Guanciale vs. Pancetta for Carbonara

Guanciale and pancetta are cured pork cuts from the animal’s jowl/cheek and belly, respectively. They’re used as central ingredients in many famous Italian pasta dishes, including Spaghetti Carbonara.

Guanciale is used to make authentic carbonara, though pancetta is a common substitute.

If you want to know the difference between the two cuts when making carbonara – you’re in luck. In this article, we’ll get to the bottom of the guanciale vs. pancetta for carbonara debate. Plus, I’ll explain why they’re interchangeable for this dish, and showcase two traditional carbonara guanciale and pancetta recipes.

guanciale vs pancetta for carbonara

Is Carbonara Made With Pancetta or Guanciale?

The ingredients listed in many recipes for carbonara include “cured pork” which suggests it can be made with guanciale, pancetta, or bacon. Italians prefer to use guanciale.

According to earlier published versions of the recipe, it was made with pancetta and later replaced by guanciale.

In August 1954, food magazine La Cucina Italiana published one of the first carbonara recipes. The ingredients were listed as spaghetti, pancetta, egg, garlic and gruyere. Guanciale replaced pancetta sometime in the 1960s, along with Panna (cream) which today would be considered wrong.

Some theories suggest that carbonara was invented during a period of extreme food shortages in Rome during and after World War II. Charcoal burners working in the central Apennines would fill their baskets with eggs, dry spaghetti, pecorino, and pancetta.

The name carbonara derives from the word “carbonaro” meaning “coal burner.” Some believe the dish was created as a quick hearty meal by these workers.

Though the meal started off using pancetta, Italians believe to make a successful carbonara, it should be made with guanciale. They prefer the strong, unique, “porky” flavor that only the animal’s cheek fat provides.

Carbonara With Guanciale vs. Carbonara With Pancetta

When making carbonara, guanciale and pancetta are easily interchangeable because, essentially, they’re both types of fatty cured pork meat.

Since either can be used, let’s take a look at their similarities and differences as pork meats and what that means for a carbonara.

Similarities

Guanciale and pancetta are both cured to draw out the moisture for a period before being cooked. They’re marinated using similar seasoning before curing.

They both work well in carbonara as the dish requires a fatty cut of pork with a salty, meaty, and distinct pork flavor.

Differences

Guanciale

Guanciale is taken from the jowl/cheek of the animal. This area contains more fat and less meat, making it less expensive than pancetta.

The fat is harder and more consistent. When cooked it becomes fluffier, making it a better-quality cut.

In a carbonara, once the fat melts into the ingredients it adds incredible depth of taste.

Guanciale’s velvety smooth texture is softer than pancetta’s – and with a more potent flavor. It stands out from other strong carbonara ingredients and gives the dish an overall buttery depth that pancetta can’t replicate.

Pancetta

Pancetta is a cut taken from the animal’s belly. The curing process takes longer, making this cut more expensive.

This meat is less fatty than guanciale, therefore, when cooked is slightly drier. Also, the taste is not as potent.

People typically opt to use pancetta in their carbonara instead of guanciale if they find guanciale’s taste too strong.

spaghetti carbonara on black plate

Traditional Carbonara Recipes

Spaghetti Carbonara With Guanciale

This recipe takes approximately 10 minutes to make and serves two people.

Ingredients:

  • Four ounces of guanciale, cut into 1/2 centimeter cubes
  • Two heaped tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (preferably lightly fruity)
  • Three large eggs kept at room temperature
  • 100 grams (10 rounded tablespoons) of freshly grated pecorino romano
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 450 grams of spaghetti

Method:

  1. For approximately two minutes, sauté the guanciale with oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the guanciale edges begin to turn brown. Don’t let the pieces get too crispy.
  2. Then put the pan aside keeping the guanciale warm.
  3. In an eight-liter pot, over high heat, bring to boil five liters of water.
  4. Once boiled, add three tablespoons of kosher salt. Next, add the pasta and stir occasionally until cooked.
  5. Whilst the spaghetti is cooking, break your eggs into a small bowl, then add all the cheese and a generous amount of pepper.
  6. Gently whisk the mixture until it is smooth.
  7. Drain the spaghetti – reserve and keep warm a cup of the pasta water.
  8. Over low heat, put the pasta in the skillet with the guanciale, then mix well.
  9. Hold the skillet slightly above the burner – not touching it, and stream pour your egg and cheese mixture into the spaghetti.
  10. Now, if you’re skilled at tossing food using deft wrist movements, do so to blend everything in the pan. If not, remove the pan from the heat to mix quickly using two wooden spoons.
  11. Whatever blending technique you use, make sure it’s fast or the spaghetti will get cold and the eggs will not cook properly. Ideally, the heat from the pasta will cook the eggs and create a creamy sauce.
  12. If you need to smooth your ingredients out a little, use some of the pasta water reserved earlier.

Spaghetti Carbonara With Pancetta

This recipe takes approximately 10 minutes to make and serves two people.

Ingredients:

  • Three large free-range egg yolks
  • 40 grams of Parmesan cheese
  • A 150 grams piece of higher-welfare pancetta
  • 200 grams of spaghetti
  • One garlic clove
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Method:

  1. Place your egg yolks into a bowl with finely grated parmesan.
  2. Season it with pepper, mix well, then put to one side.
  3. Chop your pancetta into strips or cubes.
  4. In a large pot of salted water, boil your spaghetti until al dente.
  5. Over medium-high heat, add a heaped tablespoon of oil to your frying pan.
  6. Peel and crush your garlic, then add it to the oil for one minute.
  7. Next, add your pancetta, stir until it begins to get crispy.
  8. After the pancetta is cooked, remove the garlic from the pan.
  9. Next (reserving some of the water), drain your spaghetti and add to your pancetta.
  10. Mix/toss well so all flavors are soaked up, then remove it from the heat.
  11. Add some of the reserved pasta water and mix well with pepper.
  12. Stream pour in the egg mixture. The egg will cook gently.
  13. Continue to mix and add some pasta water if necessary.

In Summary

Italians take pride in their traditional dishes and are passionate about the ingredients used. In carbonara, they love the strong porky flavor created from a cut of guanciale. It gives the dish a texture that can’t be matched by pancetta.

Today, they strive to preserve their culinary tradition of carbonara by using guanciale. They feel that the overall character of guanciale is what makes carbonara, carbonara.

The origins of the dish used pancetta as the key ingredient. Pancetta was used for a while until replaced by guanciale. I guess the moral of the story is, carbonara is carbonara whenever a cut of cured pork is included.

Hopefully, the information in this guanciale vs. pancetta for carbonara article has helped you to decide which one to try!