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Spaghetti Carbonara: The Perfect Recipe

When I get together with new friends or am thrown into a group dinner with those I don’t know yet, I always have a few questions in my arsenal.

They’re little tidbits that help keep conversations going and draw hesitant introverts out of their shells a bit.

Shockingly (I know), pretty much all of these revolve around food.

spaghetti carbonara
Photo: Casey Barber

“Cheese or chocolate?” is always a good debate starter, but if you really want to get someone talking, ask them what their desert island meal would be.

Mine, for example, would be spaghetti carbonara.

This time-tested recipe was the first post out of the gate here at Good. Food. Stories. way back in its inception in 2009, and, crazily enough, nothing about it has been improved since.

That’s because it’s impossible to make this recipe any more perfect, and believe me, I’ve tried.

This is exactly the way I want my spaghetti carbonara to be.

spaghetti carbonara
Photo: Casey Barber

In fact, I’m so specific about my carbonara that I’m inevitably disappointed by the way it’s served in most restaurants.

(For the record, both Prune and Maialino in New York do it almost exactly like this, should you want someone else to prepare it for you).

I’d rather do it myself and do it right, and when it takes barely no time at all to get a big bowl of perfection in front of you, why bother going out at all?

Spaghetti carbonara cures all ills on bad days and is a highly appropriate celebratory splurge on good ones. It is, as the kids say, everything.

spaghetti carbonara

It’s at once luxurious and so simple that it’s pretty much a ratio in and of itself, yet it impresses everyone I serve it to.

Make it for one person when you need a pick-me-up, make it for two people when you want to thank your husband for tiling the basement steps without your help.

Make it for four when you want to thank your husband, your dad-in-law, and your uncle-in-law for rewiring the basement and foyer lighting without your help.

spaghetti carbonara
Photo: Casey Barber

Everyone wins with spaghetti carbonara!

And here’s a bit about the origins of spaghetti carbonara, thanks to Italian food history expert Danielle Oteri:

Spaghetti Carbonara History

Unlike many Italian (and Italian-American) red sauce recipes, spaghetti carbonara wasn’t invented until the 1940s.

It first seems to appear in Rome after the Allies ousted German forces and distributed rations to the starving Italians, which included large amounts of bacon and powdered eggs.

Quickly, it started showing up on American menus as GIs returned home from Italy and popularized it.

spaghetti carbonara
Photo: Casey Barber

Carbonara means roughly “in the manner of coal miners,” and the likely origin of the name is a Roman restaurant named Carbonara.

However, it may also have earned its name because the flecks of black pepper appear like coal dust against the creamy eggs, cheese, and pasta.

And it has been speculated that it was a dish made for a secret society called the Carbonari, the charcoalmen who formed in the early 1800s and who played a part in the unification of Italy.

spaghetti carbonara
spaghetti carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara

Yield: 1 serving
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes

Spaghetti carbonara, with eggs, black pepper, pancetta, and Parmesan cheese, is one of the easiest and most satisfying pasta dishes around. No cream!

Ingredients

  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 3 tablespoons (1/2 ounce; 14 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more or less to taste
  • 1/4 cup (about 1 ounces; 28 grams) diced pancetta or guanciale
  • 1 small to medium garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons white wine, chicken stock, or even rosé or red wine if that’s what you have in your fridge
  • 3 ounces (84 grams) spaghetti (my preference is spaghetti rigati or bucatini rigati, because the pasta strands have little grooves that soak up the sauce so well)
  • kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta.
  2. As the water heats, find a wide-bottomed bowl for tossing and serving the pasta; it should have a lot of surface area. 
  3. Whisk the egg yolk, Parmesan, and black pepper together in the bowl with a fork to make a thickish paste. Set aside.
  4. Cook the pancetta or guanciale in a skillet over medium-low heat until the fat is rendered and the pieces are crisp, about 5-7 minutes.
  5. When the cubes are well-browned, stir in the garlic and cook for a minute to mingle the flavors.
  6. Add the wine or broth to the pan.
  7. Stir to deglaze, getting all those good browned bits off the bottom and into the sauce. Remove from the heat.
  8. When the water comes to a boil, add 1 tablespoon kosher salt to the pot, then stir in the spaghetti with tongs.
  9. While the spaghetti cooks, add the cooled pancetta and its sauce to the egg and cheese mixture in the serving bowl.
  10. When the pasta is al dente, use the tongs to transfer the spaghetti directly from the pot into the serving dish; the pasta needs to be piping hot and a little drippy with its cooking water.
  11. Mix and toss with the tongs, adding extra pasta water as needed to meld everything into a luscious coating for the strands.
  12. Taste for seasoning before eating; the dish might need a little salt but the Parmesan and pancetta usually take care of the saltiness factor on their own.
  13. Also note that this makes outstanding breakfast leftovers, should you manage not to eat the entire bowl in one sitting.

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4 Comments

  1. That recipe sounds great! I know we talked about it at food blogger camp and I can’t wait to try it. Sounds like I should use a stainless pan not a non-stick for the pancetta to create some good brown bits.

  2. We made this last night for two (Lauren and I), following the recipe fairly closely. Delicious comfort food. What I love about these types of recipes is that it is simple enough in components and construction that it is imprinted on my brain and I could replicate this anytime without having to pull out a recipe

    Should have read Lauren’s thought as I used the non-stick pan. For what deglazing I did have to do (no much) I used the red wine I was drinking . . . yum, thanks for sharing!

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