Spaghetti Carbonara with guanciale and pecorino Romano cheese -

Spaghetti Carbonara

In Recipes by Sean20 Comments

Spaghetti Carbonara with guanciale on a white plate
Spaghetti Carbonara with guanciale on a white plate


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This recipe for authentic carbonara was brought to you in collaboration with BC Egg, who have financially compensated me to produce it. 
All opinions are my own.

Eggs, guanciale, cheese, pasta, pepper. Authentic carbonara is perfect in its simplicity. There’s no need for cream, garlic, or peas – the core ingredients shine on their own, with the eggs perform feats of culinary magic and delivering all the creamy character you could wish for.

Can you still make carbonara if you can’t find guanciale? Yep! Want to switch up the cheese options a little bit? We can do that. Need a vegetarian option? Maybe don’t tell your Nonna, but I can help you there too.  Check out the Recipe Notes below for tips & variations, and the reasoning behind them.

In case you haven’t noticed, Italian food tends to raise some very, VERY strong opinions.  Bring ten Italians together in a room and you’ll end up with ten ‘proper’ ways to make a dish.  And while they might not agree with each other, they’ll all agree that you’re doing it wrong.  I’m poking fun of course, but I honestly love the passion that Italians have for the integrity and authenticity of their food.  And while arguing (or ‘educating’) others about what should and should not be done with a recipe might be a time-honoured Italian tradition, there is another, subtler tradition that I personally find quite entertaining.  It’s when someone mentions a food purely to point out the fact that it shouldn’t be mentioned.  I’ve decided to call this culinary apophasis – the act of bringing up a food-related subject through some cursory statement or treatment in order to deny or dismiss it.  Let’s say, for example, that you want to find out how best to make a pasta dish (hint hint).  One chef launches into a diatribe about how there should never be garlic in the dish, with long explanations of how it impacts the flavour, how it’s not traditional, etc.  The second chef sets a plate of pasta in front of you with a smile and says “Certainly there are those who include garlic – I cannot say whether it is a good idea or not, because I’ve never seen a reason to use it.”  With that, you are left alone with the pasta, invited – nay, dared! – to find fault or cause for the inclusion of garlic.  The first chef might seem very passionate and knowledgeable, and may indeed do a great job of convincing you.  But the second chef relies on an unshakable culinary confidence, allowing the carefully considered flavours to argue on their own behalf.

Now let me state for the record that I’m no culinary purist – nor do I think that the second chef is automatically correct.  I like fusion, I like to tinker, and I think that everyone should eat the recipes they like to eat.  But I do also think that there’s a bit of a tendency to fix that which isn’t broken, and carbonara isn’t broken.  It’s so simple, so good, and so unabashedly in love with its ingredients.  Should you change the recipe up? Sure, if you want to – it’s your food after all.  But you should also experience it in its unadulterated form.  Once you’ve done this, you can make the changes you believe in – the changes that speak to your palate.  But authentic carbonara (a term that is, admittedly, fraught with potential for argument) is particularly special because of the alchemy of its core ingredients.  They do amazing things together, and I don’t think that peas, garlic, onions, cream, or other additions do anything to make the dish better.  Nobody’s going to stop you from eating the way you want to eat of course, but I genuinely believe that carbonara is already special, and its merits are easily appreciated as-is.

“But what if I CAN’T make it authentically?” Italian cooking can be a bit hyper-local in its emphasis, and that there can be a tendency toward the ‘if you can’t use the exact ingredients, don’t even bother trying’ mentality.  But this is, frankly, nonsense.  Authenticity is not a badge to be worn and flashed about to brag about your access to particular ingredients.  If cooks truly took this approach to food, then the cuisines of immigrant diasporas wouldn’t exist, and the world would be without some truly spectacular foods.  Honestly, I balked a little at the idea of calling this ‘authentic carbonara’ – not because it isn’t true to its Roman roots, but because I don’t love using the term ‘authentic’ in general.  Simple carbonara, or ‘true-to-it’s roots’ carbonara might be better – but those titles aren’t without their own perils.  Unfortunately, the word ‘authentic’ is often taken to mean ‘this is the one true way to make this,’ but I think we all know that this is basically nonsense. It’s not like authentic carbonara (or any other ‘authentic’ recipe) is being made from one singular master recipe by every single chef in all of Rome. Have you ever met an Italian cook? The idea that they’d all agree on a single recipe is hilarious. Instead, authentic should be taken to mean that something is made in a traditional style that focuses on certain ingredients or techniques. These authentic recipes may (or may not) include variations, ranging from the very minor to the major.

