Spaghetti alla Carbonara
by J.C. Reid
Serves: 1 main portion (secondi), 2 smaller portions (primi)
Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 15 min
- 4 ounces dried spaghetti pasta
Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Central Market
- 2 ounces guanciale, diced into 1/4″ pieces
Niman Ranch, at Hubbell & Hudson
- 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano D.O.P. cheese, finely grated
Fulvi at Central Market
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, for sautéing the guanciale
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, for seasoning pasta water
- Freshly ground black pepper
In the first part of this series on carbonara, we laid out a few objectives to create a version of the dish that is both delicious and authentic. We noted that the method of making real carbonara can be tricky, especially in the way we “cook” the egg in the hot pasta to create a silky-creamy sauce. Controlling the level of saltiness of the dish also was a priority. All of the ingredients and methods listed here are coordinated to achieve these goals.
Bring 5-6 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Add the kosher salt when the water starts boiling, not before. Note that we’re using a smaller amount of salt for seasoning the pasta water in order to control the salt level. We want the pasta properly seasoned, but not too much. Also we’ll be adding some of the reserved pasta water to make the sauce, so we don’t want too much salt in there for that either.
Do not add oil to the water. Olive oil doesn’t help to keep the pasta from clumping (though it does prevent foam from developing). Also, if you add olive oil to the pasta water it will make the pasta slicker and the sauce will not cling to it as easily. Once the salt is dissolved, add all the pasta at once. Stir the pasta into the water. Keep stirring until the water comes back to a boil (should be a minute or two). Cook the pasta based on the instructions on the packaging — usually 9-11 minutes. Stir occasionally.
While the pasta is cooking, add the olive oil to a 6-8 inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. Wait for the olive oil to start shimmering (no smoke) and then add the guanciale. Add a pinch of the fresh cracked pepper. Stir or toss frequently to ensure even browning. Let the guanciale cook for about 4 minutes or until it just starts to become golden brown and crispy. You’ll note that a tremendous amount of flavorful fat has rendered out. At this point I take about a tablespoon of pasta water and add it to the pan. Be very careful — adding the water to all that rendered fat will cause a lot of sizzle! The pasta water will help to marry the flavors and slightly dilute the liquid fat we’ll be adding to the sauce. Cook for another minute or two, remove from the burner, and set aside.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the egg with a pinch of fresh cracked pepper and a tablespoon of the grated Pecorino Romano (pictured above). Whisk vigorously until all the ingredients are combined. We add a bit of cheese at this step to help the sauce become creamy in the beginning as well as to season the raw egg in lieu of salt. Set aside.
At this point, we want to prepare a separate pan into which we will combine all the ingredients. Some cooks may note that we should combine the ingredients in the same pan in which we cooked the guanciale. However, because this pan is so hot, adding the egg mixture will usually scramble the eggs (and that’s not very silky-creamy). Although you could temper the eggs, I still think using a separate pan is the way to go (dish washing burden be damned). I like to use a 12 inch stainless steel sauté pan. You need a lot of space to combine and stir the ingredients. Also, you don’t want the pan to be cold, so I drop it on to a burner for a few seconds to warm it up (it should be warm to the touch).
Now it’s time to make the magic happen. Taste a few samples of the still cooking pasta to make sure it is al dente. When ready, drain the pasta thoroughly, but not completely, and dump the pasta into the empty sauté pan. A small amount of pasta water should sneak its way in with the pasta. We need to work quickly now, because we need the pasta hot enough to cook the egg. Work the pasta into a pile. Take the egg mixture, whisk a few times, and dump it right into the heart of hot pasta pile. Wait a few seconds as the egg filters through the pasta to the bottom of the pile.
Using your tongs, start mixing and twisting the egg into the pasta. Make sure all of the pasta is coated with the egg. Stir slowly and consistently for about one minute. The egg mixture should take on a silky consistency and a dull white color.
Working quickly, now add the guanciale. I use tongs or a spatula to add the actual chunks, then I’ll pour 1/3 to 1/2 of the rendered liquid in to the mix. It’s the rendered fat combined with the herbs and spices of the guanciale that give carbonara a tremendous depth of flavor. Stir and incorporate for another minute or so. At this point the egg has been effectively tempered, so I’ll place the sauté pan on medium heat to keep the mixture warm.
The cheese comes next. Add about 1/3 of the cheese and stir. It may seem clumpy in the beginning, but keep stirring and incorporate any liquid that has gravitated to the edges of the pan. The sauce should continue to get creamier and creamier. Using my tongs, I usually add a couple splashes of the pasta water at this point to loosen up the sauce and ensure creaminess. Continue adding the cheese in 1/3 increments, stirring all the way. The finished sauce should cling well to the pasta and have the silky-creamy consistency we desire.
Now add the fresh cracked pepper (usually 8-10 turns of my pepper grinder) and continue stirring until evenly incorporated. Little flecks of pepper should be visible throughout the dish.
At this point I’ll let the dish sit in the sauté pan for another minute over low heat to let all the ingredients marry. I then give it one last good stir and then plate it. Using a plate or bowl that’s been warmed in the oven beforehand is a nice touch. Grate a dusting of Pecorino Romano and some additional fresh cracked pepper over the top. Serve immediately.
From my experience eating carbonara in Rome, researching the history of the dish, and testing various recipes, I think that this recipe represents the most delicious as well as the most authentic version of carbonara available. A sumptuous, silky-creamy sauce, clinging to the nutty, wheaty-flavored semolina pasta, delivers a pungent and sharp flavor of Pecorino Romano cheese and spicy pepper. A properly prepared sauce will always reveal itself at the bottom of the bowl after every last strand of pasta is consumed — there should never be a pool of sauce remaining, just traces of the delectable sauce that clung lovingly and loyally to the pasta for each and every bite.
Going further, the pungent cheese and egg mixture is offset by the subtle herbiness and smooth porkiness of the guanciale flavor bombs sprinkled throughout, existing side-by-side with flecks of black pepper that add a spicy background to the whole dish. Cheese, eggs, pork, pepper and pasta — the pieces of a Roman puzzle that, when solved, represent the culture and fascination of an ancient city obsessed with food.