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Make classic Italian pasta carbonara tonight with my tested-and-perfected recipe. This comforting pasta dinner is ready to serve in about 30 minutes, and features spaghetti in a creamy sauce with eggs, thick-cut bacon, peas (optional), and two kinds of grated cheese: Parmesan and pecorino Romano.
Pasta carbonara is a classy meal. But it’s also one of our favorite simple pasta dinner ideas with humble origins — my easy carbonara recipe is a familystyle crowd-pleaser for good reason. It’s fast, this Italian pasta recipe is made with simple ingredients. And most important, it tastes sooo delicious — right up there with homemade Alfredo sauce for pasta!
This is what I consider the ultimate recipe for pasta carbonara — perfectly cooked spaghetti (or other long strands of pasta) tangled up in a creamy sauce with bacon and grated cheese. It’s soul-satisfying, and absolutely one of my all-time comfort foods.
I grew up in an Italian family, but the homemade pasta sauces my mom and grandmothers cooked was usually red sauce and meatballs. It wasn’t until I went to Italy and tasted this phenomenal dish in Rome that I was able to perfect the recipe to a “T”!
My kids have always l-o-v-e-d what they’ve endearingly shortened to “carbonara,” or pasta with bacon and cheese. To this day it’s still the most requested dinner on their birthdays, along with luscious chicken fettuccine Alfredo.
I even included a version of bacon carbonara in my cookbook, but I’ve perfected the recipe to show you how to make this restaurant-quality dish at home.
Ingredients in this recipe:
- Dried pasta: You can use your preference of spaghetti, bucatini, fettuccine or linguine. Long strands of pasta noodles are the best for slurping.
- Cheese: Use fresh hunks of Parmesan cheese (or Parmigiano Reggiano) and Pecorino Romano cheeses and grate them fresh for the very best flavor.
- Bacon or pancetta: Bacon pasta recipes are the best of both worlds. Look for thick-sliced unsmoked bacon, if possible. You can also use pancetta if you want to be very close to the original. Ask the meat or deli counter to slice it into 1/2-inch thick rounds, then slice it yourself into 1/2-inch cubes.
- Eggs: My recipe uses a higher ratio of large egg yolks to whole eggs (3 to 1), which is true to the authentic Roman-style carbonara.
- Peas: Not at all a traditional ingredient in carbonara, but frozen peas are an add-in option. I started adding peas to pasta carbonara when my kids were little for an extra hit of vegetables and green color.
- Fresh Italian parsley: Sprinkle chopped parsley over the pasta to garnish the dish.
The story of pasta carbonara
One of a few stories from Italian food historians say that “pasta alla carbonara” originated during WWII. With the help of regional Italian cooks, American soldiers based in Rome took familiar staples from home (eggs and bacon) and turned them into a simple pasta sauce.
It’s a classic, satisfying dish that people all over the world enjoy, because when you’re hungry there is nothing better than carbs, fat, protein and cheese!
Cream in carbonara: Yes or no?
The reason carbonara sauce is kind of magical has to do with chemistry. It happens when the heat of the cooking water and hot pasta quickly “cook” the egg mixture. That’s all there is to it.
The egg proteins thicken when you combine hot pasta with raw eggs, transforming into a creamy-textured sauce that coats the noodles.
My recipe stays true to the classic method. It’s rich-tasting and satisfying with egg yolks alone. Heavy cream would make the dish feel a bit too rich, more like an alfredo sauce than a humble carbonara sauce.
Heavy cream in carbonara sauce: This much is true — the authentic recipe for carbonara does not contain heavy cream. I imagine that if you told an Italian to pour cream in a carbonara sauce they would moan dramatically while rolling their eyes. In other words, it’s considered a no-no.
That said, I can see why cream is often used by cooks. Americans like lots of sauce on their pasta (and on food in general), where Italians are a bit more light-handed in that department.
But honestly, people can find a carbonara sauce recipe tricky to master. In my opinion, adding cream is a way to get around executing the recipe properly. I hope this recipe will encourage you to give true carbonara sauce a try.
Bacon or pancetta in carbonara
American-style smoked bacon isn’t really a thing in Italy. Cured pork jowl — guanciale — or pancetta is most often used in traditional carbonara recipes. Outside of Italy, it’s become common to use bacon which is more readily available.
