Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a classic Italian pasta dish hailing from Rome. It only requires 5 ingredients (plus salt for the pasta water) and takes less than 30 minutes to make from start to finish. It's perfect for any weeknight when you're craving pure comfort.
(This recipe was originally published in March 2011, but was updated with new photos and content in 2022).
The name spaghetti alla carbonara loosely translates to "spaghetti in the style of the charcoal maker," "charcoal maker's spaghetti," or "coal miner's spaghetti." There are various theories to the dish's origins and as to how it got its name, but one suggests it was created as a hearty meal for Italian charcoal workers.
Spaghetti alla carbonara features a silky, rich, unctuous sauce made with eggs and cheese. It's such a quick dish to put together, and requires barely more time than to boil the pasta.
The original, authentic recipe for carbonara only requires 5 ingredients:
- Pecorino Romano cheese
- Black pepper
Outside of Italy there are many liberties taken with the dish. I have included some suggestions for common substitutions to these ingredients. Parmigiano-Reggiano is not authentic but is used often in this dish outside of Italy. Meanwhile, bacon and pancetta are also very popular replacements for the guanciale. Make this dish as authentic as you'd like or use the other suggestions that I provide based on what you have or can find.
- Cured Pork: Guanciale (which comes from pork jowls/cheeks rather than pork belly) is the traditional cured pork component for spaghetti alla carbonara. However bacon and pancetta are both popular and easier (cheaper) to find in the United States. Both are a bit less fatty than guanciale, with bacon providing an additional smoky flavor and pancetta being salty but not smoky. Any of the 3 would work in this recipe.
- Cheese: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is perhaps the most common and popular cheese used in carbonara in the United States. Pecorino Romano, however, is more traditional to the original Roman dish (and comes from the same region in Italy). You could technically use either of these cheeses in this recipe. Note that Pecorino Romano is a lot saltier than Parmigiano-Reggiano, so I would not substitute it at a 1:1 ratio for such a large volume of cheese. If using Pecorino Romano, reduce it by ⅓ and use ⅔ cup grated Romano cheese instead of a whole cup to get a similar amount of saltiness in the finished dish.
- Eggs: Beaten eggs are tossed with the hot spaghetti and guanciale off the heat, therefore these eggs could be considered undercooked. They're heated just enough by the heat of the pan and other ingredients to thicken and coat the pasta. Please note that consuming raw or undercooked eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness, especially if you have certain medical conditions.
- Pasta: Spaghetti is the most prominent pasta shape for this classic dish, but linguine, fettuccine, bucatini, and rigatoni are other popular options you could try.
- Garlic (Optional): Garlic is a variation on the classic carbonara and is not part of the original, authentic recipe. It's much more common in American adaptations of the dish. With that said, I think it adds great flavor so I include it as an optional ingredient. Of course you can leave it out if you prefer.
How to make it
Beat the eggs with the cheese and black pepper. The mixture should be fairly thick. Set aside.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook to al dente. Drain.
While the pasta is cooking, add the guanciale (or bacon or pancetta) to a cold skillet and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic (if using) and cook for another 15 to 30 seconds, stirring. Remove the skillet from the heat.
Off the heat, add the hot, drained spaghetti to the pan of guanciale, and pour the egg mixture over the top.
Toss the spaghetti with the eggs and guanciale, quickly so the eggs thicken and coat the spaghetti evenly, but do not scramble. Serve spaghetti alla carbonara immediately.
Expert tips and FAQs
Note that the step-by-step photos above are of a half recipe (making 2 portions) using pancetta. Your skillet may look more full than mine when making the full recipe.
I've tried this recipe using a whole cup of Pecorino Romano and found it was too salty for my liking (especially because the bacon/pancetta/guanciale is also salty), but everyone is different. Feel free to add more if you prefer.
No. Although some recipes include cream, it's perhaps the least traditional ingredient you could add to your carbonara. The dish gets its creaminess from the eggs, cheese and rendered pork fat. Adding cream is unnecessary and would make the dish too rich and heavy.
No. Unfortunately this is not a dish that can be made ahead of time. It tastes best when you eat it immediately after making it. It also does not reheat well. I would suggest only making as much spaghetti alla carbonara as you plan to eat that day. It's so simple to make and you can easily reduce the recipe as needed. Then just make another batch whenever the craving hits.
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Spaghetti alla Carbonara
- 4 large eggs at room temperature
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or ⅔ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- Kosher salt for pasta water
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 8 ounces guanciale, bacon, or pancetta, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
- Beat the eggs with the cheese and black pepper. The mixture should be fairly thick. Set aside.
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook to al dente. Drain.
- While the pasta is cooking, add the guanciale to a cold skillet and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it's crisp, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic (if using) and cook for another 15 to 30 seconds, stirring. Remove the pan from the heat.
- Off the heat, add the hot, drained spaghetti to the pan of guanciale, and pour the egg mixture over the top. Toss the spaghetti with the egg/cheese mixture and crispy guanciale, quickly so the eggs thicken and coat the spaghetti evenly, but do not scramble. Serve immediately.
- Unfortunately this is not a dish that can be made ahead of time. It tastes best when you eat it immediately after making it. It also does not reheat well. I would suggest only making as much spaghetti alla carbonara as you plan to eat that day.
- Although the recipe serves 4, it can be modified to accommodate less servings. The recipe is easily divisible by 4. Use 4 ounces spaghetti, 2 ounces guanciale, 1 clove garlic (optional), 1 egg, ¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons Pecorino Romano cheese, and ¼ teaspoon black pepper to make a single serving to satisfy a craving.
- Pecorino Romano is a lot saltier than Parmigiano-Reggiano. I've tried this recipe using a whole cup of Pecorino Romano and found it was too salty for my liking (especially because the bacon/pancetta/guanciale is also salty), but everyone is different. Feel free to add more if you prefer.
*All nutritional information is based on third-party calculations and should be considered estimates. Actual nutritional content will vary with brands used, measuring methods, portion sizes and more.*