It’s Not Rocket Science, Just Pasta Carbonara

[1] [2] Early April 2016, the release of a video recipe of pasta carbonara on Youtube triggered a tsunami of reactions. Following all the negative and sarcastic comments, the original video –sponsored by Barilla– was removed by the author (the French food blog demotivateur.fr) but is still available online. Hostile and hangered reactions were mostly authored by viewers with Italian (or Italian-alike) names or nicknames, however many non-Italians also posted very annoyed, furious or ironic comments about that culinary massacre that was supposed to be a pasta carbonara recipe. Moreover, this story went far beyond the boundaries of Youtube; Italian social media as well as the main national and regional daily newspapers (both online and paper editions) mentioned the news and didn’t go light with criticism.

On Facebook, Demotivateur Food is well know for their quick and easy recipes, which main feature is, in my opinion, to be very fat and very sweet, a dreadful killer of healthy lifestyle ! But, I guess, this time they went too far by proposing a ridiculous “one-pot” revisitation of a very traditional Italian recipe. To cut a long story short, Demotivateur proposed to put the ingredients (actually, their own version of the ingredients: onion, bacon, pasta) in a single pot, add cold water, then boil all; after 15 minutes, add cream, grated cheese, black pepper, then stir and serve with an egg yolk on top.

* * *

Traditional and regional Italian cuisine has a well established and renowned watchdog, which is the recipes book Cucchiao d’Argento. In Cucchiao d’Argento, the spaghetti carbonara recipe (a dish originated in the Rome region between 1930 and 1944 [3]) lists only 5 main ingredients:

  • spaghetti (almost any pasta shape is fine)
  • grated pecorino cheese
  • full eggs
  • pork cheek
  • black pepper

and salt and oil –although it looks like that the original/historical recipe doesn’t need salt nor oil because pork cheek is salty enough to give savour to the dish and, once cooked, releases more than enough fat.

In a nutshell, 5 ingredients are needed for pasta carbonara, to be prepared and cooked in a very specific manner, light years from the Demotivateur’s approach.

That is for the original, traditional recipe. But what’s about the day-to-day reality of most of us? How is pasta carbonara recipe taught? What’s the most common list of ingredients? To answer these questions, not very surprisingly I had a look at the numbers.

I scraped Youtube (updated April 28, 2016) and downloaded 615 recipes of pasta carbonara using the following search words :

  • spaghetti carbonara recipe
  • spaghetti carbonara recette
  • spaghetti carbonara ricetta

I filtered the results to keep the recipes viewed more than 10,000 times only, then deleted special versions of the dish (such as vegetarian, vegan or fish and sea food carbonaras). The final database comprises 165 observations, which I manually completed with the list of ingredients for each of them (omitting the water to cook the pasta, and salt).

The 165 observations are distributed in the following manner:

By language

By type

In most videos, the author described its recipe as traditional, classic, real one, true, sometimes as quick or easy, or also as modified or inspired by some national cuisine tradition or else.

Ingredients

Here comes the funny (should I say tragic?) part… The list of all the ingredients used in the 165 recipes comprises no less than 81 different items, way far from the only 5 needed: bacon, balsamic vinegar, basil, beans, beef sausage, black pepper, bread, broth cube, butter, carrots, celery, cheddar, cheese, chicken, chicken powder, chili, cornstarch, cream, cream cheese, croutons, curry powder, egg yolks, eggs, fettuccine, fusilli, gabagool, garlic, green peas, gruyere, ham, herbs, leeks, lemon zest, maccheroni, margarine, meat, mexican cheese, milk, miso, mushroom cream, mushroom soup, mushrooms, nagasawake sauce, nutmeg, oil, olive oil, onion, oregano, paprika, parmesan, parsley, pasta, pecorino, penne, pepper, philadelphia cheese, pork cheek, ravioli, red pepper, rocket salad, sake, sausage, seaweed, soy sauce, soymilk, spaetzle, spaghetti, speck, spinach, thyme, tomatoes, tortellini, truffle, turkey, vegan milk, vegetable oil, wheat flour, white pepper, white wine, yeast, zucchini.

This is not hallucination, balsamic vinegar, mexican cheese, beef sausage are in the list ! And the number of used ingredients varies from a minimum of 4 to a maximum of 15. If it is fine to use many more ingredients than suggested by the traditional recipe when clearly cooking a modified version of carbonara, it is harder to justify the respect of the classic tradition when 7, 8 or even more ingredients go into the preparation.

Recipes by number of ingredients and type
4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15
classic 1 15 31 30 24 24 10 0 2 0 0
easy 0 1 1 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
modified 1 3 0 2 4 6 4 1 0 2 1

Aside from pasta (which can be of different types and shapes) and the other ingredients of the traditional recipe (eggs, pecorino cheese, pork cheek and black pepper), which are the most used ingredients in the Youtube video recipes of carbonara?

The top 3 non traditional ingredients can be forgiven because bacon is the most indicated replacement for pork cheek when the latter is not available. And when bacon is used instead of pork cheek, a few drops of olive oil are needed because the fat of bacon is different from the pork cheek fat and does not melt in the same way. Similarly, parmesan cheese is the most obvious and permitted replacement for pecorino, which is not always available or available in every city in the world. So, all in all, these 3 ingredients could very well be wiped out from the list of non traditional ingredients.

However, using cream, garlic, egg yolks (instead of full eggs), onion, butter or white wine would be considered as a culinary heresy by a vast majority of cuisine amateurs. And it is shocking to notice that almost 50% of all recipes suggest to use some kind of cream or milk, while this is by no means part of the traditional recipe. Digging deeper shows that 47 (out of 92) recipes in English instruct to use milk or cream while only 3 (out of 20) recipes in Italian do the same recommendation. Even more worrying, 59 (out of 136) recipes that claim to be classic use milk or cream.

Use of cream or milk by type of recipe
FALSE TRUE
classic 78 59
easy 1 3
modified 10 14

Chisq = 3.298 – p-value = 0.192

Last but not least, it is interesting (scary, actually) to count how many Youtube carbonara recipes use only the 5 ingredients from the Italian tradition. Well, not many: only 6 out of 165 recipes ! If we expand the criteria to the tolerated ingredients (pork cheek or bacon, pecorino or parmesan, with or without olive oil) the total number of tolerable recipes increases to a weak 26 only.

If 3.6% of the carbonara recipes only are correct and additional 12.1% are tolerable, learning how to cook pasta carbonara on Youtube is a risky exercise, for it means that one has almost 87% likelihood of learning a wrong recipe…! And that does not even takes into account the impact in term of views. Actually, out of the 30,052,463 total Youtube views from the 165 recipes in the dataset, 442,496 (1.5%) only are generated by the 6 correct recipes while 7,354,278 (24.5%) only are generated by the 26 tolerated recipes.

Views by type of recipe

All in all, it looks like Youtube is quite crowded with bad teachers of pasta carbonara, who have some undeniable success in terms of reach. Not really a good news for sensitive palates…

 


To download R code and dataset, click here (40 KB)


Notes

[1] This document is the result of an analysis conducted by the author and exclusively reflects the author’s positions. Therefore, this document does not involve, either directly or indirectly, any of the employers, past and present, of the author. The author also declares not to have any conflict of interest on this matter.

[2] Contact: salvino [dot] salvaggio [at] gmail [dot] com

[3] The recipe does not appear in the bible of Roman cuisine released in 1930 by Ada Boni but mentioned in other writings in 1944.