What is Carbonara?

Mary McMahon

Carbonara is an Italian sauce for pasta which appears to have emerged at some point after the Second World War. There are two distinct versions of carbonara, one made in Italy and one made in the United States. Both integrate similar ingredients, although the American version is much richer than the Italian version. The core ingredients for carbonara are pancetta, a mixture of cheeses, eggs, and freshly cracked black pepper. Americans add cream to their carbonara, and sometimes use other cured meats, such as bacon.

Pasta carbonara.
Pasta carbonara.

The word appears to be related to the Italian carbone, which means “coal.” Numerous theories abound to explain how carbone became “carbonara.” The most likely explanation is that the name is a reference to the coal-like chunks of black pepper in the dish. Other culinary historians theorize that carbonara may have been a dish eaten by charcoal makers, but this seems a bit far fetched. What is certain is that carbonara is probably not an ancient dish, since it only started to appear in Italian cookbooks after the Second World War. It is possible that carbonara was invented as a result of an influx of eggs and bacon from Allied soldiers supporting Italy after the war.

One theory of the origin of carbonara is that the name is a reference to the coal-like chunks of black pepper in the dish.
One theory of the origin of carbonara is that the name is a reference to the coal-like chunks of black pepper in the dish.

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To make Italian carbonara, the chef cooks any type of long pasta such as spaghetti, linguini, or fettucini. In a separate pan, pancetta and garlic are cooked in a mixture of butter and olive oil before being set aside. Eggs and cracked pepper are beaten in a small bowl, along with cheese such as Parmesan and Pecorino. When the pasta is drained, part of the water is reserved and poured back into the pasta pot, along with the pasta and the pancetta. These ingredients are tossed with the egg mixture, and the carbonara is served immediately.

Eggs are a main ingredient in carbonara.
Eggs are a main ingredient in carbonara.

American-style carbonara is made slightly differently. The pasta is cooked while the cook fries pancetta or bacon in a pan along with garlic and thinly sliced shallots. The pan is partially drained to remove some of the fat, and heavy cream is added. The mixture is allowed to gently simmer while the pasta cooks. In a separate bowl, the cook whisks together eggs, pepper, and cheese. When the pasta is drained, the cream mixture and the egg mixture are poured into the pasta pan over the pasta, and the mixture is tossed before being served.

Garlic is an ingredient of carbonara.
Garlic is an ingredient of carbonara.

In both cases, the heat of the pasta is intended to partially cook the carbonara, but the eggs are usually not completely cooked. Chunks of cooked egg are not desired in carbonara. Tossing the mixture well ensures an even coverage with the carbonara sauce, and helps to heat the eggs evenly.

Heavy cream is often used to make carbonara.
Heavy cream is often used to make carbonara.
Carbonara often includes shallots.
Carbonara often includes shallots.
Pasta carbonara typically uses spaghetti.
Pasta carbonara typically uses spaghetti.
Grated Parmesan cheese is often added to carbonara sauce.
Grated Parmesan cheese is often added to carbonara sauce.

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