Filipinos always get flack for calling our version of “carbonara” as carbonara. “Carbonara uses eggs, not cream,” “There’s no bacon in true carbonara,” “This is not carbonara!” We’re not arguing with these purists. We’ll be the first to say, yes, Filipino carbonara is not carbonara—Italian carbonara anyway. We’ll even go as far as to say that Filipino carbonara deserves to be in a category of its own. The pasta dish is entirely different as it combines a garlicky cream sauce with salty bacon mixed with spaghetti. It’s an indispensable part of Filipino tradition, especially during celebrations.
Filipino carbonara is very simple, but there’s a lot that can go wrong. You can end up with noodles that are mushy, a sauce that’s too thin, sweet, or rich, or mix-ins that don’t match well with everything else. Our best Filipino carbonara recipe is foolproof, so you get a well-balanced dish—both in flavor and texture. And we achieve this with a chosen set of ingredients, prepared in an easy, almost-standard method.
The Filipino Carbonara Ingredients
Making Filipino carbonara is pretty straightforward. Cook the noodles; prepare the mix-ins; make the sauce; then put everything together. So our tests primarily considered the ingredients that make up the pasta dish.
Before testing, we looked up different Filipino carbonara recipes online, finding the common denominators of each. These were garlic, bacon, and mushrooms. That plus, of course, the non-negotiables: noodles, butter, and cream. Everything else (i.e. herbs and vegetables) were extras—and in this case, optional bordering irrelevant.
One of the main characteristics of Filipino carbonara is a garlicky sauce. We wanted to achieve that flavor in a way that didn’t mess with the texture of the sauce. The sweet, pungent taste of garlic had to be noticeable. But we didn’t want to bite into little chunks of garlic just to get it. We tested four garlic variations: minced garlic, crushed garlic, garlic powder, and roasted garlic.
People usually use minced garlic for Filipino carbonara (and most pasta dishes, for that matter). And while it did the job of infusing the garlic flavor into the sauce once combined, it made the sauce chunky. These little bits still carried a lot of flavor in themselves. So when you slurp the sauce and accidentally bite into one, you get a strong garlic taste that overpowers the rest of your bite.
The crushed garlic—as in, no peeling nor slicing, just hitting the cloves with the back of your knife—delivered the same flavor into the sauce as the minced garlic. It also had the advantage of being large enough to fish out, leaving you with a smooth sauce. That said, it was extra work to have to get the pieces out one by one. It would be even more annoying to have to sieve it out because you’d be losing some sauce on top of having to wash an extra utensil. If you opt not to pick it out, on the other hand, you end up with larger chunks than the minced garlic (so an even stronger garlic punch when you bite into it) plus the unpleasant experience that comes with the garlic skins.
Garlic powder seemed to be the easiest and quickest way to get the garlic flavor into the sauce without ruining its smooth texture. However, the flavor was miles away from raw garlic. There was little to no sweetness; it was bitter and the pungency was too harsh.
We knew that cooking garlic low and slow would yield a sweeter, more intense garlic flavor; and that by roasting it, the garlic’s structure would change into a soft, melty almost-pastelike substance. With this in mind, we experimented roasting a whole head of garlic, then using that in the sauce. It retained the garlic flavor; and it was even sweeter and deeper (compared to raw garlic that was cooked on a stovetop) as expected, balancing out the other flavors in the sauce. Because roasting the garlic made it soft, it dissolved into the sauce. So it didn’t just leave us with a smooth sauce, it also evened out the garlic flavor throughout.
Although it takes more time and a little bit more effort, roasting garlic is the way to go for this Filipino carbonara recipe.
For the bacon, we were looking at both the cut and the flavor. It had to be meaty but with a slightly neutral taste because we didn’t want it to compete with the other flavors of the Filipino carbonara. Texture-wise, it had to have a bite, especially after cooking it in the sauce. The bacon also had to have enough fat to cook the other ingredients in.
The consideration for honey-cured bacon lied on the fact that most Filipino-branded kinds of bacon are sweetened. It’s the most readily available in the supermarket, so most households likely already stocked it at home. The question then was “Could you use the bacon you already had at home for this recipe?” The answer is no. Honey-cured bacon—or any other sweetened bacon—will be too sweet, overpowering the other flavors in the Filipino carbonara.
Thin-cut Cured, Smoked Bacon
Thin-cut cured, smoked bacon has the same texture as most supermarket honey-cured bacon without the additional flavorings. This worked because it gave the smokey, meaty flavor, plus enough fat to cook the rest of the ingredients in. Moreover, the thin slices cooked to a crisp, and although it naturally softened after it was combined with the sauce, it still retained some bite.
Thick-cut Cured, Smoked Bacon
The thick-cut cured, smoked bacon achieved the same flavor and fat as the thin-cut variant. However, the texture couldn’t hold up. Because of its thickness, it became unpleasantly chewy after being mixed into the sauce.
Thin-cut cured, smoked bacon won in this test because it provided a neutral, slightly salty flavor that worked—not competed—with the other flavors of the Filipino carbonara. The texture was also the best among the three tested bacon variants after they were mixed into the sauce.
Apart from extracting the mushroom taste, we tested three kinds of mushrooms for their recipe to see which one browned the best, essentially giving us better-flavored mushrooms.
Canned Button Mushrooms
Canned button mushrooms are the most convenient option. But the trade-off is dismal. These mushrooms retain a lot of water, so it doesn’t leave you with a lot of mushroom flavor. It also doesn’t brown well; we even cooked it longer than the others, yet it still didn’t get the same color or caramelization. Instead, it ended up like chewed up gum. Mixed into the sauce, the texture was terribly off-putting—chewy, gummy, and water-packed.
