What is Carbonara?
Carbonara is said to have begun in the Lazio region of Italy. It’s a simple pasta dish of few humble ingredients. A true carbonara is made up of cured pork (guanciale); eggs; the hard Italian cheese, Pecorino Romano; and a generous sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper. The resulting dish is creamy, rich and smooth with an irresistibly savory porky flavor.
To get a little more technical, a carbonara begins by combining piping-hot pasta with sautéed pork. Then, you toss in a mixture of beaten eggs* and grated hard Italian cheese. The whole egg to egg yolk ratio is vital. When added, the eggs will start to curdle alongside the hot pasta. This is the secret to carbonara’s signature creaminess. If this doesn’t happen, this is where that hot, starchy pasta water comes in. Just a few tablespoons will get your carbonara sauce right where it needs to be—creamy, luscious, amazing. To see our step-by-step guide on how-to make carbonara, click here!
Traditionally, carbonara sauce is paired up with spaghetti. We’ve seen it served up with other cuts too, like bucatini and rigatoni, which is totally acceptable as long as you’re not a strict pasta purist. We’ve also seen a mix of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano used in carbonara. (We recommend a ratio of about 70% Parm to 30% Pecorino with this combination.)
There have been more variations and evolutions of the famous Italian dish that are worth noting. For instance, most chefs will say guanciale is the best choice for pork, but many use pancetta or bacon as a common substitution. The bacon adds a smoky flavor giving the sauce a new dimension of flavor. Some carbonaras are creamier than others, using more egg yolks to thicken up the sauce, while others have a slick look about them. And to the chagrin of most Italians, a lot of the carbonara recipes here in the U.S. include heavy cream—an addition that most Italians would shake their heads at.
All that to say, outside of Italy, carbonara sauces have become more exciting with the inclusion of greens and vegetables like fresh peas, broccoli, leeks, mushrooms, etc. Garlic is another addition that has diverged from the original dish—especially here in the U.S., where we are known for our love of garlic (maybe even more so than Italians themselves!)
Carbonara often gets confused with Alfredo. Just to be clear, though, Alfredo isn’t a sauce found in Italy, but an Italian-American creation with a foundation of butter and heavy cream. Carbonara, on the other hand, is made up of egg and pork.
Origins of Carbonara
Like many other Italian dishes, the precise origin of carbonara is unclear. As far as the rich culinary history of Italy goes, carbonara is a relatively new concept. The lore surrounding this creamy pasta dish stems from its name, which just may be derived from the Italian word carbonaro, meaning “coal burner.” Some say the dish was first made as a hearty meal for coal workers. Others say, the abundant use of black pepper gave it a dark black “coal” color. Another idea proposed on the origins of Carbonara is that dish was named in honor of the Carbonari, an early secret society in Italy… but that just seems far-fetched.
What we do know for sure is that the dish named Carbonara wasn’t documented until 1950, where it was noted in an Italian newspaper as a dish sought out by American soldiers after the Allied Liberation of Rome in 1944. During this time, Italians were eating eggs and bacon supplied by U.S. troops. In 1954, a Carbonara recipe was included in Italian Food, a cookbook by Elizabeth David was published in Great Britain.
Though we are purists at heart, we love carbonara and are never too proud to try on our favorites in exciting new ways.
With its rich flavors, creamy texture and filling presence (from the eggs and pork), carbonara is the definition of comfort food, really. This classic is more than ready to take on the winter months—especially now that we’ve got a few variations up our sleeves. These killer carbonara recipes add some seasonal flair and add some color to your winter meal lineup.
Featured Winter Carbonara Recipes
Spaghetti Carbonara is an Italian pasta dish with creamy egg, diced bacon, grated cheese and copious amounts of black pepper—a Roman dish reminiscent of an American breakfast. Skinnytaste created this lightened up version perfect for all your New Year’s resolutions.
For a fall-inspired twist on this classic carbonara, we include earthy kale, creamy butternut squash and fragrant sage. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
You think you know carbonara, but have you tried this mushroom-loaded take on the traditional pasta sauce? Garlic, thyme, earthy mushrooms, butter… it’s the simplicity of this recipe that takes it to another level.
Talk about comfort. We love this delicious recipe created by one of our favorite blogger friends, Skinnytaste!
This is another one of our carbonara favorites, using in-season Brussels Sprouts. A win-win all the way around.
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