Italian food gets wrapped up in the authenticity battle a little too often for my liking, and Italian-American food often gets caught in the crossfire.  There are certainly some folks out there who roll their eyes at Italian-American food, but you can bet I’m not one of them. Italian American food is certainly different from Italian food, but dismissing it as inferior to Italian food because of its use of ingredients or relative modernity is both ridiculous and ironic.  I bring this up because carbonara, in all its authentic, beloved, truly Italian glory, is actually something of a contemporary fusion recipe. The name ‘carbonara’ doesn’t appear in print until after WWII, and the dish as it currently stands seems to have resulted from the adaptation an older Italian dish (possibly pasta cacio e uova) to the egg and bacon rations available to American soldiers in Rome in 1944 – and to the tastes of the soldiers themselves.  By contrast, the first printed recipe for spaghetti and meatballs, that quintessentially ‘un-Italian’ Italian-American meal, appears in the 1920s.  It may be that the name carbonara is the only novel aspect, and that the recipe itself is fairly old, or it may have taken its current form in response to changes in tastes and available ingredients.  Regardless, carbonara has become a dish that’s unquestionably, authentically Roman and Italian, even if it isn’t terribly antiquated.

None of this is to say that traditional and/or hyper-local foods aren’t special – they absolutely are, and they deserve to be celebrated.  But, in my opinion, true authenticity is about an approach to cooking a dish, and not a slavish devotion to a single set of ingredients. Some people might be inflexible, but cooking shouldn’t be.  I think that carbonara is one of the most wonderful pasta dishes every concocted, and I sincerely hope that you’ll try and love the recipe I’ve written for you.  But if you can’t get guanciale, or you find the sheep milk aspect of pecorino cheese too strong, it doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt – indeed, I’ve got plenty of notes below to help you do just that.  And if anyone tells you that you’re not making authentic carbonara, you can smile, serve them a plate, and tell them it’s your carbonara, and you see no reason to change it.

Spaghetti Carbonara with guanciale, being placed on a plate with tongs

Recipe Notes

Who would have thought that simplicity could be so complicated? Carbonara is an almost magically simple recipe, but the popularity of the dish coupled with the moderate difficulty of sourcing some of the ingredients has led to it being widely modified over the years. As such, you’ll find a lot of variations, often with little information about how or why the original recipe (if there is such a thing) has been modified. You can jump right to cooking the recipe below if you’re ready to cook, confident that the recipe I’ve provided is a simple and authentic one. But if you need or want to swap out ingredients, or you’re wondering why certain ingredients are included or excluded, these notes should have you covered.

What’s NOT Included:

Cream, peas, onions, and garlic. Great ingredients. Wonderful in pasta. And completely absent from this recipe.

If you’re already a die-hard fan of carbonara in its simplest form, feel free to skip ahead, but for those of you wondering why these ingredients are up for debate at all, let’s take a look. First and foremost is cream. I’m not entirely sure how cream has found its way into so many versions of carbonara, but it is the one ingredient in this little list that is (to my mind anyway) completely unnecessary.  The silky creaminess of carbonara is its signature characteristic, but this is derived entirely from the use of eggs.  I have my suspicions that cream has made it in as a sort of fail-safe or shortcut, but all it does is sell the eggs short.  I mean, take a look at my photos – all that silky, smooth creaminess you see comes from eggs!  Let them do their magic on their own.

Next up: peas.  They’re tasty, and fresh peas are good with lots of pastas, but I feel like they’re included in carbonara to alleviate some sort of vegetable-guilt.  We feel like we’re being healthier by putting something green in the mixture.  I suppose that’s true in a way, but I personally think we’re all better off embracing the Italian approach to pasta – i.e., eat a bit less of it, and serve other dishes.  Save those peas and serve them on their own.  Now if you really adore peas and you’re just dying to put them into your carbonara, go nuts – but make sure you factor in how and when to add them.  Because of the time- and heat-sensitive way that carbonara is finished, you don’t want frozen peas cooling things down for you.  I haven’t tried this myself, but I think if you were to add peas to the pasta water for the last minute or two of cooking, you’d keep things tasty and easy to work with.  You don’t want to over or undercook them, so take into account whether they’re fresh or frozen.

Lastly, garlic and onion.  These two are a little more contentious, and you will encounter some Italian recipes that do insist on one, the other, or both.  They both build flavours very nicely, and their importance in Italian cooking is paramount, but I personally think that they distract from the simplicity of the guanciale and cheese flavours.  I absolutely adore garlic, and I don’t hesitate to use a lot of it in most situations, but I feel like it’s a distraction here.  Still, if you want to include either of them, it’s not a big deal – finely dice them and saute them (gently – you don’t want to burn them) along with the guanciale.  And speaking of guanciale…

A diptych of carbonara dishes made with guanciale (top) and pancetta (bottom).

