The Secret Is… There Is No Secret.

This is a blog post about spaghetti alla carbonara. It is also a blog post about the perfection of simple things. And about the remarkable effort required to perfect a craft, even a very simple one. And, finally, it’s about all that is wrong with the phrase: “The secret to great X is…

Those six words have a terrible, seductive power: the power to mislead.

But, before we get into that, let’s talk about Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

(If you came to this post hoping for a recipe, um… this is actually a blog about marketing and tech, but the absolute best carbonara recipe I could find in English is this one; buon appetito!)

Rand finishes a near-perfect batch of Spaghetti alla Carbonara during quarantine, 2021

Yes, it really is this exciting when you get it right

Like most Italian dishes, it’s deceptively simple, yet infuriatingly complex. There are only eight ingredients. If you’re efficient, you can make the entire dish in the time it takes water to boil and pasta to cook in it. I’ve made it at least two hundred times in the last 15 years, and only in the last 2 did my version get close to as good as the better versions you’ll eat in Rome (or Portland, Oregon, whose better pasta spots rival even Italy’s).

How can it be so hard?

The same ingredients are generally available to us all. The process doesn’t require special skills or equipment. All the knowledge is discoverable on the web.

The first problem is that, to make it truly great, every small element, from the eight ingredients to the ten steps, have to be precisely right. Vary too much on any one, and you’ll end up with something reasonably tasty, but not truly great. Diverge dramatically on one or a few, and you’ll wonder why anyone even likes the stuff.

The second problem is that if you search Google, you will find the first page entirely filled by recipes that will only get you ~60% of the way to greatness. Honestly, I wonder how much of the world’s knowledge that last sentence applies to… Perhaps… all of them?

Google's terrible results for Carbonara

I visited every link Google offered, not just in the top few results, but every one in the top thirty. They are all varying degrees of wrong, misleading, incomplete, or instructions for another dish entirely.

This is where you might ask, “so, what’s the secret?” and expect an answer like “the secret to great carbonara is to use a double boiler to get the egg and cheese mixture the perfect consistency before pouring it into a mostly cooled dish of pasta and pancetta.”

That is good advice. It might even be considered a “secret” of sorts. But it’s not *the secret* because there is no secret.

That knowledge isn’t hidden, it’s available in some of the recipes you’ll find online (including the best one I could find, from Serious Eats, whose biggest flaw is its title). It’s also not some magical switch you can flip to turn mediocre carbonara into sublime perfection. It’s merely one of a large number of tips, tricks, customizations, nuggets of knowledge, and personalized-tactics-required-in-your-kitchen.

This gets to exactly why “The secret to great X is…” infuriates me:

  • It implies there’s only a single element standing between mediocrity and greatness, when in fact, there are usually dozens, sometimes hundreds.
  • The word “secret” suggests that the person employing the phrase knows something you don’t, and that this knowledge is hidden, rare, and difficult to uncover.
  • This phrase glosses over the idea that “greatness” is a matter of personal taste, timing, context, and a plethora of other subjective criteria.

Whenever I come across a recipe containing this word, whether it’s a literal one for a meal or a figurative use about some business process, marketing tactic, element of product-building, fundraising, networking, speaking, event organizing, making money, anything, it’s always frustrating. Not because the advice is universally bad (though it often is). Rather, it’s because any singular secret tantalizes with the clickbaity idea that this one weird trick can solve your problem. Yet, alone, it cannot.

I get particularly prickly when unsolicited advice contains this concept.

Rand unhappy on Twitter

A more effective approach to that phrase, “The secret to great X is…” is probably to just imagine it reconstituted as “one thing that might help is X.” That’s not how it’s meant, unfortunately, because most who employ it truly intend to imply that their singular piece of advice is the game-changing element. But, we cannot control others misuse. We *can* control our reactions and applications.

Even harder than changing how we interpret advice is changing how we view problems. If you’ve been living in a world where X is the only thing standing between a thorny dilemma and an instant solution, disappointment is inevitable.

