Chef Mike explains the simple art of classic Pasta Carbonara
I assume it must have been some terribly egregious act I committed in a past life that led to me working as a line cook in the culinary equivalent of Dante’s third circle of Hell—a corporate, casual-dining Italian restaurant. Don’t judge me, I was young and needed the money.
This position came complete with Cerberus playing the part of kitchen manager and a layer of “vile slush” that seeped from between kitchen floor tiles to continually remind me of the personal degradation being visited upon me because of my previous indulgences in food, drink, and worldly pleasures.
That kitchen was a bordello of Italian culinary lies. Knorr white sauce mix in the Alfredo sauce, rebottled Wishbone Italian dressing on the salads, and Kern’s breadsticks slathered in butter-flavored oil were just a few of the “Italiano” atrocities I witnessed being foisted on unsuspecting customers.
Nothing, however, could compare to the damage done to my own culinary development by the plateful of prevarication they called pasta carbonara.
The corporate chefs responsible for the “authentico” recipes I had been carefully trained to reproduce decided that a plate of pasta swimming in bland cream sauce with a smattering of bacon, mushrooms and peas could be labeled “pasta carbonara”—blatantly disrespecting all that is good and true about this rich, but simple dish.
Pasta carbonara is supposed to be a very simple, old-school Roman dish made from five simple ingredients: egg yolk, Pecorino Romano cheese, guanciale (cured pork jowl), black pepper, and pasta.
That’s it. No peas, no mushrooms and most importantly no cream.
Maybe you like cream in your pasta. Hell, I love cream sauces too and besciamella or béchamel sauce is an integral part of Italian cooking, but that doesn’t mean cream goes in carbonara any more than my love of marinara sauce makes it a proper topping for brownies.
Cream was added to carbonara recipes primarily to combat the jaw-quivering richness that you get when using only egg yolks, as well as an easy way to attain the dish’s creaminess without the challenges of the traditional recipe.
Some mistakenly believe that carbonara is difficult to make sans-cream without ending up with scrambled eggs. But all it takes to form a thick, silky coating on the pasta without scrambling the eggs is a little patience and a metal bowl to use like a double boiler.
Carbonara just wouldn’t be carbonara without cured pork. The traditional recipe calls for guanciale, or cured pork jowl, but if you can’t round up guanciale at Main Street Meats or your favorite SoDo SoPa supermarket, pancetta (cured but not smoked pork belly) is a solid Plan B with good old ‘Merican bacon filling, should the other meats not be able to fulfill their carbonara duties.
Due, in part, to the heroic efforts of patient chefs I encountered later in life, I have broken my own misguided bonds between cream and pasta carbonara. Try my recipe below and break free from the cream. Viva i tuorli!
- 4 oz spaghetti
- 1/2 cup guanciale or bacon, diced
- A dash of olive oil
- 3 egg yolks
- 1/3 cup Pecorino
- Black pepper
1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente.
2. Meanwhile, cook guanciale (or bacon) in a large skillet with a dash of olive oil until the fat has rendered and the meat is crisp, about 7 minutes.
3. In a large, heatproof bowl, whisk the egg yolks, Pecorino Romano and black pepper together.
4. Transfer pasta to the skillet with crisped guanciale and fat. DON’T DISCARD THE PASTA WATER, YOU NEED THAT!
5. Combine the pasta, pork, and pork fat with the egg mixture. Once combined, add 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water to the pasta and egg mixture and combine well.
6. Place the mixing bowl over the pot of boiling pasta water (ensuring the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water) and cook, stirring quickly and constantly until the sauce thickens and turns creamy.
7. Remove from heat, season with salt, and serve immediately with more grated cheese and black pepper as desired.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits