My All-Time Favorite Quick & Easy Pasta: Bucatini Carbonara!
You don’t have to know me for long to know that pasta is my all-time favorite food to cook & eat! (ICYMI, we have an entire archive of killer pasta recipes here on PWWB!) Out of all of the pasta dishes I’ve ever enjoyed, pasta carbonara is one of my all-time favorites. Needless to say, I’m pretty much bursting with excitement to finally share my go-to pasta carbonara recipe here on PWWB!
I first learned how to make pasta carbonara from the cooks at the fine dining Northern Italian restaurant where I worked many years ago. As a server, I’d get home super late (or early in the AM, depending on how you look at it!). After a long shift, all I wanted was something quick & satisfying to eat before crashing into bed. Carbonara always fit the bill.
It takes less than 20 minutes to throw together a restaurant-worthy carbonara, complete with perfectly al dente pasta (bucatini for me, plz! 🙋🏻♀️), rich & savory pancetta, & a lusciously creamy carbonara sauce made by combining pasta water with cheese & eggs. It’s quick & simple, yet such a decadent treat – there’s seriously nothing more satisfying!
Because making homemade pasta carbonara can be a little intimidating if you’ve never tried it before, I’ve provided 2 different cooking methods you can use depending on your overall comfort level. First, a traditional technique made by emulsifying the creamy carbonara sauce on the stovetop over low heat. Second, an approach that isn’t especially traditional but offers a foolproof starting point for beginners by creating the carbonara sauce off the heat, eliminating any possibility of scrambled eggs. Either way, you’ll have one insanely delicious bucatini carbonara.
Quick enough for a busy weeknight, special enough to impress on date night or for an impromptu dinner party with friends, & totally restaurant-worthy every single time. Pasta night does not get better than that!
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Carbonara Recipe Highlights
You’re going to be obsessed with this bucatini carbonara recipe because it’s…
- QUICK & SIMPLE. Carbonara has an intimidating reputation, but it’s truly SO easy to make. (If I can whip up a bowl of carbonara at 2 AM, totally exhausted after a long shift at the restaurant, I promise you can too!). Everything is ready in less than 20 minutes for a fast & satisfying meal.
- RESTAURANT-QUALITY. This dish is rich in flavor & tossed with a beautifully creamy, silky, & glossy carbonara sauce that rivals any restaurant!
- ITALIAN COMFORT FOOD. So creamy, so luscious, & so DELICIOUS. Pasta carbonara is one of the absolute best Italian comfort foods – I’ve cozied up with many bowls of carbonara over the years!
Making pasta carbonara at home is way easier than you’ve imagined. ♡ Read on to learn more about how to make Pasta Carbonara, or jump straight to the recipe & get cooking!
What is Pasta Carbonara? & What is Carbonara Sauce Made Of?
Pasta carbonara is an iconic Roman pasta dish whose defining characteristic is a gloriously silky & creamy carbonara sauce made of eggs & cheese. While you’ll sometimes find recipes that call for ingredients like butter, milk, or heavy cream to create the signature glossy texture of carbonara sauce, they’re NEVER used in a traditional carbonara recipe. Instead, the creaminess comes from the emulsification of egg yolks & starchy pasta water.
Wait, what’s an emulsification? ⇢ To emulsify is to force two liquids that don’t easily mix into a well-combined, more uniform solution. A simple example is vinaigrette, which is made by creating an emulsification of oil & vinegar. In this recipe, the creamy carbonara sauce is an emulsification of eggs & starchy pasta water. It’s glossy, luscious, & absolutely decadent.
Pasta carbonara is all about quality ingredients, technique, & timing. It’s a simple pasta dish but does have several opportunities for error because of this delicate process of emulsifying the sauce. This is why carbonara feels so intimidating, especially to new cooks. But! Learning how to make carbonara at home is SO worth it. & thanks to a few simple tips & tricks I’ve learned over the years, this particular recipe is the perfect place to start.
Key Ingredients for Perfect Pasta Carbonara at Home.
Note: Full ingredients list & measurements provided in the Recipe Card, below.
Among the many reasons you’ll love this recipe is its simplicity. Like many authentic Italian dishes, real-deal carbonara is made with just a few simple & easily accessible ingredients. You will need…
- Pasta – You’ll commonly see carbonara served with spaghetti, fettuccine, or even rigatoni. (If you’re feeling ambitious, you could even make your own fresh pasta!) I’m personally partial to bucatini carbonara. Bucatini is a long, tubular spaghetti with the best bouncy texture. It makes carbonara even more satisfying. Delallo’s bronze die extruded bucatini is forever my go-to!