Spaghetti all carbonara serves as a perfect example of just how many layers upon layers of “secrets” separate the pasta I made 15 years ago from the one I made last night. I’ll go through a handful of them to illustrate.

Carbonara Secrets #1-7: The Ingredients

Ingredients for Carbonara

Carbonara requires only a few items, but all of them make a difference. In descending order of importance to the finished product, they are:

  1. Pancetta or Guanciale
    Here in Seattle, Salumi makes an outstanding pancetta available in a number of grocery stores, including one near our house. But, online, you can order a handsome hunk of Italian guanciale for <$45 here. I bought one last year, and it lasted 6 months.
  2. Pasta
    The bad news: most of what’s available in mass market grocery stores is crap. The good news: the best spaghetti in the world is only $7 a package, or you can downgrade to this still-quite-excellent one for $4.90.
  3. Cheese
    You’ll want a good pecorino like this or this. And you’ll need Parmigiano Reggiano aged at least 18 months, but, weirdly, not 36+. The older, more expensive stuff is delicious, but for this application, I found it problematic on both taste (it was, oddly, a little lost and a little strong) and texture (it gets too crystal-like at 3 years to mix as nicely into the egg).
  4. Eggs
    Fresh, fancy, organic, cage-free, plenty-of-space, golden yolk eggs do make a difference, especially since you’re using primarily yolks. In Italy, standard eggs are just… way better. We’re playing catchup here in the US.
  5. Salt & Pepper
    I use Diamond Crystal’s Kosher Salt. I once bought Morton’s kosher salt and was completely thrown off on all my quantities because the grain sizes are not the same. I wish I had advice here other than “get lots of experience with whatever salt you’re using,” but I really don’t. For pepper, Kalustyan’s or Zingerman’s are both great.
  6. Olive Oil
    You’re only using this if you’re making carbonara with pancetta, and honestly, it’s a very small part of the dish. Just don’t use complete crap and you’ll be fine. NYMag’s Strategist has a good guide to olive oils if you wanna get fancy.
  7. Water
    No, don’t worry, you don’t need New York bagel water (which, BTW, is a complete myth). But, you do need boiling water that’s a little salty, yet not sea-salt-levels of salt (like many online recipes claim), because the pasta absorbs it and your egg+pancetta+cheese is already gonna be salt-rich. Plus, salting to taste at the end is the absolute best way to get it just right.

Carbonara Secrets #9-10: The Egg & Cheese

All the recipes in Google’s first three pages say something like “2 large or 3 medium eggs.” Such bad advice; oy vey!

What you want is 2 whole eggs and 4 more yolks (separated from the whites) per 500g/one package of Benedetto Cavalieri Spaghettoni. With other pastas, the amount might vary. And honestly, depending on your brand of eggs, it might vary, too.

In Italy, this mostly-yolks situation is largely unnecessary, because Italian egg ratios are entirely different. Next time we hang out, ask me about the time I came back from a pasta-making class in Bologna and used Chef Stefano’s precise recipe ratio only to get a ludicrously water-logged dough. Actually, don’t, it’s a long and boring story and you already know most of it, now.

Mostly Egg Yolks

Above: my 4 egg yolks plus 2 whole eggs are nearly equivalent to the color and texture of 3 Italian eggs.

Below: When the cheeses come along, you must grate ’em… With a microplane grater to get the texture right.

Microplane Grater over cheese

After you beat up your eggs, you’ll be throwing a whole mess of pecorino and parmigiana in there, too. But, you need a fine grate: microplane-fine. I found my previous grating, while acceptable, didn’t smooth out in the cheese mixture as perfectly. And carbonara is all about silky-smooth mouthfeel.

Carbonara Secrets #11-14: The Meat

Some people prefer the fatty luxuriousness of guanciale (cheek). Geraldine and I slightly prefer the crispy meatiness and flavor of pancetta. But in either case, you have to be extra careful on three fronts with your meat.

