I’d made pasta alla carbonara many times, using the recipe from Joy of Cooking or similar recipes that all worked primarily the same way – beat some eggs and toss the pasta in that mixture along with a little reserved pasta water, then adding the grated cheese and some cooked bacon. Even using all the right ingredients – Pecorino Romano and either pancetta or the harder-to-find guanciale – didn’t solve the basic problem of texture. No matter how quickly I moved or how carefully I managed the heat, the sauce would cook unevenly and I’d end up with some bits of sauce scrambling on the bottom of the pan.
As I tried to figure out a reason this might happen aside from user error (always a possibility in my kitchen), I had a small breakthrough while frying eggs for breakfast. The egg white cooks more or less the moment it hits the hot pan, while the cook can control the cooking of the yolk and keep it runny for quite some time. The sauce in pasta alla carbonara might have cooked too fast because I was using the wrong ratio of yolks to whites – instead of one to one, why not use more yolks and fewer whites? It turns out that it’s wrong to think of carbonara as a sauce. It’s a custard, and the texture of the finished sauce should be comparable to slightly melted gelato (itself a custard, just with a small amount of air beaten into it).
This turned out to be a one of the two major adjustments I made to the recipe while experimenting with the ratios. The other involves the pasta water. Most recipes that call for pasta water use it for its thickening power (it contains starch from the pasta itself, as well as some of the salt you added before adding the pasta), or to thin out a sauce that might otherwise be too thick. In this case, however, I decided to reserve twice as much of this water as the various recipes called for, and then used some of that to deglaze the pan in which I rendered and crisped the pancetta, imparting substantially more bacon-y flavor to the finished sauce.
Pasta alla carbonara is often served in the United States with long, thin shapes like fettuccini or spaghetti, but I prefer to go with shorter tube-shaped pastas with ridged exteriors. The tube shape allows the pasta to grab some of the smaller pieces of bacon in the sauce, and the sauce clings more easily to shapes with ridged exteriors, like penne or rigatoni. You can use whatever kind you like, of course, but I do think the shape and the sauce need to work together, and long, smooth shapes just leave too much sauce at the bottom of the bowl.
So, the summary:
* Use more yolks and fewer whole eggs
* Use real pancetta (or the similar guanciale) and Pecorino Romano
* Deglaze the bacon pan with pasta water
* Choose the right pasta shape
* Work quickly once you begin constructing the sauce in the pasta pot
* Don’t add anything else – that means no cream, no butter, no chicken, no vegetables, nothing. The sauce is the star and this is a one-man show.
And, finally, I don’t want to hear about how unhealthful this dish is. I’m not suggesting you make this every night. This is peasant food for the soul.
½ pound penne, rigatoni, or similar shape
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
¾ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
About 75 grams of pancetta or guanciale, finely chopped for rendering (this was about 3 thick slices for me)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hardware: Pasta pot, saute pan, tempered glass measuring cup, strainer, long-handled wooden spoon or heatproof plastic tongs
1. Render the bacon in the saute pan. I prefer the method from the indispensable Ruhlman’s Twenty, in which you just barely cover the meat with water in the pan, put the lid on, and heat it on high until the water’s gone, reducing the heat as the bacon sizzles and browns. You can do this as you cook the pasta as long as the pancetta is done ahead of time. Drain and reserve the rendered fat, and reserve the meat, but do not clean the pan.
2. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, making sure to use plenty of water and salt it aggressively before adding the pasta.
3. Beat the eggs together until homogenous.
4. Here’s where things speed up.
a) When the pasta is just barely al dente, use the measuring cup to remove a cup of the pasta water. Use ¼ to ½ cup to deglaze the hot saute pan, scraping the bottom to clean it. Hold this water in the pan for now; it can simmer but don’t let it boil.
b) Drain the pasta and return it to the pot, off heat, tossing with enough of the bacon fat to just barely coat the pasta and keep it from sticking together.
c) Add the eggs to the pasta along with the deglazing liquid and stir or toss aggressively. Don’t let the sauce sit at the bottom of the pan. You want this to get warm, about 160 degrees F, but never hot.
d) Once the pasta is coated and the egg/water sauce is warm, add ½ cup of the cheese and toss. Then add the bacon, toss again, and season with freshly ground black pepper. Serve with the remaining cheese as an optional garnish.
The remaining pasta water has two purposes. One is to thin the sauce in the pot if it’s looking too thick. The other is to thin the sauce if it’s been sitting for a few minutes before anyone can get a second helping; this sauce thickens (or maybe just contracts) as it cools.