- Pancetta – This cured, unsmoked Italian bacon is readily available at most conventional grocery stores these days. You’ll typically find it pre-diced near other cured meats or cut-to-order at the deli counter. (Even though it’s not very traditional for carbonara, thick-cut bacon will also work just fine in a pinch!)
- Cheese – While classic Roman carbonara only makes use of Rome’s iconic cheese (ahem, pecorino romano), I like to make pasta carbonara with a combination of both pecorino romano & parmigiano reggiano. I like how parmigiano reggiano’s savory & nutty flavor complements the bright tanginess of pecorino romano.
- Eggs – A traditional carbonara recipe typically makes use of the whole egg (whites & yolk). But I’ve found that using only yolks makes homemade carbonara a little more foolproof by eliminating the risk of scrambled eggs. The yolks also create an even richer & creamier carbonara sauce – a fun added bonus!
- Ground black pepper – Freshly ground black pepper is absolutely key!
Guanciale vs Pancetta
Traditionally, Italian pasta carbonara is made with guanciale. Guanciale is cured pork jowl, an ingredient you’ll find used in many different authentic Italian recipes. While absolutely delicious, guanciale is a little hard to come by here in the States. You can sometimes find it in specialty shops or at an Italian market, but it’s not quite as widely available as something like pancetta.
Pancetta is cured, unsmoked pork belly – it’s basically Italian bacon! These days, pancetta is widely available at most conventional grocery stores. You can typically find pancetta already diced up in an individual container near the cured meats & bacon, or cut-to-order at the deli counter.
TLDR ⇢ If you can find guanciale at a specialty Italian deli or shop near you, definitely go for it! If not, pancetta is a great substitute in pasta carbonara. If all else fails? Grab some thick-cut bacon – it’s not traditional, but it is delicious.
Though it’s not traditional whatsoever, in my years of making bucatini carbonara I’ve grown to love adding a few extra ingredients to the mix. Garlic & crushed red pepper flakes help create an even more flavorful carbonara sauce, while loads of fresh parsley, arugula, & lemon zest provide brightness & freshness that balance the decadently rich & creamy nature of carbonara beautifully.
Feel free to take or leave these suggested add-ins – they’re totally optional, but definitely delicious!
How to Make Pasta Carbonara – Two Methods!
The secret to a successful bucatini carbonara! ⇢ Before you start cooking anything, be sure to read through this section completely. Pasta carbonara is a time-sensitive dish & it comes together very quickly. Feeling rushed is what can make carbonara a little tricky, but having an understanding of the how’s & why’s will make everything much easier – especially if you’re new to cooking pasta carbonara.
Note: Full ingredients list & measurements provided in the Recipe Card, below.
Cooking pasta may seem simple, but it’s a very important process for any pasta dish. Our comprehensive guide on How to Cook Pasta Perfectly Every Time is a great reference for this bucatini carbonara recipe (or any other pasta dish).
Boil the pasta. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil (this is the most time-consuming part of this carbonara recipe!). Add the bucatini or other pasta of choice & cook until al dente. Before draining, reserve a cup of starchy pasta water & set it aside. Why? ⇢ Pasta water is liquid gold, & it’s especially crucial for making carbonara sauce. The starches in the pasta water emulsify with the egg yolks to create carbonara’s classically glossy & oh-so-creamy sauce. Pasta water is essential for making carbonara!
Render the pancetta. As your pasta boils, cook pancetta in a large skillet. Similar to bacon, you shouldn’t need to use any extra oil since pancetta’s fat will render into the pan as it cooks. If you’re using aromatics like garlic & red pepper flakes, now’s also the time to add them! Important! ⇢ When the pancetta is golden & crisp, remove the pan from the heat & set it aside until everything else is ready to go. This prevents the pancetta from overcooking & burning, but it also allows the skillet to cool slightly before tossing together the pasta carbonara.
Prep the carbonara sauce mixture. Combine egg yolks, Pecorino Romano, & Parmigiano Reggiano cheese into a large mixing bowl, then season generously with freshly ground black pepper. Whisk everything to combine. The mixture will be very thick, almost paste-like – that’s totally expected! Foolproof carbonara tip! ⇢ While it’s traditional to make use of the whole egg, using just the yolks is a little trick I picked up over the years to eliminate the possibility of scrambling the eggs – a common pasta carbonara issue! As a bonus, the yolks make for even richer & more intensely flavored carbonara.
Toss the pasta carbonara. The traditional way to prepare carbonara sauce is by tossing everything together over low heat on the stovetop. It’s a very quick process consisting of 3 main steps:
- Add the drained pasta to the skillet with the pancetta & pour the prepared carbonara sauce mixture over top.