Carbonara made with guanciale (top) and pancetta (bottom).
Visually very similar, but quite different in taste!

Guanciale & Substitutes

First off, let’s talk about what guanciale is.  Guanciale is a very simple cured pork product made from the cheek or jowl of a pig (the name actually comes from Italian guancia, meaning cheek).  It’s generally rubbed with some simple spices before being air-cured.  It is not smoked.  There’s very little meat in guanciale, and a lot of fat that renders readily during cooking.  That fat in particular is a key factor in the overall character of the meat.  It’s got a distinctive and somewhat strong ‘porky’ flavour that tends to divide people a bit.  It’s a bit tough to describe a distinctive flavour of course, but the fat in guanciale is much more distinctively pork-flavoured than, say, bacon fat.

Guanciale can be quite tricky to get a hold of, but it’s becoming a little more readily available thanks to the rise of small-scale artisanal butchers and salumi makers. I live in the Vancouver, BC region and I was lucky enough to find whole guanciale cheeks for a wonderfully affordable price at Oyama Sausage Co.  If you’re in my neck (or jowl) of the woods, I’d start there.  Wherever you live, try searching for local butchers and salumi makers.  Well-stocked Italian shops and markets are also a solid bet (and a good place to get the cheese and/or guanciale alternatives listed below).  If you definitely can’t find guanciale, there are some great alternatives to investigate.  These aren’t going to be a one-to-one substitute in terms of flavour, but they each bring their own merits to the recipe.

  1. Pancetta is an Italian cured, generally unsmoked meat made from pork belly.  This is probably the best bet, in that it’s easier to find, appropriately fatty, and not smoked.  It’s flavour is less distinctly ‘porky’, which means it definitely tastes different from guanciale (which is a selling point for those who find guanciale too strong tasting).  If you have the option, buy a thicker piece of it instead of thinly cut slices.  This will give you the option of cutting it into small cubes for cooking/rendering.  Note that smoked pancetta (pancetta affumicata) has a distinctive flavour somewhat closer to bacon.
  2. Capocollo (aka Coppa) is a heavily marbled cured pork product made from muscles found around a pig’s neck.  It’s usually a bit more expensive but it makes an acceptable alternative here, especially if you like somewhat leaner meat.  As with pancetta, you want to see if you can get a thicker cut piece that you can dice into pieces, as the default is for this product to be cut quite thin.
  3. American-style side bacon (aka streaky bacon) made from pork belly is VERY different from the other cured pork products I’ve listed above, as it is smoked.  It’s certainly delicious with cheese and pasta, so you can use it in this recipe, but don’t expect it to taste like a traditional carbonara.  It does, however, have the advantage of being quite easy to find, and suitably fatty.  If you do go with bacon, try to choose something that’s been air-cured, thicker cut, and kept simple (i.e. no bourbon, maple, or other flavourings added).  Avoid using back bacon (incidentally called Canadian bacon by Americans, but not by Canadians), as it’s much meatier and lacks the necessary fat.  If you can find jowl bacon, I think you could probably try using it here – though once again, expect a difference in flavour thanks to the smoked aspect.

    Both pancetta and capocollo are generally available at well-stocked grocery stores in North America, but you might have to look at an Italian specialty store depending on where you live.

    A side-by-side comparison of guanciale and pancetta

    Guanciale (top and bottom left) is made with pork cheeks and is mostly fat. 
    Pancetta (bottom right) is a little meatier, but still fairly fatty.

    Cheese Options

    The most traditional/classical cheese to use for carbonara is Pecorino Romano – a hard, salty, sheep’s milk cheese.  Sheep’s milk cheeses in general often have a distinctive and unique flavour profile that distinguishes them from cow’s milk cheeses, and the Italian pecorino cheeses are no exception.  The older the cheese, the sharper this flavour becomes.  As with guanciale, this unique flavour profile is part of what makes ‘true’ carbonara so distinctive and unique.  That being said (and once again, as with guanciale), the strength of this flavour can be a bit divisive, causing some to prefer carbonara made with a blend of cheeses, or other cheeses entirely.