Pro tip: Bake your bacon
I learned how to cook bacon in the oven when I worked in restaurant kitchens, and I never looked back. It’s so much easier and way less messy. Here’s how:
- Lay the strips in one layer on a baking sheet
- Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, flipping the slices halfway through.
- Drain on paper towels, then chop into pieces.
When I don’t have any bacon or pancetta, I also love to top pasta carbonara with crumbled pieces of crunchy, crisp prosciutto.
If you’d like to use pancetta instead of bacon, bake 1/2-inch cubes 5-8 minutes at 400 degrees until they’re crisp.
How to make spaghetti carbonara:
What if carbonara sauce curdles?
Carbonara is a sauce made with raw eggs. For that reason, there’s always a chance the eggs in your sauce will “cook” too much, and almost look like bits of scrambled eggs.
First of all, don’t worry. What causes it is the heat of the piping-hot pasta coming into contact with the eggs without enough room for it to steam. Your carbonara will still taste great, but try these steps to master the technique:
- Whisk the hot pasta water into the eggs just before adding the pasta.
- Mix the sauce and pasta in a large shallow bowl (as opposed to a deep mixing bowl) so that the heat doesn’t concentrate at the bottom of the bowl.
- Toss the egg mixture and pasta quickly and repeatedly until all the strands are coated.
- How to cook pasta perfectly: Boil water in a 4-5 quart large pot and salt the water generously (about 1 tablespoon kosher salt per quart) — this helps season the pasta from the inside out.
- Cook and stir your spaghetti, bucatini or linguine until it’s al dente. Check the timing on the package and taste-test. Scoop out and reserve some of the starchy cooking water before draining the pasta.
What to do with leftover pasta carbonara
- It’s a must that you serve pasta carbonara as soon as it’s done — perfectly cooked, hot pasta waits for no one!
- For the same reason, pasta carbonara does not reheat well. Once it cools, the pasta soaks up all the egg sauce and the delectable creamy texture will be absorbed. It still tastes good, though.
- If you DO have any leftover pasta carbonara, make this brilliant recipe for Pasta Frittata that uses leftover spaghetti.
Carbonara seasoning variations:
Here are some ideas to jazz up the basic recipe for carbonara sauce:
- Add a small grated garlic clove and a pinch of crushed red pepper to the eggs.
- Add a tablespoon or two of soft butter to the pasta as you toss with the egg mixture. (it’s not traditional but very delicious).
- Throw in 2 cups frozen peas to the pasta during the last 2 minutes of cooking.
Homemade Pasta Carbonara with Bacon
- 12 ounces (225 g) thick-sliced bacon
- Kosher salt
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1 large whole egg
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- ½ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 pound (450 g) dried spaghetti, bucatini or linguine pasta
- ¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
- Preheat the oven to 400 (200 C) degrees and line a large tray with paper towels.
- Arrange the bacon on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes, flipping the pieces halfway through, until the bacon is deeply colored and crisp. Transfer to the tray to absorb excess fat. Chop the bacon into small pieces.
- Whisk the egg yolks, whole egg, Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses, ¼ teaspoon salt and black pepper in a large mixing bowl. If you have a large pasta serving bowl, use that to mix and serve.
- Bring 4-5 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan or pot and add 1 tablespoon salt. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente (usually about 10 minutes.) Scoop out 3/4 cup of the cooking water before draining the pasta.
- Whisk ½ cup of the hot water into into the egg yolk mixture — this tempers the eggs so they won't scramble.
- Immediately dump the hot pasta into the bowl, then toss it all together quickly and thoroughly, using tongs or two spoons. You can add more water if the sauce seems dry. Sprinkle the bacon and parsley over the pasta and toss to combine. Serve right away, with additional grated cheese on the side.
Karen’s Notes and Tips
- Carbonara sauce may be made with pasteurized eggs.
- Add a small grated garlic clove and a pinch of crushed red pepper to the eggs.
- Toss a tablespoon or two of soft butter to the pasta (it’s not traditional but very delicious).
- Throw in 1 1/2 cups frozen peas to the pasta during the last 2 minutes of cooking.
- If you’d like to use pancetta instead of bacon, bake 1/2-inch cubes 5-10 minutes at 400 degrees until crisp.
Nutrition facts are calculated by third-party software. If you have specific dietary needs, please refer to your favorite calculator.