Stop Putting Cream in Your Carbonara
Carbonara has egg yolk, Pecorino Romano, guanciale, black pepper, and pasta. Under no circumstances can be there be any other additions, and that goes double for cream.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in 2015.
Mitch Orr is the chef and co-owner at ACME, a Sydney restaurant that TIME just listed as one of the world's best new restaurants. Mitch is affectionately known as the "prince of pasta" among his Sydney peers, having gained a firm grasp on Italian cuisine through stints in hatted establishments in Australia and Europe alike. Carbonara is a particular specialty, and according to him, a lot of people are messing it up. Here's why Mitch doesn't fuck with cream in his pasta and neither should you.
The first time I encountered carbonara in a professional sense was as an apprentice at a pub in Parramatta, a suburb in Sydney's less-glamourous western area where I grew up. Being 18 and literally knowing nothing about anything, to me, carbonara meant blindly whipping up plates of pasta with reduced cream, Spanish onion, and bacon. I soon bounced from that pub and moved through a couple more restaurants, cooking more pasta with more cream as I went, never really thinking it tasted any good.
After I turned 21, I finally landed in a hatted kitchen; Danny Russo's Lo Studio. Danny and his sous chef Marco were famed in the industry for their pasta, so the day naturally came when Danny asked me the question: "Do you know how to make a carbonara?"
"Of course I fucking do," I replied, and reached for a bottle of cream.
Danny laughed at me for an embarrassing length of time and quickly proceeded to teach me how to cook real carbonara. After that night in the kitchen, nothing was ever the same.
Carbonara originated in mid-19th century Rome, purportedly as a hearty meal for coal miners. It's hard to figure out the exact point when cream was first added, so I don't really have anyone to blame. I'm guessing it most likely started out of necessity as a way to extend the sauce when eggs were scarce.
But however it went down, it's no fucking excuse in 2015.
The five ingredients in carbonara are egg yolk, Pecorino Romano, guanciale, black pepper, and pasta.
It's not hard to make an amazing version, because good ingredients and a little technique are all you need. It's quick, relatively inexpensive, and it's probably the greatest pasta dish known to man. The secret is balance and richness. Rich egg yolk; umami-laden cheese; salty, porky fattiness; the cutting heat of freshly-cracked pepper; and perfectly al dente pasta. Why upset that balance? It's fucking magic.
Now, you may substitute Parmigiano Reggiano for the Pecorino, and pancetta for the guanciale, but that's already pushing it. Under no circumstances can be there be any other additions or switch-ups. And in case you haven't guessed, that goes double for cream.
You cannot call a creamy pile of pasta carbonara, and I reserve the right to think you are damn fools if you do.
I can't really knock bacon, because son, it's bacon (although cheap supermarket bacon really has nothing on salted and aged pancetta or guanciale) but cream is heavy and cloying, especially when reduced to a thick gloop.
Perhaps you are thinking: Mitch, chill. I like cream in my pasta, and you're not alone; some of my best friends (looking at you, Dan Hong) like cream in their pasta. But you cannot call a creamy pile of pasta carbonara, and I reserve the right to think you are damn fools if you do.
For me, it's part of something bigger. It should be protected under DOP regulations, like Parmigiano Reggiano or Champagne. I realise I pick and choose when to bend or flat-out ignore the rules, but sometimes you really should respect them. It's such an old and perfect dish that it shouldn't be fucked with.
I'm all for evolution and progression in food. However, this isn't evolution. This is using a cheaper ingredient that generates more yield at a lesser quality. That's the opposite of evolution. How are you—some chump that's only been cooking for ten years—going to improve on generations of fucking perfection?
Now if you want to make carbonara a dish of your own, why not make the pancetta or guanciale yourself? There are ways to impart your personality while still doing it right. Use the best eggs and cheese you can find, and make the pasta from the best flour. By all means, you can still make a shit carbonara without cream. It's just a little harder.
Carbonara done the right way has everything: texture, depth of flavour, richness, balance, and umami. It's dishes like this that form the basis of everything we do. Learn it, stay true to it. Make it for the object of your desires.
Shit ain't going to fail you.
As told to Courtney DeWitt
- egg yolk
- Dan Hong