    Good Pecorino Romano cheese can be somewhat tricky to find in some markets, but it should still be easier than finding guanciale for most people.  If you need to substitute, or you’re looking to experiment with a flavour combination that you particularly like, there are a few good options out there:

      1. Other pecorino cheeses – Any of the pecorino varieties can be used here fairly interchangeably, with two major caveats.  First, and as you’d expect, the different varieties have different flavours- similar, mind you, but different.  Second, and most importantly, you can only use the hard, aged pecorino cheeses (generally aged 12 months or more).  Many pecorinos are popular as table cheeses when younger and softer, but those don’t work well for grating in a dish like this.  These younger softer cheeses are not exported in significant quantities, but you might encounter them if you’re shopping at specialty Italian stores or cheese shops.  The odds are good that if you’re going to find any kind of true Italian pecorino cheese in a market outside of Italy, it will be Romano.  Nonetheless, you could certainly experiment with the other aged pecorino cheeses.  Pecorino Toscano (from Tuscany) and Sardo (from Sardinia) are both popular and will substitute well for Romano if well-aged.  Pecorino Siciliano is not often found outside of Italy, and only sometimes aged enough to work in a recipe like this.  A note on origins – despite the name ‘Romano’ (i.e. from Rome), most Pecorino Romano is actually made in Sardinia today.
      2. Parmigiano-Reggiano – the classic Italian hard cheese, this one is a popular alternative (in whole and in part) and generally easy to find.  Some find the distinctive sheep’s milk flavour of pecorino a bit strong on its own, and so choose to blend it with this mellower (yet still sharp and salty) cow’s milk cheese.  I personally like a 60/40 or 50/50 blend Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano.  You can also completely omit the pecorino entirely in favour of Parmigiano, though you’ll obviously lose the distinctive flavour profile of the former.
      3. Parmesan-style hard cheeses – Cheeses made in the style of Parmigiano-Reggiano are popular with many cheesemakers outside of Parma, Italy, but they cannot legally be referred to by the same name.  There are plenty of options to explore, including (but not limited to) Czech Gran Moravia, Argentine Reggianito, Grana Padano (see below), and some North American-made varieties.  Do be careful with the latter though – there are some great, well-aged hard cheeses coming out of Canada and the USA, but many so-called parmesan-style cheeses are considerably softer and aged for a shorter period of time.  The better quality ones aren’t likely to cost much less than true Italian cheese either.  Do take note that the parmesan-style alternatives I’m talking about are hard cheeses made in the style of Parmigiano-Reggiano and sold whole, and NOT pre-ground/powdery cheese that comes in a shaker.  Shaker ‘parmesan’ (which can’t even legally be referred to by that name in the EU any more) is a vastly inferior product, with added cellulose to keep it from clumping.  Don’t use it here.
      4. Grana Padano – another great Italian hard cheese, though it often languishes a bit in the shadow of its made-in-Parma cousin.  Grana Padano is similar in may respects to parmigiano, with a nutty, sharp, salty profile.  This cheese is a bit milder and less distinctive that Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a little less rich.  It’s also fairly easy to find and (generally) a little cheaper than Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino cheeses.  If you want to blend something with pecorino, but don’t want to overpower the distinctive flavour of that cheese, Grana Padano is a good option.  I would go for a 50/50 blend if you’re going that route, but you can play around and see what you like.
      5. “Romano” Cheese (American-style) – This (generally) American-made cow’s milk cheese is meant to replicate Pecorino Romano somewhat in terms of use, but it’s rather different in many respects.  It’s got some of the sharp, aggressive flavour of Pecorino Romano, but is much milder in general.  It can also be softer in texture, and is often aged for a shorter period of time.  American Romano cheeses are considered a plainer and less aggressive alternative to their Italian inspirations, ostensibly to better suit the American palate.  I don’t personally have any experience working with this cheese, but I wanted to mention it in particular because of the overlapping name and potential for confusion.  If you’re familiar with these cheeses, you could certainly give them a try, either alone or in combination with other cheeses.

        Lastly, I’ll make a note for the vegetarians out there – if you’re hoping to adapt this to a fully vegetarian dish, you’ll need to omit the meat AND factor in the fact that most of these cheeses use calf rennet during their production.  See the Vegetarian Option notes below for more.

        A side-by-side comparison of Pecorino Romano and Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheeses.

        Pecorino Romano (left) and Parmigiano-Reggiano (right).
        Note the paler colour and large grains of the pecorino.

        Pasta Options

        Alright, at least this section isn’t too contentious (I hope… I guess we’ll see if the comment section bears that out).  Spaghetti is probably the most popular pasta to use for carbonara, but you could go with any number of alternatives.  In general, long pastas (fettuccine, linguine, bucatini, etc.) are the way to go because of the way they hold the sauce, but some people like to use penne, maccheroni, or other shorter pasta varieties too.  In my opinion, bucatini in particular makes a great alternative, as the long tubes hold the creamy sauce really well.  Plus it’s fun to say bucatini carbonara.