The shiitake mushrooms had all the properties we were looking for. It had great flavor, it browned well, and the texture was good even mixed into the sauce. However, the distinct, woody taste of the shiitake was too overpowering and clashed with the flavors of the rest of the dish.
Fresh Button Mushrooms
The fresh button mushrooms (brown or white, it doesn’t really make a difference) browned nicely and, in turn, it developed a deeper, more pronounced mushroom flavor. That said, it was still neutral enough to work seamlessly into the sauce without battling with the other ingredients.
From the get-go, we already established that this Filipino carbonara wouldn’t have a cheese sauce. So any form of cheese would only be meant to serve as a topping. Parmesan was given as far as the type of cheese was concerned, so the question really was if it made a huge difference if you used bottled Parmesan versus fresh Parmesan.
Fresh Parmesan obviously has better flavor. It’s cheesy, salty, and nutty; it tastes just like what Parmesan is supposed to taste like.
Bottled Parmesan tastes differently from fresh Parmesan. It’s pre-ground, so there are additives (i.e. starch) put in to stop it from gathering into a solid mass and these slightly affect the flavor. Bottled Parmesan is also chalkier than fresh Parmesan. That said when topped onto the pasta, it didn’t affect the flavor so much that we could say that it made the dish worse.
While fresh Parmesan is better for this Filipino carbonara, bottled parmesan is a fine substitute. So if it’s the only thing you have on hand, don’t worry about having to shell to more cash to buy the real thing.
The Filipino Carbonara Non-Negotiables
Although the aforementioned ingredients are “non-negotiables” as well, there are three other Filipino carbonara ingredients that are even more indispensable that they didn’t even need testing.
We’re not going to tell you to make pasta from scratch to make this recipe better. Regular, dried, supermarket spaghetti will work just fine—and is really what this type of dish calls for. That said, for the best results, pick a good-quality spaghetti, one that’s not entirely smooth and a little bit textured. This graininess will help your sauce stick to the pasta better.
There’s already a lot of fat rendered from the bacon, enough to cook both the bacon and the mushrooms. Once it’s used for the mushrooms though, most of it is absorbed since the mushrooms need it to brown nicely. You’re left with just a little bit of bacon fat (if any) and some browned bits, so you’ll need to add some butter to continue cooking.
You can technically use oil or more bacon fat (if, for some reason, you have bacon fat stored somewhere), but butter lends a better flavor and incorporates more smoothly into the sauce.
The cream—specifically all-purpose cream—is what makes Filipino carbonara what it is. It functions as expected in this dish, leaving you with a light but rich sauce.
The Filipino Carbonara Process
There’s not a lot that goes into making Filipino carbonara, and that rings true in this recipe. Apart from the added step of roasting the garlic, the rest of the process follows the standard Filipino carbonara-making procedure.
Roasting the Garlic
The recipe starts with the roasting of the garlic. Pre-heat your oven to 450F. (You can also do this in a toaster.) Cut off a fourth from the top of the garlic, then place it cut-side up on a piece of foil.
Drizzle olive oil on top before sealing the foil like a package, as you would for, say, baked potato. Roast the heads of garlic for 45 minutes.
Let them cool before removing them from the foil then pushing them out from the compartments into a bowl. Set these aside for later.
Cooking the Noodles
The next step is to cook the pasta, which is just basically dropping it into a pot of heavily salted boiling water. For al dente noodles, cook your spaghetti two minutes less than package instructions. It can take the reduced time since it will still cook for a bit later in the sauce.
Remember to save at least half a cup of pasta water.
Preparing the Mix-ins
Move to the stove then start preparing your mix-ins, beginning with the bacon since the fat you render from it will be used to cook the rest of the ingredients after. You’ll want to cook the bacon until crisp. Though since it’ll be cooked in the sauce later, it will soften. So if you’d like a little bit of crunch in your carbonara, reserve some of the bacon (or cook a little more, then reserve that) to use as a topping.
Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside, then cook your mushrooms. To get everything evenly browned, place your mushrooms in a single layer. While that’s cooking, combine the cream with your pasta water from earlier. This will help thin it out so the sauce isn’t too heavy. Once your mushrooms are browned and a bit caramelized, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside, as well.
Making the Sauce
By this time, you won’t have a lot of fat left in the pan, so heat some butter before adding your cream and pasta water mixture, plus the roasted garlic from earlier. Let it simmer and stir until the garlic is completely dissolved.
Now all that’s left is to combine everything; add the bacon and mushrooms followed by the spaghetti.
Mix it well, agitating the pan constantly. (This means moving it in a forward-backward motion while you stir the pasta in the pan.) Doing this helps the sauce thicken and cling to the noodles better.
Topping Your Filipino Carbonara
Finish your carbonara with Parmesan—whether fresh or from the bottle—and some black pepper. (The latter is optional.)
Pepper’s Best Filipino Carbonara
The ingredients are what really make Pepper’s best Filipino carbonara recipe. There’s some technique to it, but it’s nothing that an amateur chef can’t accomplish at home with the tools he/she has. The combination of the winners from all of our testing results in a Filipino carbonara with al dente spaghetti, a smooth, garlicky, not-too-heavy cream sauce, and a well-balanced pair of mix-ins in the form of caramelized mushrooms and meaty bacon that don’t overpower the dish.
Again, this is not Italian carbonara. It’s way better.