Originating in Italy, these two delightfully rich and creamy white pasta sauces have taken the world by storm, and very rightly so. While decadent tomato-based red sauces would always live in my heart rent-free, sometimes my soul yearns for the creamy comfort of a modest white sauce pasta like alfredo or carbonara.
The original recipes of both sauces don’t include a drop of heavy cream but I have nothing against non-Italians who choose to add whipping cream or half and half to obtain the desired texture.
Due to the appearance, both sauces might appear similar in nature but they are distinct from each other in more than one way.
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Taste and Texture of Alfredo and Carbonara
The main difference between these two sauces, apart from the ingredients, lies in their texture. Alfredo is a simple but sumptuous medley of butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Its rich, buttery smoothness marries well with the savory goodness of the beloved Italian cheese. A perfect pairing for al-dente cooked fettuccine, alfredo pasta is the perfect comfort food to brighten up a dull evening.
On the other hand, the addition of guanciale, which is an Italian cured meat made of pork cheek, adds a touch of crunch to the silky smooth carbonara sauce. It’s a bit difficult to get hold of guanciale in America, so feel free to use pancetta or the good ol’ bacon instead.
In terms of texture and depth of flavors, carbonara offers a lot more than alfredo sauce, in my opinion. The luxurious blend of pecorino romano, egg yolks, and toasted black pepper along with seared guanciale creates a flavor so rich, that it will leave you asking for more.
Pecorino Romano has a sharper flavor compared to parmesan. Therefore, the flavor of the cheese in carbonara gets just as much spotlight as the other ingredients.
If you are thinking about treating yourself or your loved one to a fancy dinner, pasta alla carbonara with a glass of medium-bodied, mildly tannic white wine like chardonnay sounds about right.
Both sauces have a cream color base but the addition of egg yolks in carbonara lends it a more pronounced yellow hue. The alfredo sauce I make is almost always light yellow-brown in color. Another way to tell the difference between carbonara and alfredo is by noticing what else is in the sauce.
Carbonara should have bits of crunchy guanciale, pancetta, or bacon and a generous sprinkle of black pepper. Traditionally, alfredo sauce is finished off with nothing but a fistful of grated parmesan. Here in the States, it’s mostly garnished with parsley, rosemary, thyme, or oregano.
Fettuccine to alfredo sauce is what ketchup is to fries. While it’s perfectly alright to toss spaghetti, bucatini, linguine, or penne in this decadent, creamy sauce, my go-to choice will always be fettuccine.
Alfredo is a versatile ingredient that can take your baked chicken, fish, and potatoes to the next level. Want to up your mac and cheese game? Ditch the boxed stuff and make it from scratch, top it off with some alfredo sauce and sharp cheddar, bake it and go nuts!
For carbonara, spaghetti or any variation of spaghetti such as capellini or bucatini would be ideal for this egg-based cream. The key to nailing your carbonara pasta is to make sure the sauce coats the pasta evenly.
Flat pastas like pappardelle or ridged ones like penne rigate are also excellent choices as they can absorb the sauce really well.
Preparation of Alfredo Sauce:
Alfredo di Lelio, the inventor of this timeless culinary masterpiece that is alfredo fettuccine recommended ½ lb of butter and ½ lb of parmesan cheese for every 1 lb of pasta.
I know that sounds like an insane amount of butter and cheese but alfredo sauce is supposed to be rich and you can always adjust the recipe to suit your liking.
- Cook the pasta al-dente for 8-10 minutes (or as mentioned on the packet) in heavily salted boiling water. Don’t throw away all the pasta water. Save some for later.
- Take a skillet and melt the butter on medium heat.
- Drain the pasta once cooked and add it to the skillet and let it cook with the butter. Add a pinch of salt at this stage. Keep tossing.
- Next, sprinkle half of the total amount of grated parmesan you’re going to use. Add a ladleful of pasta sauce to combine the cheese properly with the buttery pasta.
- Keep adding more cheese and more pasta water as you cook, until you get the texture you are after.
- And that’s it. Plate it, slurp it!
Preparation of Carbonara Sauce
Making a good carbonara is more technically demanding than alfredo sauce. You have to be very careful not to use too much heat or the egg yolks will scramble instead of forming a velvety sauce. Here’s how you make the perfect pasta alla carbonara the true Italian way:
- Cook the pasta in boiling hot water for the duration mentioned on the packet.
- Meanwhile prepare your sauce with whole eggs, grated pecorino or parmesan, and some boiling pasta water in a bowl. Use one egg for every 100 grams of pasta.
If you are making 500 grams of pasta, use 5 whole eggs. I also like to add an extra egg for extra creaminess. Season the thick mixture with a generous helping of freshly ground pepper.
- Now, put a skillet on medium heat. Once it’s nice and hot, put the diced guanciale or whatever cured meat you are using. Cook it nice and slow until it releases oil. That fat, my friend, is what gives carbonara its signature flavor.
- Once the pasta is cooked, drain it, add it to the skillet and cook it with the guanciale until it absorbs all the flavor of the meat.
- Now turn off the heat and wait for a minute or two before you add the egg-cheese mixture.
- Next up, slowly pour all the sauce on the pasta and give it a good stir. Add some more pasta water while cooking as the spaghetti will quickly sop up the sauce. The pasta water will prevent the noodle from drying up.
- Plate it, garnish with some more cheese and lots of pepper. Bon appetito!
Alfredo sauce is relatively easier to make and it pairs perfectly with a plethora of dishes, apart from pasta. Making an authentic carbonara takes a bit of patience and skill. But the final result is so worth the effort!