How can you tell which recipe is good when so many recipes have high ratings?
- Carbonara ingredients
- A curious Italian American history of the recipe
- Some recipes posted on Food.com have similar patterns
- Carbonara recipes are highly personalized
- Data analysis using R, the best and worst recipes, 2 means more than 1
In Italy, “pasta alla carbonara” is a hotly debated topic. For purists, the original and “true” carbonara has the following ingredients:
- Pasta such as spaghetti, rigatoni, or mezze maniche (a common shape in Rome)
- Aged Roman Pecorino Cheese
- High quality pork cheek
- Black Pepper
(and cooking water, to be precise).
As we will see shortly, when we search for carbonara recipes in cookbooks, cooking magazines, or online, we often find very different lists. Some are so different that they offend purists’ sensibilities. An example is the “Smoky Tomato Carbonara” (Chun, 2021) the New York Times published in 2021, which caused a storm in Italian and English newspapers and on social media.
A curious Italian American history of the recipe
The origins of the carbonara recipe are uncertain, and the ingredients used have changed over time. Most experts date back the recipe to 1954, when Patricia Bronté published “Vittles and Vice: An Extraordinary Guide to What’s Cooking on Chicago’s Near North Side.” The author described a recipe she had discovered, which was very similar to the recipe now considered the “true” carbonara. Luigi Carnacina introduced pork cheek in place of bacon in 1960, in his book “La grande cucina.” (Note that Carnacina’s recipe includes cream listed among the ingredients, heresy to modern purists. This might a contrarian to ask: Why do we accept pork cheek but not cream?) (Cesari, 2018).
Another story regarding the origins is more colorful, and relates the principal ingredients – bacon and eggs – to the rations available to US troops stationed in Italy during WWII. Around 1944, in Riccione, Renato Gualandi, a cook originally from Bologna, was hired to prepare a special lunch to honor the English and the American Army. Food was scarce at that time, so Gualandi used his creativity to mix local ingredients with those supplied by the militaries. He mixed American bacon, egg yolk powder, cheese, cream, a sprinkle of black pepper, and pasta. The guests loved it, and he kept on preparing it when he later moved to Rome.
I am not sure if this is the true carbonara story, but it is nice to think that it was invented by an Italian cook using ingredients supplied by the American army.
Some recipes posted on Food.com have similar patterns
The carbonara data comes from the same dataset I have used for the analysis of pizza recipes. The complete dataset scraped from Food.com is available here.
The carbonara dataset has 615 rows and 25 columns.
Some of the results of the carbonara data are similar to the analysis of pizza recipes.
Most recipes were enthusiastically rated with 5 stars (418/615), and these recipes generally require a short time to be prepared.
The average calories of 5-star recipes are 737, which seems high but acceptable considering that carbonara is not to be intended like a dietary recipe.
The overall distribution of calories is as follows.
Even if carbonara is a decadent dish, the most passionate carbonara lovers wisely set some boundaries to their caloric intake. Interestingly, 2-star rated recipes tend to have the most calories (average 1156 calories and 1308 median calories). This result about 2-star rated recipes and calories is similar to what I found previously for pizza recipes.
Also, 2-star-rated recipes require an average of 46.7 minutes of preparation time. This seems odd because carbonara is relatively quick to prepare.
Carbonara is not complicated, so 10 preparation steps (the median) is a reasonable number. The 25 steps required for “lazy carbonara penne for a crowd” seem excessive:
Results after comparing the data scraped with the actual Food.cm website show some discrepancies, especially the way steps and preparation time were calculated.
Carbonara recipes are highly personalized
Diverging from the historical versions of the carbonara recipe, today’s users are willing to add up to 9 or 10 different ingredients to the list of 4 to 5 above.
Again, the 2-star rated recipes have the highest average number of ingredients.
Recipe submission years were mostly from 2002 until 2008, with most reviews released between 2007 and 2011.
Recipe submission months were quite regular, with an increase in January (similar to the pizza recipe analysis).
The most common ingredients used to prepare carbonara include parmesan cheese, garlic, bacon, spaghetti, onion, eggs or egg yolks, and parsley:
(While not a carbonara purist, as an Italian and former chef I will put in my two-cents: Use Pecorino cheese, or at least make sure to use real Parmigiano, not “Parmesan”; do not use onion or garlic, or chicken broth; do not use angel hair pasta.)
The “best” common ingredients, associated with the highest ratings, list various types of cream (light, low-fat sour cream, whipping cream, low-fat milk), tomatoes (see the New York Times recipe), basil, mushrooms, turkey bacon, and spaghetti:
The ten worst common ingredients, associated with the lowest ratings, include “Italian seasoning” and some original pairings such as roasted red peppers (which are very good, but maybe too odd for carbonara), chicken strips, and mozzarella cheese:
Reviews with 5 stars had the most median exclamation points:
Recipes rated with 1 star contain fewer characters:
This is the network of the ingredients used in the carbonara recipes dataset. The represented ingredients were listed at least one time. One surprise is “pizza crust” – this appears because “carbonara” has been used for a variety of specialties, including “carbonara pizza appetizers.”
