Don’t look now, but you are surrounded by impostors—carbonara recipes padded with cream, peas, onion or butter. According to Cleveland chef Michael Symon, who regularly whips up five-ingredient meals on TV, a true carbonara is built from three basic ingredients: eggs (the fresher the better), cured pork (more on that later) and cheese (Parm all the way).
“If you’re lucky enough to travel through Italy, you’ll be amazed at the simplicity of the food,” Michael explains. “They use a few products, and they don’t muck it up. The pasta sauce is a dressing. My mother’s mother is from Sicily, and she used to say, ‘The name of the dish isn’t sauce, it’s pasta.’”
Whatever you call it, this one’s a keeper. This recipe comes from the cookbook Michael Symon’s 5 in 5, a fantastic source for weeknight dinner ideas. Plan to prep the ingredients (grate cheese, chop parsley) before you begin. Check out the recipe and our prep tips below; you'll find a link at the bottom for a printable version.
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pound dried spaghetti
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 pound guanciale, pancetta or thick-slice bacon, cut into small dice
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1. In a very large pot, bring 5 quarts water and 3 tablespoons kosher salt to a boil. Add 1 pound dried spaghetti and cook until just al dente, about 1 minute less than package directions. Scoop out and reserve 1⁄4 cup of the water before draining the pasta.
Tip: The 3 tablespoons of kosher salt isn't a typo. Michael says that salty water is crucial for a well-seasoned pasta because it permeates both the noodle and the sauce. If you use table salt, reduce to 2 tablespoons.
Tip: Reserving the pasta water is key! Have you ever noticed that pasta water is cloudy? That’s starch, Michael explains, and it helps thicken the sauce. Plus, the salted water seasons the dish.
2. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in an extra-large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 pound diced guanciale and cook until almost crisp, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the reserved pasta water and deglaze the pan, scraping with a wooden spoon to get up the brown bits. When the water boils, turn off the heat.
Tip: The biggest carbonara fear is scrambling the egg, so don’t add it over direct heat. “An egg is a delicate protein,” Michael says. “You would never pour yourself a hot bath and jump in with a vengeance. You put your toe in, then your foot and then you slide in and get comfortable.”
Tip: What's guanciale? Cured pork jowl. "Like pancetta, it's not smoked, so it has a cleaner taste than bacon. And because it's not mass-produced, you're typically getting a heritage breed hog, so the flavor is more robust and porky." If you want to try it, Michael loves Iowa's La Quercia brand (laquercia.us).
3. In a bowl, whisk 4 egg whites until they start to get foamy. Add 1 teaspoon pepper, parsley, 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese and 3 tablespoons olive oil to the whites. Add this mixture gradually to the guanciale in the pan, stirring vigorously to incorporate.
4. Add the hot, just-drained pasta to the pan and toss well. Divide the pasta among four bowls, topping each portion with an egg yolk, and additional pepper and cheese, if desired. Serve immediately, allowing diners to mix the yolk into the pasta at the table.
Tip: Skipping the raw yolk? If you’re concerned about food safety, just whisk 4 whole eggs together in Step 3, then continue as instructed.