They’re both rich and creamy and often tossed with pasta, so what is the difference between Alfredo and carbonara sauce?
The origins of Alfredo and carbonara sauce can both be traced back to Rome when decades ago they were invented by Italians who had grown weary of their trademark red tomato based sauces. The origin of Alfredo sauce is more straightforward than that of carbonara, but both share a trademark creaminess and white color base that tempts hungry diners seeking the kind of inviting Italian comfort that both of these sauces evoke.
Alfredo sauce was invented in 1914 by Alfredo di Lelio, owner of the Roman restaurant Via della Scrofa and loving husband, whose goal was to create a pasta dish for his wife who was in pain and discomfort from her pregnancy. Fettuccine Alfredo did the trick and soon the rich, simple dish was a menu staple, not only in Roman restaurants but in American restaurants too where the recipe was brought back to the states from Hollywood film actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They fortuitously dined at Alfredo di Lelio on their honeymoon and fell in love with his fettuccine Alfredo.
The story of carbonara is not as straightforward. The recipe itself first appears in the Neopolitan cookbook “Cucina Teorico Pratica,” written by Ippolito Cavalcanti in 1839. The author does not provide an origin backstory but the name alla carbonara provides a few clues. The term is defined as “coal-worker’s style” but even that is not as straightforward as it seems.
Some culinary historians connect it to coal workers themselves who needed an easy-to-prepare lunch during their work shifts. Others claim the name denotes the flecks of black pepper in the dish itself that resemble specks of coal. Still others say the dish was invented by Italians during World War II who were starving until Allied Forces liberated them and offered the populace powdered eggs and bacon which were transformed into the now iconic dish.
These are only a few of the tales attributed to carbonara but whatever the truth, one thing is certain: Creamy carbonara and Alfredo are beloved mainstays in the culinary repertoire of not only Italian cooks but for professional and home cooks throughout the world.
Origins notwithstanding, these two sauces might appear similar at first but there are significant differences between them. Let’s explore what sets them apart.
Carbonara is generally comprised of pancetta, egg yolks, heavy cream, garlic, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. A hard Italian cheese is also added during the cooking process with sharp Pecorino Romano being the first choice but salty and mellower parmesan filling in whenever necessary. Alfredo sauce relies upon a combination of butter and heavy cream as its base. Garlic is typically added and parsley is also a frequent Alfredo dancing partner.
Alfredo and carbonara both have a velvety texture but there are marked differences between how they feel on the tongue. Pancetta adds a crunchy note to carbonara’s silkiness whereas Alfredo sauce is a luxurious one-note textural masterpiece that never stops singing in the note of buttery velvet.
The primary difference between the color of Alfredo versus carbonara sauce are the dark pink flecks of pancetta tucked into carbonara. Bright green parsley also differentiates the two sauces when it is tossed into Alfredo after it is cooked. The overall cream colored base is also slightly different between the two since carbonara includes egg yolks that offer it a bolder yellow hue than the gentler tawny hue of Alfredo.
The first step to preparing a carbonara sauce is to prepare the pasta. Once it’s ready, pancetta and garlic are gently sauteed in olive oil. Egg yolks, heavy cream, and shaved Pecorino Romano or Parmesan are whisked together. The pancetta is sprinkled into the bowl and plenty of freshly ground black pepper is added before everything is tossed together with the pasta.
Alfredo sauce is a simpler affair: After the pasta is ready, garlic is sauteed in butter before the heat is turned to its lowest setting and heavy cream is added. It’s stirred gently until the sauce thickens. Once this starts to happen, the pan is removed from the heat and Parmesan is added along with parsley if it’s being used. It’s poured over fettuccine and tossed lightly until the pasta is glistening.
The addition to pancetta in carbonara sauce is the main reason the flavor of Alfredo and carbonara sauce differs to such a degree. Pancetta gives carbonara an earthy, funkier edge whereas Alfredo sauce relies solely upon its buttery virtues to seduce its way into your mouth.
Fettuccine is the pasta of choice for Alfredo sauce and while this is also a frequent partner for carbonara, spaghetti is the first choice for this porky pasta sauce. Linguini is another common pasta preference for either sauce. And while both dishes can stand on their own, Alfredo often becomes the base for proteins like chicken or shrimp. The pancetta in carbonara gives this sauce a more finished feel and it’s most likely to find its way to the table unadulterated by additional ingredients.