The next figure shows a scatterplot of ingredients by average rating and frequency. Several entries rated between 4 and 5 are particularly interesting, for example “alfredo sauce,” mushrooms, 97% fat-free cooked ham, and red pepper flakes. Some people may be looking for a “light” version of the recipe while others are looking for a spicy version.
The most-rated ingredients obtained after filtering 5-star recipes seem close to the classic recipe:
Data analysis using R, the best and worst recipes, 2 is the new 1
This analysis requires basic R packages for exploratory data analysis. Network graphics group ingredients and they provide both the frequency and matching of the ingredients.
While there are many diverse carbonara recipes, reviewers tend to prefer traditional ingredients. Probably, what matters is the quality of the ingredients (e.g. using the right cheese such as Pecorino and Parmigiano, pork cheek, or high-quality bacon rather than “bacon bits”), and the technique used to prepare the sauce. Carbonara is a simple, rich, and easy recipe that does not require long preparation. Here is a classic list of steps:
- Set water to a boil
- Cook spaghetti (high-quality brand matters)
- Cook diced pork cheeks
- Mix egg yolks with grated Pecorino
- Add spaghetti to pork
- Add eggs, ground pepper, and mix
- Place on a serving dish, add grated Pecorino as you like
Recipes with too many steps or too many ingredients are less appreciated.
Since there are so many recipes rated with 4 and 5 starts, to identify the most popular we pick the most rated, for example the “easy ham carbonara” (70 ratings) and we calculate the average rating of the top-10 rated (4.54).
The average rating of “Scallops carbonara” is 4.58. The average rating of the simply-named “carbonara” (id 286031 carbonara) is 4.54. The average rating of “rock roll spaghetti carbonara” is 4.21. The “To die for spaghetti carbonara by tom cruise” recipe has an average rating of 4.33.
The “olive garden chicken and shrimp carbonara” is the second-most-rated recipe (35 reviews), but its average rating is 3.23. Also, it is one of the few that has received 1-star and 2-star reviews. Being cautious, I might advise trying another recipe first.
Here are the recipes with 2-star and 1-star reviews:
Although there are just six 2-star reviews, reading them is insightful.
Three of the most-rated recipes by count with the lowest average ratings have “celebrity” names in the title – Tom Cruise, Jamie Oliver, Olive Garden (actor, chef, name of restaurant chain). Perhaps the name in the recipe affects the likelihood that people will try it, but the reviews themselves do not.
The “no egg cream carbonara” has been reviewed 16 times and its average ranking is 4.75 – this one might be a good choice.
Next article: analysis of the most rated carbonara recipes, regression, RMSE,
“Carbonara Con Pomodoro E Bacon: La Ricetta Del New York Times Fa Infuriare Coldiretti.” Il Sole 24 ORE, 24 Feb. 2021, http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/carbonara-pomodoro-e-bacon-ricetta-new-york-times-fa-infuriare-coldiretti-ADdj51LB.
Cesari, Luca. “Carbonara. Storia, Origini E Aneddoti Di Una Ricetta Mitica.” Gambero Rosso, 26 July 2018, http://www.gamberorosso.it/notizie/articoli-food/carbonara-storia-origini-e-aneddoti-di-una-ricetta-mitica/.
Chun, Kay. “Smoky Tomato Carbonara Recipe.” NYT Cooking, 2021, cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1021856-smoky-tomato-carbonara.
Johnston, Harriet. “‘You’ve Declared War on Italy!’ New York Times Leaves Italians Outraged after Posting Spaghetti Carbonara Recipe with Added TOMATOES.” Daily Mail, 2 Feb. 2023, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-11705429/New-York-Times-slammed-recipe-adding-tomatoes-carbonara.html.
Schacht, Ethan. “Food.com EDA and Text Analysis.” Kaggle.com, 2020, http://www.kaggle.com/code/etsc9287/food-com-eda-and-text-analysis/script.
TAPAS. “NYT Ignites Twitter by Putting Tomato in a Carbonara: We Show You the Original Recipe.” Tapas Magazine, 30 Jan. 2023, http://www.tapasmagazine.es/en/carbonara-tomat-nyt-original-recipe/.
Tastewise.com. “Https://Tastewise.io/Foodtrends/Carbonara%2520pasta#Dishes.” Tastewise.io, 2023, tastewise.io/foodtrends/carbonara%20pasta#dishes.