        If you’re gluten-free, feel free to substitute a good quality alternative pasta, but I would urge you to use something you’re familiar with.  Ideally, any gluten-free alternative should be as close to the flavour of a standard wheat pasta as possible.  You don’t want to distract from the classic carbonara sauce with something strongly flavoured.  I’ve read good things about Barilla’s gluten-free spaghetti, but I haven’t tried it yet myself.  If you’ve tried it, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

        No matter what you end up choosing, make sure you salt your pasta water liberally (it should be briny tasting).  This is one of those things that I really like to emphasize, because it makes a big difference.

        Vegetarian Options

        One could argue that leaving the meat out of this makes it an entirely different recipe (and one might also argue that the recipe in question would be the aforementioned pasta cacio e uova) but let’s not get bogged down in specifics.  If you want to make a vegetarian carbonara, you’ve got two important obstacles to consider.

        First, and most obviously, the guanciale.  You can simply omit the meat of course.  The end result will differ a great deal from standard carbonara given the impact that the guanciale has on the final flavour, but it’ll still taste great.  In theory (caveat: I haven’t tried this) you could use a vegetarian bacon substitute.  However, there are two big problems with this: one, these products vary enormously in terms of quality, and two, they’re designed to approximate smoky cooked bacon, not unsmoked pork products like guanciale or pancetta.  If you have a go-to bacon substitute that you love, you can totally try it out here – but I’d be tempted to try the simpler meat-less version first.  With or without a meat substitute, you might want to add just a bit of olive oil to account for the fact that you won’t have any of the rendered pork fat in the final dish.

        The second factor related to making a truly vegetarian substitute is the cheese.  Traditional Italian hard cheeses like pecorino, parmesan, and grana padano are all made with calf rennet – an enzymatic cocktail produced in the stomachs of calves (and other ruminant animals).  Because this type of rennet is an animal product, it means that these cheeses (and many others) are not technically vegetarian.  If you yourself are vegetarian(ish), you’ll have to decide whether or not this factors into your cooking.  If you’re cooking for a vegetarian, ask them where they land on the issue.  If you do need to keep the dish truly vegetarian, there are some options, but they’re a bit tricky.  There is a type of rennet made from vegetables, or produced by special bacteria, but no traditional D.O.P. Italian hard cheeses use these.  That being said, some of the North American-made parmesan-style cheeses do, and the packaging on these will generally make a note about being vegetarian-friendly.  In Canada and the USA you can find pre-shredded parmesan and romano-style cheeses that are made with non-animal enzymes, but I haven’t seen any whole (i.e. unshredded) products in Canada (I’ve read that Trader Joe’s sells a whole, vegetarian parmesan-style cheese, but I haven’t tried it and can’t really comment on it any further).  I personally don’t like pre-shredded cheese, but if that’s the only option you have it’s better than nothing.  Note that these cheeses are generally milder tasting overall than their Italian counterparts.

        Spaghetti Carbonara with guanciale on a white plate

        Decadent, silky sauce without cream = egg alchemy.

        How Does This Work? (Eggs are Magic)

        The very first time I made carbonara I was floored.  You expect the cheese to play a specific role (and it does), but little can prepare you for the fact that simply tossing hot pasta with whisked eggs will give you a smooth, decadent, creamy sauce.  Carbonara does something with eggs that we otherwise tend to see more with desserts like curd, custard, and sabayon.  The sauce is cooked by the pasta itself, kept in motion constantly, resulting in an emulsified, just-cooked egg mixture. The proteins in the eggs are denatured by the moderate heat of the pasta, and the constant movement keeps them from coagulating.  Instead of bits of cooked egg, we get a phenomenal, crowd-pleasing, creamy-without-cream sauce.  Magic, I tell ya.

        My recipe uses one whole eggs and two egg yolks (large eggs in all cases).  I’ve tried a few different iterations and this is the balance that I like best.  The egg yolks make a richer, more decadent sauce, while the added whole egg thins the sauce out and adds a bit of body without becoming too loose or gooey.

        For consistency’s sake, try to use large eggs.  If you have medium or extra-large eggs, I would just bump the quantities of the other ingredients down or up a little bit, rather than trying to calculate specific substitution ratios.

        Technique & Serving Size

        In the section above on eggs I mention just how the eggs are turned into this wonderful, creamy/cheesy sauce.  In order to achieve this, you want to make sure that you’re properly prepared, and that you factor in the serving sizes.

        You want to make sure that you read through the recipe carefully, ensuring that you’re ready to proceed with each step in a timely fashion.  The hot, just-cooked pasta has to go right into the waiting egg mixture, where it’s then tossed and stirred until the sauce is cooked and creamy.  If you drain your pasta ahead of time it’ll be too cool and too dry (you want some of that salty/starchy pasta water in the mix).  If you leave the cooked pasta in the water too long, it’ll become soggy and overcooked.  A pair of kitchen tongs are almost a must-have for this recipe, as they let you easily hold, toss, and stir the long pasta through the sauce.  If you don’t have tongs, you might actually be better off using a pasta like penne, as you’ll be able to stir (rather than toss) it through the sauce more easily.

