As much as I love pancetta in my carbonara, I realize not everyone can or wants to eat it. My vegetarian and vegan friends often ask what they can use instead, but I like to first mix things up myself before giving them suggestions. Whether you want to make your carbonara vegetarian, vegan, or just try something new, here are several tasty substitutes for pancetta to make your carbonara sing.
I hope this gives you some inspiration to experiment in the kitchen and put your own spin on this classic Italian pasta dish. With so many options for pancetta substitutes, there’s no need to miss out on creamy, bacon-y carbonara.
Vegetarian Substitutes for Pancetta in Carbonara
Finding substitutes for pancetta in carbonara can be tricky for vegetarians. But this doesn’t mean there are no delicious ingredients to try out. Here are the ones my vegetarian friends liked the most:
I love the hearty, savory flavor of cremini mushrooms. And they’re so easy to make — just sauté a cup of sliced creminis in olive oil with a pinch of salt until soft, about 5-7 minutes. The natural umami flavor of the mushrooms mimics the pancetta perfectly.
Shiitake and oyster mushrooms also work great in carbonara. Shiitakes have an intense, meaty flavor, while oyster mushrooms have a delicate, scallop-like shape and texture. Either variety, sliced and sautéd, makes a delicious alternative to pancetta.
For extra flavor, add a splash of white wine or vegetable stock to the mushrooms while they cook. The liquid will reduce and intensify the mushroom essence. You can also add fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, or kale for extra nutrition and color.
With the right mushrooms and a few extra veggies, you can make a vegetarian carbonara so satisfying that you won’t even miss the pancetta.
Eggplant or Zucchini
The eggplant has a robust flavor and hearty texture that mimics pancetta beautifully in this classic pasta dish. Plus, it adds extra veggies to your meal. For the best results, look for eggplants that still feel heavy for their size and have smooth, shiny skin. And don’t skimp on the olive oil or seasoning — this is the key to bringing out the savory flavors.
Slice a medium eggplant lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips. Brush both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over medium-high heat until tender and lightly charred, about 5-7 minutes per side.
Let the eggplant cool slightly, then chop it up into bite-sized pieces and add them to your carbonara in place of the pancetta.
When it comes to zucchini, I like to slice it into thin strips to mimic the pancetta and sauté it in olive oil with garlic and herbs like rosemary. The zucchini softens but still retains some texture, adding substance to the dish without the meat.
Zucchini is also budget-friendly, low in calories yet filling, and pairs well with pasta. Its mild flavor won’t overpower the other ingredients in the carbonara, like egg yolks, parmesan cheese, and black pepper. I’ll sometimes add red pepper flakes, lemon zest, or sun-dried tomatoes to the zucchini for extra flavor.
Bell peppers make an amazing pancetta alternative — they add flavor, texture, and color. I like to use red, yellow, or orange peppers because they’re sweeter than green peppers and pair nicely with the creamy sauce.
To prepare the bell peppers, I deseed and slice them into thin strips. Then I sauté them in a little olive oil over medium heat until they’re tender but still crisp, about 5-7 minutes. I season them with salt, pepper, and maybe some Italian herbs like oregano or basil.
Once the pasta is cooked, I toss the bell peppers in with the spaghetti along with the egg yolk and parmesan cheese. The peppers add little pops of flavor to every bite. They have an almost meaty texture that stands in nicely for the pancetta.
For extra protein, I’ll sometimes add chickpeas or white beans to the dish along with the bell peppers. A sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes provides a kick of heat to balance the richness.
You can also combine your bell peppers with meaty options, and it’s a hit! Make it seriously creamy!
Non-Vege Substitutes for Pancetta in Carbonara
The following meaty substitutes for pancetta are just so similar that they will allow you to make a delicious carbonara. What’s more, they are all prepared the same way as pancetta, so you cannot miss with either!
Bacon is probably the most obvious choice. I often use bacon in my carbonara since it’s readily available and adds a smoky, savory flavor. Chopped bacon is a simple 1:1 swap for pancetta.
Just cook a few strips of bacon, chop or crumble them up, season them nicely with pepper, and add to the pasta along with the egg and cheese. For extra decadence, use thick-cut bacon. The hearty chunks stand up well to the creamy sauce.
Prosciutto is a dry-cured ham with a savory, salty flavor similar to pancetta. I simply dice the prosciutto and sauté it with garlic and olive oil until crispy, then add it to the pasta along with the egg yolk, parmesan, and black pepper.
It adds a meaty and umami kick that my meat-eating friends enjoy even more than the regular carbonara version.
Ham or Salami
You can, of course, replace ham for pancetta in carbonara. I often use ham instead of pancetta when I want a meaty and savory carbonara without the smokiness. Diced ham adds a subtle salty flavor to the dish.
Salami has a similar salty, cured pork flavor that pairs perfectly with pasta, eggs, and cheese. It comes in wide varieties, so choose a milder, sweeter one that will melt into the sauce, like Genoa or soppressata.
Dice the salami into small cubes and add it to the pan with the garlic and olive oil. Cook for just a minute until the salami is heated through, then add the beaten eggs and cheese. The salami will impart its flavor to the sauce as it simmers.
Besides, you really only need 2 to 3 ounces of salami to substitute for 3 to 4 ounces of pancetta since its flavor is quite robust.
Which of these are you ready to try? Or do you have another great idea? Can’t wait for you to tell me all about it in the comments below!