How to make the perfect spaghetti carbonara

Timing is everything when making this creamy, cheesy, peppery pasta.
Timing is everything when making this creamy, cheesy, peppery pasta. Photo: William Meppem

The secret of a great spaghetti carbonara is not the eggs, bacon or cheese – it's how and when it all comes together.

INGREDIENTS

  • 150g guanciale or streaky bacon, diced
  • 350g spaghettini or spaghetti
  • 2 whole large eggs and 1 extra egg yolk
  • 100g grated pecorino or parmesan
  • sea salt
  • 1 tsp freshly cracked black peppercorns
  • extra grated cheese and black pepper for serving

METHOD

  1. Fry the guanciale or bacon over low heat in a dry frypan until crisped at the edges.
  2. Cook the pasta in a big pot of boiling, heavily salted water until al dente.
  3. While the pasta is cooking, whisk the whole eggs and egg yolk in a large bowl. Whisk in the cheese, sea salt and black pepper and set aside.
  4. As soon as the spaghetti is cooked, drain (reserving half a cup of the cooking water) and add pasta, dripping wet, to the pan of guanciale or bacon. Toss until well-coated, then remove the pan from the heat.
  5. Add the egg mixture and a good dash of the pasta water to the pan, tossing quickly to allow the heat of the spaghetti to cook the egg into a creamy, cheesy sauce.
  6. Serve immediately on warm plates with extra cheese and black pepper.

Serves 4

Need to know

  • Know the rules so you can break the rules. Traditional carbonara uses guanciale (cured pork jowl) instead of bacon, and uses no cream, parsley or chilli. Either respect that, or do it your own way, but at least you know.
  • Guanciale is available from Italian butchers or delis; otherwise use speck, pancetta or streaky bacon – anything with fat that will render (melt) in the pan and contribute to the richness of the sauce.
  • Timing is crucial: both spaghetti and guanciale must be hot from the pan when mixed with the eggs, cheese and black pepper so they form a rich, creamy coating sauce. But not TOO hot – if you add the egg mixture to the pan over the heat, you'll end up with scrambled eggs.
  • Don't hold back – on anything. Spaghetti carbonara should hit the mouth with waves of over-the-top salty, bacony, peppery warmth.
  • For a meat-free carbonara, cook six diced fresh shiitake mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until deeply tanned, and continue as per the recipe. For a gluten-free version, swap the pasta for zucchini spaghetti.
  • Each variety and brand of dried pasta cooks slightly differently – start testing for doneness at 7 minutes.
  • Turn the idea into a carbonara salad. Dress bitter leaves or watercress in hot diced bacon, a dash of red wine vinegar and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and serve with a softly poached egg on top.
  • Up the umami and make my miso carbonara.
  • Adam Liaw turns the elements into cute carbonara sandwiches.

Each month, food writer and cook Jill guides us through the making of a classic dish.