me I must confess that recreating the very particular and porky pleasure of spaghetti carbonara without said pork was not a puzzle that had kept me awake until a reader wrote to ask my advice on the subject. Since the main players in classic carbonara are cured pork and cheese, it seemed to me that it would be better to stick with cacio e pepe, or one of the many vegan pasta dishes in the Italian repertoire, say agilo e olio. , or pasta with pangratto. However, after thinking about it for a moment, I realized (quite guiltyly, I must admit) that as delicious as those dishes are, they are delicious in a completely different way than spaghetti carbonara and that, quite frankly, If anyone has ever been big enough to give meat, the least I can do is offer a recipe that’s up to scratch in that department. So, apologies, and thanks for inspiring this column, because there really are very few things I enjoy more than solving a bona fide culinary conundrum.
Carbonara is traditionally made with guanciale, or cured pork jowl, though pancetta is often substituted, and both are fatty, salty, and highly flavorful. That’s a hard thing to replicate, as the reader in question discovered when he tried to swap halloumi, an equally salty product, though missing, as I find when trying a recipe from the Casually Peckish blog, the rich umami character of pork, even when the halloumi is fried to a deep golden color, as author Gen recommends, noting, “This caramelization process will add complexity to its flavor, and as I always say, color = flavor.” Pasta and fried halloumi are as tasty as two very good things that will inevitably be in combination, but it doesn’t scream carbonara to me. It’s also not, of course, vegan friendly, which is my hope here.
The recipe in the Thug Kitchen 101 book by Bad Manners Food (NB, the vegan food duo changed their name in 2020) uses sun-dried tomatoes soaked in red wine vinegar, soy sauce, liquid smoke, and garlic powder, which by Of course it is far more suitable for vegans. That said, while I try to keep as open a mind as possible towards sun-dried tomatoes for someone who remembers the 1990s, they don’t taste anything like bacon. Salty and tasty, yes, but, even after marinating, also intense and unmistakably tomato.
Heather Whinney’s recipe, in her book Vegan Kids, swaps the tomatoes for strips of “carrot bacon” marinated in tahini, maple syrup, dark soy sauce, and liquid smoke, then baked until crisp. These really do look good (well, they look like crispy, striped American-style rashers anyway), but they taste eerily sweet; Sue Quinn’s variation from Easy Vegan, which uses oil-brushed shiitake mushrooms, liquid smoke, smoked paprika, garlic and onion powder, works much better.
However, my favorite pork substitute is similar, but even simpler. Daniel Gritzer writes in Serious Eats that he chose king oyster mushrooms for their mild flavor (which prevents this from becoming pasta with mushrooms by another name) and hulking stems, which can be cut into pieces the size of a convincing lardon. Instead of going to the trouble and expense of turning on the oven, he sautés them in oil until golden brown, so they retain a satisfyingly juicy texture. My only amendment is to add a little extra flavor to help maintain the illusion: a dash of soy sauce for umami, a little garlic (yes, I know a lot of carbonara recipes don’t include garlic, but mine does), and a pinch of smoked paprika. Because, although guanciale is not smoked, as Gritzer explains, “If there’s one thing a smoky flavor can immediately evoke, it’s meat, and we need that effect here.” You could very happily use liquid smoke instead, if you have some, but it’s harder to find in your average supermarket. Oh, and don’t be tempted to skimp on the oil: guanciale is kind of greasy and mushrooms aren’t, so you want them to soak up some of that oily goodness. (Note: Processed meat replacements, while certainly excellent, require no further instruction from me, so I haven’t experimented with them here; if you have a favorite, use that instead of mushrooms.)
More complicated, if you keep this vegan, is to replicate the egg and cheese sauce, given that both ingredients are off the table. The simplest version I try, from Bad Manners, combines nutritional yeast, dried yeast flakes with what Bon Appétit magazine describes as a “cheese and nutty” flavor, mixed with a cornmeal batter and a splash of water. of cooking of the pasta, so that it thickens in the pan with the spaghetti. While this is perfectly nice, if a bit subtle, given that it doesn’t even contain the black pepper that is such a vital element of the original dish, it doesn’t do much to scratch that egg-rich itch.
