What Is Chicken Carbonara?

Lee Johnson

Chicken carbonara is an Italian pasta dish featuring chicken cooked in a creamy sauce. Most recipes for the dish include pancetta, cream, eggs, Parmesan cheese, and black pepper. Chefs cook the chicken and pancetta first, mixing the sauce separately, and combining all of the ingredients just before serving with spaghetti. Variations on the traditional recipe can include mushrooms, peppers, and toasted walnuts. Carbonara is believed to have been first made by coal workers or in 1944 following food shortages in Rome.

Double cream, which is used to make chicken carbonara.
Double cream, which is used to make chicken carbonara.

The dish consists of cooked chicken and pancetta served in a creamy sauce made with eggs and double cream. Garlic is another common ingredient in the dish, along with Parmesan cheese. Most chefs serve chicken carbonara by tossing spaghetti pasta in the sauce mixture. Parsley, basil, or a combination of the two are the most common herbs added to the dish.

Most recipes for chicken carbonara include Parmesan cheese.
Most recipes for chicken carbonara include Parmesan cheese.

Most chefs making chicken carbonara cook the dish in roughly the same way. The chicken and pancetta are shallow-fried first along with the garlic, and are then removed from the heat once fully cooked. Chefs mix the cream, egg yolks, Parmesan cheese, herbs, and seasonings separately. The pasta is cooked in boiling water while the rest of the dish is being made. The sauce is poured over the chicken and pancetta, and the spaghetti is tossed in the mixture before serving.

Some chicken carbonara recipes feature bell pepper.
Some chicken carbonara recipes feature bell pepper.

Variations on the normal recipe for chicken carbonara are made by many chefs. Some chefs choose to use another type of pasta, such as penne, in place of the spaghetti. Smoked bacon rashers are substituted for the pancetta if it is not available. Recipes sometimes include other vegetables such as mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers in the dish. Versions of the dish can also be found which do not include egg in the sauce.

Bacon can be substituted for pancetta ham in any carbonara recipe.
Bacon can be substituted for pancetta ham in any carbonara recipe.

The history of chicken carbonara is not definitely known, but many competing theories exist. The most common is that the dish was made by coal miners, or that the black pepper used resembles flakes of coal. This is related to the Italian phrase alla carbonara, which means “coal workers style.” Other theories trace the origin of the dish back to the Second World War, when powdered egg and bacon were given to citizens of Rome by allied soldiers to combat food shortages. It is also possible that the dish was originally made with penne pasta rather than spaghetti.

Some variations of chicken carbonara can include vegetables like mushrooms.
Some variations of chicken carbonara can include vegetables like mushrooms.
Egg yolks are used to make the cream that's part of chicken carbonara.
Egg yolks are used to make the cream that's part of chicken carbonara.

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