A brief primer on Carbonara

Author & Photographer: Ella Anderson

My go-to meal has always been carbonara. I’m not talking about the Americanized cream-based version, but the Italian original. True carbonara sauce made with only eggs, cheese, bacon, and garlic. It’s perfect for dinner, a late-night study snack, breakfast the next morning, or all of the above. All of the ingredients are either already in your fridge or easy and cheap to procure. In fact, it’s so easy to make I don’t even have a recipe for it – the quantities of all of the ingredients are dependent on personal taste and I had to make it to figure out how much I actually use because it has become so second-nature.


Carbonara is one of the four traditional pastas of Rome. The four are all similar, each with its own merit, but this one is my favorite. There are different legends about the four pastas and everyone will tell you a different story, but the simple (and most likely version) is just that everyone made these pastas – all of them use a combination of eggs, bacon, cheese, tomatoes, and garlic – because they are all made from inexpensive ingredients found in virtually everyone’s pantries.

As any Italian will tell you, the real secret in getting carbonara (and any pasta dish) right is the quality of the pasta itself you use. Traditionally, pasta is made by putting the dough through bronze molds to cut it. The bronze molds make the texture of the pasta coarse and porous, which allows sauce to cling to it better. Now, modern pasta is often made with cheaper Teflon-coated molds, which result in smooth, shiny pasta. Sauce slides right off of the pasta and creates a noticeably slimier dish. It may not seem like the molds in which pasta was cut would make much of a difference but taste them side by side and you’ll never go back.

The other secret to making a good pasta a great pasta? Adding water the pasta was cooked in. While pasta is cooking, the water becomes saturated with starch from the pasta which when added to a fat (such as comes from the eggs and bacon), it emulsifies and helps to create a richer, creamier sauce which sticks to the pasta better.

servings: 4

cook time: 30 minutes


  • 1 pound spaghetti

  • 1 pound bacon

  • ¼ pound parmesan cheese

  • 3 large eggs

  • 3 large garlic cloves

  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Slice the bacon into ¼ inch strips and cook until just crispy in a frying pan. Set aside to cool without draining the grease.

  2. Meanwhile, set a pot of water on the stove on high and add a generous amount of salt when it starts to boil – it’s hard to add too much.

  3. Put the spaghetti in the pot and set a timer for three minutes less than the time written on the packaging.

  4. While the pasta cooks, whisk three eggs in a medium sized bowl and add finely chopped three garlic gloves.

  5. Grate ¼ pound of parmesan cheese into the bowl and add generous amounts of pepper.

  6. When the pasta timer goes off, taste one noodle. It should be mostly cooked but with some bite – slightly firm.

  7. Carefully take a measuring cup (or other heat-resistant vessel) and take out approximately ¾ cup of water from the pasta pot, and then pour a couple of tablespoons’ worth of water into the egg and cheese mixture.

  8. Drain the pasta into a colander and immediately return to the pot and add in all of the sauce.

  9. Add all of the bacon to the pot plus some bacon fat – eyeball it and add about a third.

  10. Mix it all together while slowly adding in more of the water from the pasta pot. The goal is to get the pasta to absorb as much water as possible – the water makes the sauce creamier and richer. Once the pasta seems creamy and like it will not absorb more water, serve with grated parmesan on top.

Melanie WangComment