Originally published in December 2013. Still delicious in 2020.
I am no personal chef, but I do make a mean Carbonara (just ask my family and friends). I brought an authentic carbonara recipe back with me from my year of studying abroad in Italy, and due to the number of requests I’ve had to share it over the years, I’m posting it here with step by step instructions.
I love to make Carbonara for guests because it knocks their socks off every single time, and though it appears complicated, it’s actually really simple!
What is Carbonara?
When I say carbonara, you might think of pasta, bacon, eggs, cream sauce, and parmesan cheese, among countless possible other ingredients. If those are the ingredients you thought of, you’re not alone, but…
In preparing to write this article, I Googled “Olive Garden Carbonara recipe” just to help me prove a point. What I found surprised me, even though I thought I knew what I was looking for.
The recipe I found called for “cream-based sauce… a lot like Alfredo,” and listed 14 ingredients. FOURTEEN. Ingredients. Nonna is certainly rolling over in her grave for that one.
When have Italians ever put fourteen ingredients into one dish? The answer is never. Ever.
The Italian method is that simple is better. Less is more. My authentic pasta Carbonara recipe that I brought back with me from studying abroad in Torino has only three necessary ingredients. If you’re like me and you love salt, it may include four.
Ingredients for Carbonara
For 3-4 servings:
- 500g Pasta. Traditionally it is done with angel hair, but I like to use short pastas like bow tie or penne or rigatoni.
- 6-7 slices thick Bacon. Splurge for good bacon. Real carbonara is traditionally done with guanciale (gwahn-CHAH-lay) which is pig cheek, or you can sub cubed pancetta – you can actually buy these easily in Italy. But in the US it’s easier to find bacon, and it’s still delish (duh, because bacon).
- 4 Eggs (you can use the whole egg or just the yolk, real carbonara just uses yolk)
- Salt (I like to add salt to taste, you may opt out)
Cream? No, Farva, no cream.
How to Make Carbonara
- Slice bacon into bits (or take cubed pancetta) and cook, do not strain grease.
- Crack eggs into a bowl and stir with a fork as if you were going to scramble them. Set aside.
- Cook pasta until al dente (a bit of chewy bite to it, please don’t bloat and kill your precious pasta).
- This is where the magic happens, pay attention: Quickly strain pasta (use a lid to strain, not a strainer, so you can keep the steam inside the pot) or return it right away to its pot if you used a strainer, then immediately (while it’s still very hot and steamy) pour the eggs (yes, the uncooked eggs) into the pasta and stir. The steam and heat of the pasta will cook the eggs to it. If you have to, you can turn the heat back on to cook the eggs to the pasta, but this should be unnecessary if you do it right.
- Add the bacon and most of the grease* (use your best judgement). Remember the “cream” sauce? It’s not cream, the “sauce” effect is produced by a combination of eggs and grease. In all its glory. *If you really don’t want to use the grease, you can substitute butter or the like, or a healthier option would be to leave it out completely, but only do this if your health requires it, because the grease is where it’s at!
- Mix it all together and add salt (and cracked pepper if you like) to taste.
- STOP. That’s it. No melted cheese, no mushrooms, no parsley, for god’s sake no peas. No Nothing Else. Don’t overdo it. Italian cooking is simple!
Okay fine, two more things, because Italy:
- If you want to add a bit of pecorino cheese (sheep cheese – or you can use hard grated parmesan because that’s what we have in the US) to the top, you have the Italians’ permission to do so.
- Also, a bottle of wine to enjoy it with. That one is probably required. Since it’s greasy, try a white Franciacorta or if you prefer red, find a good Barbera.
Carbonara Instructions in Pictures
Best Carbonara in Rome
Find it in the back streets of Trastevere at a little place called Da Enzo. Make a reservation or be prepared to wait in line… for hours. No, not exaggerating. You’re welcome.
For a healthier option, try using a can of tuna in oil, or even chicken, instead of bacon. This will require more salt to taste.
You can always use spaghetti squash, zucchini noodles, or a gluten-free pasta as well. Of course, it won’t be traditional carbonara with these changes, but sometimes change is necessary!
This recipe originally came from a professor in Turin, Italy where I studied abroad in 2005-2006. Try it out, let me know how it goes in the comments!
Posts and podcast episodes to keep your Italy daydreams going: