Prosciutto, Pepper and Butter Pasta
Prosciutto, Parmigiano, pepper and butter. It’s carbonara without eggs or better yet, it’s like pasta alla gricia but Alfredo decided to join the party.
Pop quiz time. Try not to Google the answer. What are the big four pasta dishes of Rome? The clock is ticking…
Time’s up. If you named the following, you win:
- Cacio e Pepe (pasta with cheese and pepper)
- Pasta alla Gricia (pasta with cheese, pepper and guanciale)
- Pasta Carbonara (pasta with cheese, pepper, guanciale and egg)(my recipe here)
- Pasta all’Amatriciana (pasta with cheese, pepper, guanciale and tomatoes) (my recipe here)
I think of them as pasta siblings with stair-stepped ingredients. It all starts with cheese (Pecorino Romano) and pepper. Add guanciale (cured pork jowl) then egg or tomatoes. As you might have guessed from the title of this post, today’s recipe is not one of these famous Roman pastas but it was certainly inspired by them.
Salty cured pork but instead of guanciale I used prosciutto and instead of Pecorino Romano I used Parmigiano Reggiano. This is what I happened to have when the craving for a rich, indulgent pasta dish hit last week and I was so happy with the results that I prepared it twice in just a few days.
The best way for me to describe this dish? Think pasta alla gricia (or even carbonara) but Alfredo decided to show up to the party since I also added butter to the mix. This prosciutto, pepper and butter pasta is just rich and creamy enough without being cloying, a little salty with a mild peppery kick in each bite. This is not a January reset type of dish but it’s not over the top. If you decide to give this recipe a try, make it as rich as your heart desires. It’s the winter comfort food you didn’t realize you needed.
The Keys to a Creamy Sauce
- Undercook your pasta: You want to finish cooking your pasta in the pan, not in the pot. Transfer it to the pan while it’s still two or so minutes under al dente. It will continue to cook in the pan with the reserved pasta water, concentrating the starch from the pasta, helping to create a creamier sauce.
- Don’t boil the pasta in too much water: Contrary to old pasta boiling convention, you don’t want a pot full of water to boil the pasta. You want to collect that starch so boil the pasta in just enough water to submerge it plus an inch or two extra above.
- Be Generous with the Pasta Water: The creaminess comes not from cream but from the emulsion of the starchy pasta water used to cook the spaghetti and the Parmigiano Reggiano. This is the secret. I like to reserve around two cups to be safe. Better yet, instead of draining your pasta over the sink, use tongs to transfer to your pan to finish cooking so none of the pasta water is discarded prematurely.
- Finely grated cheese works best: In order to avoid clumps of melted cheese, use a fine grater if you can. The finer the strand of the cheese, the more easily it will melt once it’s combined with the pasta and the pasta water, helping to create the creamy sauce.
Prosciutto, Pepper and Butter Pasta
Prosciutto, Parmigiano, pepper and butter. It's carbonara without eggs or better yet, it's like pasta alla gricia but Alfredo decided to join the party.
- 1/2 pound spaghetti
- 4 slices prosciutto, diced
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 – 2/3 cup Parmigiano Reggiano
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- salt, to taste
- 1 1/2 cups reserved pasta water (or more as needed)
- lemon wedges for garnish (optional)
Bring a pot of water to a boil. (Please read my tips in the post.)
In a large pan heated over medium to medium-high heat, add the butter, diced prosciutto and some freshly ground pepper and cook for a few minutes, until the prosciutto is brown and getting crispy. You can pull some out and reserve as topping later. If you're still waiting for the pasta, turn off the heat until you can continue.
When the pasta is just under al dente (the pasta should still have a medium-firm bite or roughly two minutes under prescribed cook time), use tongs to transfer to the pan with the butter and prosciutto. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add one cup of pasta water to the pan and stir the pasta continuously. The pasta water will thicken as you go. Depending on how underdone your pasta is, it may need two to three minutes to reach the al dente stage. Season with salt and more black pepper if you like. Add more pasta water in 1/4 cup increments as it's absorbed by the pasta. (If needed, you can cover the pan and turn the heat down to low while you wait.)
Once the pasta is al dente, cooked enough with just a little bite, turn off the heat. Wait about one minute to give the pan and pasta time to cool down a little. Add more pasta water, 1/4 – 1/2 cup and the grated cheese. Stir vigorously to distribute the cheese into the pasta and water as it melts. The sauce will thicken and get creamy. If you need to, add more pasta. For this dish, I usually use 1 1/4 – 1 1/2 cups pasta water. Season with more salt and pepper if you think it needs it. Serve immediately and top with reserved cooked prosciutto (if you set some aside), more cheese and/or lemon wedges.