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Cheap eats at home: Pasta Carbonara

Pasta Carbonara is a supremely student-friendly dish–it’s one of those “kitchen cleaning” recipes that’s simple, filling, and malleable. Using hearty and cheap ingredients, it’s perfect if you need just a quick recipe during midterms or if that carton of eggs or package of cheese is reaching its expiration date. The only thing that’s really essential is that you have eggs, cheese, and noodles – but, as our own Jon Cheng will insist, you need ALL of these things. Cheese alone does not a carbonara make – the egg transforms this dish from glorified spaghetti and cheese into a supremely rich dish without all the fuss and weight of a béchamel sauce.

The base of a good carbonara is the combination of cheese – typically Parmesan – with eggs. Serious connoisseurs will insist on the quality of the ingredients, but carbonara is forgiving – like most Italian cheese sauces, whether you use genuine Italian parmesan or the kind of cheese that comes pre-shredded, the key is really that it has a little bit of character (real Parmigiano-Reggiano has a lot of umami flavor) so that it stands out over the eggs.

After that the sauce is more or less a blank slate, typically colored with peas or other vegetables, meat (pancetta traditionally), and typical Italian spices. If, like most college students, you find yourself inexplicably bereft of real Italian pancetta, deli ham or bacon works just as well.

When it comes to the pasta, carbonara is a great way to clean out your pantry of your pasta noodles. Some favor a thin linguini, bucatini, or spaghetti; others favor the high surface area of fettucini or rigatoni. In any case, the noodles are typically combined with oil or animal fat (traditionally the fat from pancetta, but bacon fat would be a good substitute) so the sauce doesn’t clump up during combination.


Mixing the noodles and sauce. Source: The Pioneer Woman Cooks.

The most difficult part of making carbonara is combining the egg/cheese with the noodles, which is why some recipes will omit the eggs. Unless you’re attentive you’ll end up with plain noodles and breakfast-for-dinner, as the eggs will quickly scramble if you don’t stir constantly until they are well-combined with the pasta. If you’re scared of scrambling, many recipes include heavy cream to thicken it up, however the process is very simple – just don’t stop stirring! Otherwise this couldn’t be quicker – soften the noodles, beat the eggs and cheese together, combine and stir, and add the extras.

The resultant dish exemplifies everything we love about North Italian cuisine: it has a rich, simple sauce; it uses easily-acquired, easily-stored ingredients that can be found year round (unlike the more seasonal Southern Italian diet), and it favors a busy urban population. What’s better, without a béchamel sauce and with the rich combination of fat and protein from the eggs and cheese, it’s lighter but just as hearty as an alfredo. The sauce also can be turned into a perfectly good batch of scrambled eggs (making extra for the next day’s breakfast would be an excellent way to use eggs before they go bad).

Here are some great recipes for Pasta Carbonara:

Spagetti alla Carbonara 

Peppery Pasta Carbonara with Poached Egg 

Chorizo Carbonara 

Spaghetti Squash Carbonara 

-Edmund Brennan

Cover photo source.

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