the sauce is finished. If all of the sauce clings to the pasta like a nice, creamy, gently thickened coating, you’re all set.
- If the sauce still seems too thin and watery, set the mixing bowl over the pot of steaming pasta water and toss the pasta constantly with the tongs until the heat from the water thickens the sauce. When the sauce is silky and clings to the pasta, you’re ready to plate.
- Plate the pasta, sprinkle it with the remaining cheese and some more pepper, and serve.
Bacon vs. guanciale vs. pancetta
Look, you guys. All of these fatty cured pork products are delicious, and they all work just fine in spaghetti alla carbonara. You can choose which one to use. Here’s the deal.
Guanciale is the most traditional choice. This is pork cheek/jowl and is cured but not smoked. Buy it in slab form (not rolled) for carbonara.
Pancetta is pork belly just like bacon, but it’s cured without being smoked. Here too, buy in slab form rather than rolled for carbonara.
If you use bacon, choose very thick center-cut bacon of good quality. Bacon is pork belly, and, as you probably know, is smoked (at least in the United States). We tend to use bacon for our spaghetti alla carbonara, because we usually have bacon in the house, and carbonara is nothing if not impulse comfort food.
Protips for this spaghetti carbonara recipe
If you remember just two things about making spaghetti carbonara, you’ll be successful every time.
- Make sure to start the pasta water and the bacon in a cold pan at the same time. (Or, if you know your stove takes forever to boil water, start the water first and drop the spaghetti into the pot at the same time you start cooking the bacon.) That way, you’ll have starchy hot pasta water and gorgeous al dente spaghetti at the ready to add to the bacon and eggs.
- The hardest part of any spaghetti carbonara recipe is not accidentally scrambling the eggs. That’s why we use two steps that lead to a foolproof technique.
- First, we temper the eggs by slowly whisking in some of the pasta water to the egg, cheese, and pepper mixture. This helps bring up the temperature of the eggs gradually while emulsifying the fats in the egg and cheese with the starchy water. Tempered eggs are much harder to scramble accidentally.
- Second, we mix up the final dish in a big bowl, rather than the skillet that’s just come off the heat. We learned this from Daniel Gritzer (no relation, heh) at Serious Eats. Lots of recipes call for pouring the egg mixture into the pan once you’ve taken it off the heat, but we find it’s all tooooooo easy to scramble the eggs with that method.
What to serve with carbonara
No shame if you want to make a big bowl of this pasta into an unaccompanied meal. But if you’d like to round it out, try some greens tossed with our perfect balsamic vinaigrette or a simple massaged kale salad. And don’t forget a glass of wine.
More of our favorite classic pasta recipes
Love the classics? So do we. You might like:
- 2 whole large eggs plus 2 egg yolks
- 2 ounces grated pecorino romano cheese, divided (or use one ounce each pecorino and parmigiano)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 8 ounces excellent quality, very thick-cut bacon, diced (see note below)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 1 pound spaghetti
- Start with a very large, heatproof mixing bowl.
- Whisk together the eggs and egg yolks, half the grated cheese, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Set aside.
- Fill a very large pot halfway with water. Add plenty of salt, cover, and bring to a boil. (Proceed to step four at this point, and start cooking the bacon while you wait for the water to boil.) When the water boils, cook the spaghetti one minute less than it says on the package.
- At the same time, add the diced bacon and the smashed garlic cloves to a large pan and then set the pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is nicely browned and a lot of the fat has been rendered. If there is a lot of fat in the pan, remove most of it, leaving three or four tablespoons.
- With the bacon pan set over low heat, carefully stir in 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. When the pasta is ready, use tongs to transfer it from the pot to the pan. It's fine if some of the cooking water clings to the spaghetti as you transfer it. (Leave the rest of the cooking water in the pasta pot.) Stir the spaghetti to coat with the bacon fat/water emulsion and cook for a minute, then turn off the heat.
- Give the eggs another good whisk, and then slowly whisk in 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water. This helps to temper the eggs, bringing up their temperature slowly so they won't scramble. When the water is incorporated, tip the entire contents of the pan into the bowl with the egg mixture. Use tongs to stir it all up very well, coating all of the spaghetti strands with the sauce.
- At this point, you'll need to use your judgment a little bit. If all of the sauce clings to the pasta like a nice, creamy, gently thickened coating, you're all set. You can plate the pasta, sprinkle it with the remaining cheese and some more pepper, and serve. Often this will be the case — the combined heat of all the dish's elements will be enough cook the sauce.
- If the sauce seems thin and watery rather than silky, set the mixing bowl over the pot of steaming pasta water and toss the pasta constantly with the tongs until the heat from the water thickens the sauce. (If the bowl fits over the pot without touching the water, you can rest it on top — otherwise hold it just above the water with one hand while tossing with the other.) When the sauce is silky and clings to the pasta, you're ready to plate.
Traditional spaghetti alla carbonara uses guanciale, which is cured pork jowl/cheek. Unlike bacon, it's not smoky. It's sold in both rolled and slab form. If you would like to use it for this recipe, buy it in slab form and dice it. You can also use pancetta, which, like bacon, is from the belly of the pig — but unlike bacon, isn't smoked.
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