- Working quickly, toss & stir everything together while simultaneously streaming a few tablespoons of the reserved pasta water in at a time. This is where the magic happens, as the pasta water loosens up the sauce & helps everything come together!
- From there, return the skillet to medium-low heat & toss toss toss (there’s lots of constant tossing here!) until the pasta carbonara is warmed through & the sauce coats everything well.
Alternate Cooking Method: A Less Traditional, More Foolproof Approach to Carbonara Sauce!
Don’t be nervous about scrambling the eggs in carbonara! This second method for making pasta carbonara is less traditional, but works like an absolute charm, creating delicious, scrambled egg-free carbonara every single time.
The trick? ⇢ Rather than tossing the pasta & carbonara sauce on the stovetop, toss everything together in a large mixing bowl instead. You should still work quickly to coat the pasta & pancetta into the egg mixture, but there will be less time pressure without the heat of the stove. This is how I first learned how to make pasta carbonara, & I’ve even seen restaurants take this approach too – it’s just as good!
Pasta Carbonara FAQs
What is the best pasta for carbonara?
Spaghetti, fettuccine, & even rigatoni are all great options for pasta carbonara. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could even make fresh pasta!
Personally, I LOVE bucatini carbonara. Bucatini is a long pasta, similar to spaghetti, but it’s hollowed out by a hole that runs down the middle of the noodle. It holds carbonara sauce just as well as spaghetti, but feels extra special thanks to its extra bouncy texture. Delallo’s bronze die extruded bucatini is forever my go-to!
What meat goes well with carbonara?
Traditional carbonara is made with guanciale (cured pork jowl), but I like to make carbonara with pancetta as it’s more readily available here in the States. In a pinch, you can also use thick-cut bacon – it’s not traditional at all, but it’s absolutely delicious!
Is carbonara the same as alfredo?
Nope! Alfredo is a cream-based sauce made with butter, heavy cream, & parmesan cheese. While it has a similar rich & creamy feel to carbonara, its use of cream is an important differentiator – traditional carbonara sauce is never made with cream.
Should pasta carbonara have cream?
No, real-deal carbonara NEVER uses butter, milk, or cream for its creamy texture. Instead, the creaminess comes from the emulsification of egg yolks & starchy pasta water. There’s no need for cream when the carbonara sauce can emulsify into something just as silky & delicious!
Is carbonara sauce raw egg?
I get why some people may be concerned about an egg-based sauce, but I do not consider carbonara to be served with raw egg. The egg in the carbonara sauce is delicately cooked by steaming hot pasta & quite a bit of boiling pasta water. In my opinion, it’s safer than those bites of raw cookie dough we all sneak in while baking. 😇 If the idea of a sauce with egg freaks you out, then carbonara simply might not be the dish for you.
How do you reheat carbonara?
While it’s best to enjoy pasta carbonara right away, you can enjoy leftovers 3-4 days after it’s prepared. Just be mindful that the sauce will lose its silky smoothness over time. If you have leftovers, the best way to reheat them is on the stovetop with a splash of water. This helps loosen up the carbonara sauce & will bring it back to life.
Make it Your Own! Easy Carbonara Variations
Over my years of making carbonara, I have strayed away from tradition a little bit by adding my own twists. Since carbonara sauce is quite rich, I love using fresh arugula, parsley, & a bit of lemon zest to create some contrast. The fresh & bright flavors cut through all the richness of the sauce for a perfect, well-balanced bite of bucatini carbonara.
This is totally up to you though. Skip any add-ins to enjoy a traditional carbonara, or make it your own with a dash of freshness!
Even with a few extra add-ins, pasta carbonara is still a super quick dish to make. In 20 minutes or less, you can create the ultimate lazy girl pasta that’s super satisfying & packed with flavor.
I can’t wait for you to master making Pasta Carbonara at home…once you do, I’m pretty positive it’ll be your new signature dish! If you do give it a try, be sure to let me know! Leave a comment with a star rating below. You can also snap a photo & tag @playswellwithbutter on Instagram. I LOVE hearing about & seeing your PWWB creations!
Love Traditional Italian Recipes? Us too – they’re kind of our specialty here at PWWB! 🙌🏼 Be sure to try our Best-Ever Bolognese, Creamy Pasta Marsala, Slowly Braised Short Rib Ragu, & All-Time Favorite Chicken Cacciatore next. Happy cooking! ♡Print
Learning how to make real-deal Pasta Carbonara at home is such a treat! With 2 methods provided (including a seriously foolproof method!), this recipe is perfect for seasoned carbonara fanatics & beginners alike.