        I will note that my technique differs from many recipes, which call for adding the egg mixture to the hot guanciale/pasta.  I personally find that you have more control over the cooking process and a lower risk of curdling the eggs if you use tongs to transfer the pasta/guanciale into the whisked eggs and cheese mixture itself.  This does require a bit more wrist strength and dexterity to toss and move the pasta, but I think it works fantastically well.  If you struggle with the technique you can stir the eggs into the hot pasta/guanciale instead – just make sure you work slowly and stir very vigorously.

        Do pay attention the serving sizes before you jump in.  It’s tricky to double this recipe, as you end up with a lot of heavy pasta that’s tricky to toss evenly with the sauce.  It’s also harder to distribute the heat from the pasta evenly through the sauce, making it tougher to properly cook the eggs.  If you’re cooking for a larger group, I would personally recommend making two batches rather than trying to make a single extra-large batch.  One advantage of the technique I use is that you can cook a double-batch of pasta and meat together, then simply do the egg/cheese mixing step twice.  Halving the recipe is a little easier, but you’ll need to take two things into account.  First, it’s tricky to halve one egg; one whole medium egg and one medium yolk make a good substitute.  Second, the smaller batch of sauce will cook a bit faster, and is more prone to scrambling if you don’t toss fast enough.  That being said, if you keep the pasta moving quickly you should be fine.

        Spaghetti Carbonara with guanciale on a white plate

        Note: Nutritional Information is given for a single serving (1/4 portion of the total recipe). While this reflects the general suggested serving size for pasta, you might find yourself wanting a somewhat larger serving size. As a stand-alone pasta ‘treat’ this is more likely to serve 2-3. Adjust accordingly.

        Nutrition Facts
        Spaghetti Carbonara
        Amount Per Serving
        Calories 395 Calories from Fat 153
        % Daily Value*
        Fat 17g26%
        Saturated Fat 7g44%
        Cholesterol 171mg57%
        Sodium 573mg25%
        Potassium 166mg5%
        Carbohydrates 43g14%
        Fiber 2g8%
        Sugar 2g2%
        Protein 16g32%
        Vitamin A 250IU5%
        Calcium 163mg16%
        Iron 1.3mg7%
        * Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

        Nutritional Summary

        GOOD NEWS:
        High in protein, with a respectable amount of calcium. Avoiding cream definitely helps with the fat content too.

        BAD NEWS:
        I’m sure there aren’t any surprises here, but it’s fairly high in saturated fat and cholesterol, and low on vitamins. Consider the serving suggestions noted below.

        TRIM IT DOWN:
        I can’t in good conscience suggest cutting anything out of this recipe, but I can tell you that the biggest factor to moderating your pasta intake is to view it as one aspect of a larger meal, rather than a stand-alone dish. Try serving your carbonara with a side of vegetables, or after a light soup and/or some antipasti.

        Ingredient Pages

        No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe.  Like to see one?  Let me know in the comments below or by email.

        Pantry Pages

        No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe.  Like to see one?  Let me know in the comments below or by email.

        • Reduced meat
        • Vegetarian option
        • 30-minutes
        • Inexpensive
        Spaghetti Carbonara with guanciale and pecorino Romano cheese -
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        4.86 from 14 votes

        Spaghetti Carbonara

        This creamy, rich, simple pasta dish is a classic for a reason, but it can be hard to get the exact ingredients you need for a traditional version. That's why this recipe includes instructions for a traditional take AND for adaptations that keep the spirit of the original intact.
        Prep Time10 mins
        Cook Time15 mins
        Course: Main Course, Main Dishes, Pasta & Noodles
        Cuisine: European, Italian
        Keyword: authentic carbonara, guanciale substitutes
        Servings: 4 people
        Calories: 395kcal


        • 1.75 oz guanciale see note for substitutes
        • 1 large egg
        • 2 large egg yolks
        • 1.75 oz Pecorino Romano or a 50:50 mix of pecorino and parmesan (see note) grated, plus extra for serving
        • 8 oz dry spaghetti see note for substitutes
        • salt for the pasta water, and to adjust to taste
        • 1/4 tsp pepper freshly ground, plus a little to serve