First, you want to cut the cubes a good bit bigger than the end product you desire, because pancetta or guanciale, the chunks shrink dramatically (literally ~40%) when cooked.

Second, you usually need to cook pancetta in a little bit of olive oil (unless it’s extra fatty), but you do not need oil if using guanciale (it’ll be fat overkill, and you’ll have to drain some off or risk ruining the pasta’s texture and taste).

Third, you want to crisp the meat, but cannot risk burning them even slightly. However… if you do overdo it a bit on the chunks, there’s an easy fix. Use a slotted spoon to retrieve the little guys, dump the oil, clean the pot, put in a little olive oil, and stir that with your pasta once it’s done, then add the pancetta/guanciale back in over the top at the end. To be honest, I actually kinda prefer this methodology even when I don’t overcook the meat, because the cleanness of the egg and cheese flavor shines through, broken up by bites of meaty-unctious-goodness.

Carbonara Secrets #15-20: Cooking the Sauce Just Right

Almost everyone who’s made carbonara or attempted it has horror stories of the egg either scrambling into chunky crap, or the pan being too cold when the egg is added to cook the sauce enough, leaving a raw, goopy, largely unsaveable mess.

I’ve done it wrong dozens of times. In fact, I’d say in my first 5 years of making carbonara, I only *nailed* the texture once or twice in 30+ attempts. It’s near impossible to get right, unless you either:

A) Work in a restaurant making it 30X a night, with perfectly replicable conditions and the experimentation time to figure out exactly what your cookware + stove heat + surrounding conditions require.

B) Use the double-boiler method.

Egg emulsification via double boiler

The photo above shows how I do it at home: with a metal bowl containing the egg and microplane-grated cheese, whisked over boiling, steaming pasta water. I won’t lie, even using this process (which is somewhat harrowing as evidenced by my use of an overmitt in one hand and none on the other), the texture is hard to get right the first time. But make it enough and you’ll start to know exactly what to look for. There’s a moment when the egg mixture gets just the right amount of thick, dark gold, and a little frothy, and that’s when it’s time to pull back. If it starts to harden and stick at all to the sides of the bowl, you’ve overdone it. But, pull back immediately, and keep stirring — you can still save the sauce at that point.

The next step is nerve-wracking as hell, but hey, we got into this carbonara game to feel the adrenaline rush. Here it comes:

Dear god I hope this works.

Ninety seconds before this photo was taken, I drained the pasta, threw it into the pot with the pancetta, and stirred. Then I waited for the steam to slow to a crawl. The meat had already been cooling for a few minutes, because a dutch oven like this retains a ton of heat.

Steam too much. Keep stirring and waiting.

See that steam? The pot was still too hot, but the egg was cooling fast. I had to actually move things around on the stove because the iron beneath was still heating the pan.

Now, it’s the moment of truth. The moment that will determine if tonight’s meal is a scrambled mess, or the most magical creation of one of the greatest food nations on Earth.

The feeling you get when you pour the egg over the pasta and it sticks to the thick, perfectly al dente noodles just the right amount… That feeling is victory. It is my idea of heaven.

Spaghetti alla carbonara

You want to know the secret to great spaghetti alla carbonara?

There is no secret.

There’s years of attempts, of knowledge-seeking, of failures and mistakes and learning. There’s interrogations of Italian friends and the occasional friendly chef in a trattoria. There’s hours of online research. There’s shopping trip after shopping trip to Italian specialty stores and orders from online retailers and taste-testing and eventually… after a long process, there’s the realization one day, at a restaurant that serves incredible carbonara… that yours is even better.

Also, you owe your lovely wife after she made Neapolitan cookies the night before.

Geraldine with her Neapolitan cookie

If this post was up your alley, and if you feel like the analogy I’m drawing here worked, please let me know. It’s a rare stab at mixing passions, and while I plan to return to my standard marketing+tech focused stuff, I’d love to know if this resonated, and if you’re wanting more.