Quinn’s creamy cashew-based recipe is far more effective, with the requisite richness and slightly crumbly, cheesy texture, but it can’t even compete with the silken tofu used by both Whinney and Gritzer, who lives up to its name by coating the spaghetti strands with a creamy, silky sauce. However, it needs a little help in the flavor department.
Nutritional yeast is a good start, thanks to its aforementioned cheesy flavor, and I also play with the white miso used by Quinn, Whinney, and Gritzer, but I find that even this milder fermented bean paste has a distinctive earthy flavor that I don’t it has a place to hide in such a simple dish; the yeast and salt should be enough on their own. IMHO, Gritzer’s smartest move is to acknowledge that Pecorino Romano, like Parmesan, is not only salty and savory, but “sharp to the point of peppery, with a pretty decent lactic funk.” Thinking laterally, he rolls out sauerkraut brine, which also contains lactic acid. This gives your sauce an undeniably strong but slightly cabbage flavor that, while not off-putting, isn’t what you’d expect from a carbonara, so I’ll stick with the white wine vinegar you top it with for added tartness.
Although a lot of black pepper is a must, I’ve omitted the garlic and onion powders used in several recipes because, while I’m not a brat about them, they taste more like instant noodles than carbonara to me. However, I kept Whinney’s pinch of turmeric because its beautiful color makes my brain immediately think of egg yolks.
Carbonara traditionally doesn’t have any garnish other than an extra rush of grated cheese, which is here for obvious reasons (unless you have a favorite plant-based cheese that works on this one, in which case load it up). Although Bad Manners Food’s sprinkling of flat-leaf parsley is certainly more for aesthetic reasons than flavor, I like their crispy breadcrumbs, albeit crushed and seasoned simply with salt and oil, rather than their lemon zest, paprika and garlic powder. If you can’t be bothered with them, don’t worry; just like grated cheese, they won’t make or break the dish.
Perfect spaghetti carbonara without meat
Homework 10 minutes
Cook 13 minutes
It serves 2, and easily scalable
80 g oyster mushrooms
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
¼ teaspoon sweet smoked paprikaor a hint of liquid smoke
150g-200g spaghettidepending on whether you eat it as a main dish or as a pasta dish
100g silken tofu
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 pinch of turmeric (optional)
10g nutritional yeast
coarse ground black pepper
2½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons dry breadcrumbs (optional)
1 clove garlicpeeled and shredded
Put the kettle to boil. Clean the mushrooms and cut them into pieces of approximately 2 cm x 1 cm.
Mix soy sauce and paprika in a bowl, add mushrooms and toss to coat lightly (I find it easier to use my hands).
Fill a large sauce with the boiling water from the kettle, place over high heat, salt well, then add the spaghetti and cook until al dente, according to package directions.
Meanwhile, put the tofu, vinegar, and turmeric, if using, in a small bowl or mini blender.
Scoop out about 60 ml (four tablespoons) of the pasta water, stir it into the nutritional yeast to help it dissolve, then add it to the tofu mixture.
Blend into a smooth paste (if you don’t have a hand blender or mini chopper, beat it with a fork, but make sure it’s really smooth), then season well with salt and plenty of black pepper to taste.
If you’re making the breadcrumb topping, put a half tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. If the breadcrumbs are coarse, grind them finely in a mortar.
Season the breadcrumbs generously, fry for a couple of minutes, until golden brown, then pour into a bowl.
Pour the remaining two tablespoons of oil into the same pan with the crushed clove of garlic and, once hot, add the mushrooms.
Fry, stirring frequently, until golden brown on all sides; lower the heat if they threaten to burn.
With one minute to go before the pasta is done, pour the sauce mixture into the mushroom pan and heat gently, stirring to release the juices from the bottom of the pan.
Drain the pasta, keeping some of the cooking water, then add the spaghetti to the sauce and toss until well combined, adding a dash or two of the cooking water to loosen and emulsify the mixture, if necessary.
Divide the pasta between plates, top with breadcrumbs, if using, and a final pinch of black pepper, and serve immediately.
If you’ve experimented with making meatless carbonara, whether vegetarian or vegan, what are your best tips for success? And what other classic pasta dishes would you like to see in a plant-based version?
Felicity Cloake’s new book, Red Sauce Brown Sauce: A British Breakfast Odyssey, is published by HarperCollins at £16.99. To order a copy for £14.78, go to guardianbookshop.com