        • Thoroughly whisk the eggs, about 3/4 of the cheese, and pepper together in a large bowl (big enough to hold the cooked pasta at the end), then set aside.
        • Dice the guanciale (or substitute) into small cubes or strips, then set aside.
        • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente while proceeding with the step below.
        • Preheat a large skillet on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Add the guanciale (or substitute) and cook until the meat is crisp and much of the fat has rendered (about 3-4 minutes). Remove the pan from heat.
        • When the pasta is finished cooking, use kitchen tongs or a pasta spoon to transfer it from the pot to the semi-cooled pan with the cooked guanciale. Quickly stir to combine, then transfer about half of this mixture to the bowl with the whisked eggs and cheese. Immediately start tossing the pasta with the egg mixture, stirring, lifting, and trying to get everything as mixed up as possible. Once the sauce is starting to look creamy and 'set,' add the remaining pasta/guanciale, and the remaining cheese. Continue to toss and stir for a minute or two, or until the sauce looks glossy and thick.
        • Serve immediately, garnished with a bit of extra cheese and black pepper.


        Guanciale Substitutes
        Guanciale is a very simple Italian cured pork product made from the cheek of a pig.  There's very little meat in guanciale, and a lot of fat (which render nicely and helps to give this dish a very distinctive flavour).  It's got a distinctive and somewhat strong 'porky' flavour that tends to divide people a bit.  It can be hard to get a hold of in many markets (for tips on finding it see the body of the recipe post), but there are some options.
        • Pancetta is probably your best bet, in that it's easier to find, appropriately fatty, and not smoked.  It's flavour is less distinctly 'porky', which means it definitely tastes different from guanciale (which some people prefer).
        • Capocollo (aka Coppa) is a heavily marbled cured pork made from muscles around the pig's neck.  It's usually a bit more expensive but it makes an acceptable alternative here, especially if you like somewhat leaner meat.  See if you can get a thicker cut piece that you can dice into pieces, as the default is for this product to be cut quite thin.
        • American-style bacon is VERY different from the other cured pork products I've listed, as it is smoked.  It's certainly delicious with cheese and pasta, so you can use it in this recipe, but don't expect it to taste like a traditional carbonara.  If you do go with bacon, try to choose something that's been air-cured, thicker cut, and kept simple (i.e. no bourbon, maple, or other flavourings added).
        Pecorino Substitutes
        Good Pecorino Romano cheese can be somewhat tricky to find in some markets, but it should still be easier than finding guanciale for most people.  That being said, there are some substitutions that are possible, and many people like a 50/50 mix of Pecorino and Parmigiano.
        • Other Pecorino cheeses - Within Italy, most pecorino is actually made in Sardinia. Any of the pecorino varieties can be used here fairly interchangeably, though it is worth noting that the
        • Parmigiano-Reggiano - the classic Italian hard cheese from Parma.  Many people like to mellow the distinctive sheep's milk flavour of pecorino a bit with this cheese.  I personally like a 50/50 blend of the two.  You can also completely substitute the pecorino for this cheese, though you'll obviously lose the distinctive flavour profile of pecorino.
        • Grana Padano - another great Italian hard cheese, and similar in may respects to parmigiano.  Use it as you would that cheese (i.e. 50/50 with pecorino, or to substitute entirely).
        • Parmesan-style hard cheeses - take note that I'm talking about hard cheeses made in the style of Parmigiano-Reggiano but outside of Italy (generally the USA), and NOT pre-ground/powdery cheese that comes in a shaker.
        • "Romano" Cheese (American-style) - This cow's milk cheese is meant to replicate pecorino romano somewhat in terms of use, but it's rather different in many respects.
        Pasta Types
        Carbonara doesn't have to be made with spaghetti - any long thin pasta will work (fettuccine, linguine, etc.).  Bucatini is a popular alternative, as the long tube-shaped pasta does a good job of holding the creamy sauce well.


        Calories: 395kcal | Carbohydrates: 43g | Protein: 16g | Fat: 17g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Cholesterol: 171mg | Sodium: 573mg | Potassium: 166mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 2g | Vitamin A: 250IU | Calcium: 163mg | Iron: 1.3mg

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        Share this Recipe


        1. 5 stars
          I am a pasta lover. Eating a “little” is the problem. I would much rather make a MEAL on the main event than tease myself with a taste LOL. This looks so good. The perfect pasta for a date night. With a nice glass of wine, this trumps paying the high prices going out to dinner.

          1. Author

            Yeahhhhh I know what you mean. In my head I know how much pasta I should eat in one sitting, but at the same time I want the answer to be “all of it.” I have to say though, if you’re going to indulge in an all-pasta meal, this is totally the recipe to go with. Cheers, and thanks for commenting!