This easy recipe tosses bucatini pasta with rendered pancetta & a silky, glossy, & oh so creamy carbonara sauce made with egg yolks & finely grated cheese (no heavy cream, ever!).
A seriously quick & easy 20-minute recipe, resulting in a restaurant-worthy bowl of pasta every time. Leave as-is for an awesome traditional pasta carbonara, or add in a little lemon, herbs, & arugula for freshness (our absolute favorite!).
- 8 ounces dried bucatini or pasta of choice
- 6 ounces diced pancetta (see Recipe Notes)
- 2–3 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated
- optional: 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/4 cup finely grated pecorino romano
- 1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano or parmesan cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- optional: 1 lemon, zested
- optional: 4 ounces baby arugula
- optional: 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
- for serving, as desired: additional grated cheese, chopped parsley, crushed red pepper, etc.
Important prep note: Before you begin cooking anything, read this recipe start to finish. Pasta Carbonara is an incredibly time-sensitive dish. It comes together very quickly once all the components are ready. First, read the recipe before you get started so you can anticipate what comes next as you cook. Then, take a few minutes to get everything measured, chopped & prepped, making cooking a really smooth, easy, & fun process. To prep: roughly chop the garlic & parsley (if using), measure the cheeses, & gather all remaining ingredients. Set aside, within an arm’s reach of the stove for easy, streamlined cooking.
- Boil the pasta: Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the bucatini (or pasta of choice) & cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, to al dente according to package directions. Important: Before draining, carefully dip a liquid measuring cup into the pot, reserving about 1 cup of starchy pasta water, and set aside. Carefully drain the pasta – do not rinse it!
- Render the pancetta: Meanwhile, as the pasta boils, render the pancetta. Add diced pancetta to a large skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat renders & the pancetta becomes golden & crispy, about 5 minutes. Add in the chopped garlic & crushed red pepper flakes, if using. Cook, stirring constantly to prevent burning, for 1 minute more, until the garlic is slightly softened & very fragrant – your kitchen will smell like heaven! Important: Remove from the heat & set aside.
- Prep the carbonara sauce mixture: Meanwhile, as the pasta cooks & pancetta renders, prep the carbonara sauce mixture. Add egg yolks, pecorino & parmesan to a large mixing bowl. Generously season with freshly cracked black pepper, as desired. Whisk to combine. The mixture will be thick. Set aside.
- Toss the pasta carbonara: If you’re nervous about scrambling the eggs – don’t be! – try Method #2: Foolproof Pasta Carbonara. It’s untraditional, but works like a charm & results in delicious Pasta Carbonara every single time. Important: This step is where timing is really important – get everything prepped & within arm’s reach, & be ready to work quickly.
- Method #1: Stovetop Pasta Carbonara: Add the hot, drained pasta to the large skillet with the rendered pancetta from Step 2. Pour the prepared carbonara sauce mixture from Step 3 over top. Working quickly, stir & toss the pasta & pancetta into the egg mixture. The mixture will be thick. While tossing constantly, slowly stream in a few of tablespoons of the reserved pasta water. Return the skillet to medium low heat. Continue to toss, adding additional pasta water little by little, until the pasta carbonara is warmed through & the carbonara sauce is glossy & coats the pasta well. Finish the pasta carbonara by tossing in the lemon zest, arugula, &/or chopped parsley, if using. Remove from the heat.
- Method #2: Foolproof Pasta Carbonara: Rather than bringing the Pasta Carbonara together in a skillet over gentle heat on the stovetop, this method eliminates heat & comes together in a mixing bowl instead. Add the hot, drained pasta to the mixing bowl with the egg & cheese mixture from Step 3. Carefully pour the pancetta & garlic mixture from Step 2 over top. Working quickly, toss the pasta & pancetta into the egg mixture. The mixture will be thick. While tossing constantly, slowly stream in a couple of tablespoons of the reserved pasta water. Toss, adding additional pasta water little by little, until the carbonara sauce is glossy & coats the pasta well. Finish the pasta carbonara by tossing in the lemon zest, arugula, &/or chopped parsley, if using.
- Serve: Divide the pasta carbonara into two of your favorite pasta bowls. Top with extra grated cheese, chopped parsley, ground black pepper, or crushed red pepper as desired. Serve immediately. Enjoy!
- Pancetta is cured, unsmoked Italian bacon. Widely available at most conventional grocery stores, you can typically find pancetta already diced up in an individual container near the cured meats & bacon, or cut-to-order at the deli counter. Feel free to swap it out with regular bacon if that’s what you can find easily – thick, center-cut bacon will work best for this recipe.
Recipe and Food Styling by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by Rachel Cook, Half Acre House.