        2. 5 stars
          I always learn so much from your posts! I had no idea there was so much contention around how to make this dish. I have to admit, I think I have only ever had a carbonara with cream and garlic added until now! The simplicity of your recipe is just lovely and definitely requires no cream as that sauce is just perfect!

        3. 5 stars
          Excellent and informative post. And as an Italian I can attest to loving a healthy debate about anything and everything. I will NOT argue about this recipe and the information. Pasta carbonara is so good with it’s simple ingredients. It doesn’t need all those other things to make it delicious and creamy. Your posts are always well written and thought out. Bravo!!

          1. Author

            Thank you Marisa! (And phew! Always good to get the nod of approval from Italian readers… and especially Italian food bloggers!). So glad you enjoyed the post and the recipe, and thanks for the kind words.

        4. 5 stars
          I saw your photos of this carbonara on Facebook and was immediately drawn to the silky, barely-there, coating of sauce. Seriously mouthwatering. I admit, I’ve put garlic in my carbonara before and sourcing guanciale is a challenge in my area, so I’ve often used the pancetta you mentioned. I think I need to go back to square one after reading this post and make it without my own embellishments, following your direction. I appreciate the hints on not doubling or adjusting the recipe — I have a tendency to do that, so I’ll be making this precisely to your instructions and I know I’m going to be a happy girl.

          1. Author

            I’m so glad you were drawn in Lisa! And really glad to hear that the sauce looks good. I think there are a lot of carbonara recipes out there (and other creamy pastas) with REALLY thick looking sauces, and while they photograph nicely, I don’t think they give you the same sort of experience that you get with a silky, clinging sauce like this. No shame in using pancetta of course (I like guanciale, but the rest of the family here leans a bit toward pancetta), and if you love the garlic you can obviously stick with it – but I hope you’ll get a chance to try it without. I ADORE garlic, so its omission is not considered lightly here! Haha.

        5. 5 stars
          Such a wonderfully informative post about one of my favourite comfort dishes! Love your notes on technique for this dish, those tips are sure to be helpful when I’m making this!

        6. 5 stars
          As someone who doesn’t eat pork, I’ve never in my life made or even eaten spaghetti carbonara. I just never thought it would be appropriate without the pork. So I was chuckling when I read your first few paragraphs! Then I hit the vegetarian section and now I’m convinced I need to try this without the meat. I’ve always been intrigued by the role the eggs play in carbonara and now I can’t wait to try it. Thanks, Sean!

          1. Author

            I considered whether or not to talk much about a vegetarian version, but pasta cacio e uova is so good on it’s own that I figured it was worth mentioning. Glad to know I was right! You’ll be thrilled by the way the eggs work, and no doubt eager to try other variations too. Cheers!

        7. 5 stars
          Beautiful. And coming from someone who tried making spaghetti carbonara for the first time just a month ago, I love all the detailed information in this post!

          1. Author

            I’m so glad Lisa! It’s one of those recipes that’s not difficult, but is definitely worth understanding thoroughly. I’m a big proponent of making recipes like this achievable – so I hope you enjoy it!

        8. 5 stars
          I am ALL about this version of pasta carbonara, right here. It doesn’t get more silky than eggs. I think you’re right about cream being a failsafe. And your reasoning for not using garlic makes sense, but I definitely gasped at the screen upon first reading that. Haha. (Hello; garlic worshipper here.) Also, the peas! I always found those to be the major distraction! I’d much rather tend to my vegetable guilt on the side, with something like greens and beans. There are much better ways to include healthy veggies into your Italian dinner. High fives all around for this one, Sean.

          1. Author

            Thank you Dana! And honestly, as a fellow garlic fanatic, I take its omission seriously. Lol. Garlic is amazing, but it deserves to be included somewhere else on the plate. Liiiiiike… with a bunch of greens in a nice side dish. Cheers, and enjoy!

        9. 5 stars
          I had no idea that it was so complicated, yet so simple! I have never actually tried anything near authentic spaghetti carbonara, but now I want to! I also had no idea that eggs played such a huge role – very interesting and DELICIOUS sounding!

          1. Author

            That’s a good way to put it Terri – simple, but complicated! I think those are my go-to recipes – the ones that aren’t hard (per se), but require understanding. They’re the most fun to write about, and the most useful ones for my readers. I hope you get to have fun with this one – and enjoy the magic of eggs in pasta!

        10. 5 stars
          You are dead right about Italians being very passionate about their food traditions. I live in a large Italian ex-pat community, so have seen this first-hand many times! I love making homemade carbonara, so much better than anything bought in a shop.

          1. Author

            Toooootally agree Matt. It’s a dish that just begs to be eaten in its freshest, simplest, purest form. This one’s worth being passionate about, in my experience! Cheers.

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