Discovering Bottarga in Italy was a game changer. We now love cooking creamy, dreamy Spaghetti alla Bottarga at home. Read on to find out how to make this amazing dish and why the underused and misunderstood preserved fish product should become a staple in your home kitchen.
Our Spaghetti alla Bottarga recipe is dairy free. How is it possible? How can a pasta without cheese, with just some olive oil and tiny fish eggs, be such a joy to eat? More important, how could we have lived for so long without trying this beautiful dish?
To make Spaghetti alla Bottarga, we grate Bottarga over pasta mixed with olive oil, garlic, starchy water and chili. It’s simple. It’s Mediterranean. It’s also wonderful.
In a way, Spaghetti alla Bottarga’s creamy consistency surprised us more than anything else. We knew that it was a dish of the sea but we expected something light, not thick. Had you blindfolded us, we wouldn’t have guessed that this was a seafood pasta. But now, after running the soft orange block of microscopic mullet eggs over our microplane and onto our spaghetti multiple times, we’re believers and fans.
What Is Bottarga?
Though it’s an Italian food staple, Bottarga isn’t typical in American recipes. In fact, this food product may be new to you like it was to us. But what is it and how is it made?
Bottarga is a sack of tiny salted and air-dried fish eggs that’s extracted from grey mullet or other fish like tuna or mackerel. Artisans press, salt and cure the fish roe pouch. This process creates a skin that protects the egg sac and, more important, combats harmful bacteria and rot.
Far from being new and trendy, there’s evidence of Bottarga production that goes back millennia and not just in one place. Bottarga production spans the northern and southern Mediterranean from Spain to Turkey to Egypt. Today, Bottarga is currently produced not only in Southern Europe but also in the US and Norway. Even Japan and Taiwan produce versions of Bottarga.
See Bottarga Production in Action
Thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can see how Bottarga is produced. Warning: Do not watch the video if seeing fish being cleaned makes you squeamish.
Bottarga provides a desirable funk or umami backbone to pasta. It provides long lasting flavor that lingers well after the final bite.
Equally important, the tiny eggs grated from the sac provide an element of saucy creaminess and cohesion. We like to think of it as a thousand microscopic egg yolks breaking and adding richness to the sauce.
Surprisingly, Bottarga is also a great substitute for cheese.
Bottarga – The Cheese Substitute
Some countries have an aversion to combining cheese and fish. This type of food combination isn’t an issue in the USA and Canada (think lobster macaroni) or in parts of Northern Europe. However, in Italy, the mere mention of cheese grated over a pasta with shrimp or some other crustacean grosses people out. It’s just not how people eat in Italy.
So, in that sense, Bottarga functions as a creative substitute for grated cheese in destinations like Sardinia where Spaghetti alla Bottarga is popular. Sardinians rarely hesitate to grate the funky fish egg product over seafood pasta dishes. Once you taste Spaghetti alla Bottarga made with grated Bottarga, neither will you.
Spaghetti Alla Bottarga Ingredients
Preparing Spaghetti alla Bottarga is simple. With the exception of Bottarga, you probably have most if not all of the following ingredients in your kitchen:
What haven’t we said about this miracle of preservation?
Bottarga comes vacuum packed and you can keep it for about six months (or until the expiration date) in your fridge. Our recipe uses mullet Bottarga, which is the most common type, but you can also buy tuna Bottarga or mackerel Bottarga.
Mullet Bottarga varies in color from gold to brown. (The lighter the color, the higher the quality.) We’ve found that one ounce of Bottarga is the optimal amount for six ounces of pasta.
We like to use the highest quality spaghetti. It may cost more but it tastes better, has a toothier bite and harmonizes with a range of pasta sauces. Premium pastas also create starchier water which is essential in this Italian recipe.
While you could pay less for cheaper pasta, paying more will result in a more satisfying pasta dish. Look for Italian names like Voiello, Rummo and Faella or pasta makers like Sfoglini in America where there’s a growing dry pasta renaissance. Better yet, if you find a local pasta maker, go for it.
Our recipe calls for three or four medium to large cloves of garlic. Some recipes call for the cloves to be merely crushed. We like to mince our garlic.
Sure, the flavor of the garlic is prominent in the finished dish, but we like that. To us, the sweetness of the garlic counteracts the funkiness of the Bottarga.
It’s important to cook the garlic until it’s just golden or soft. You don’t want to burn it or cook it until it’s crispy.
Olive oil combines with the Bottarga to create a creamy sauce.
Use the best available extra virgin olive oil since the flavor of the olive oil is present in the finished dish.
Hot Italian chili flake is readily available in America and provides enough piquant heat for this recipe. However, in our adopted home of Portugal as in many European countries, we’ve found that it’s best to buy whole dry chilies and mince them.
You can use fresh red chilies like piri-piri or fresno to achieve your preferred spice level.
While you may be tempted to use basil or even mint, we say don’t do it. Parsley provides a verdant freshness without overpowering the garlic or Bottarga.
You’ll want to mince a couple tablespoons of parsley and save a small amount for garnish.
We boil our pasta in about 1 ½ quarts of water to obtain an ideal starch level.
Using 12 grams of salt provides an adequate salt level to flavor the pasta. We use coarse sea salt, which is heavier than kosher salt.
You can use whatever salt you like best so long as you add about 12 grams of it to the pasta water.
How To Make Spaghetti Alla Bottarga
Making Pasta alla Bottarga is simple since you don’t have worry about the cheese breaking like you do when making Roman dishes like Pasta alla Gricia.
In our recipe, we mix the pasta, olive oil and garlic in a nonstick frying pan. We also keep the heat low to prevent the garlic from burning.
The first step is to peel the outer skin from the Bottarga. If there’s an outer vein on the Bottarga, you’ll want to remove that too.
Bring salted water to a boil. For speed, we pre-boil water in an electric kettle.
Place a small fire under the pan. This step will ensure that the pan is adequately heated for when it’s time to sauté the garlic.
Drop the spaghetti and cook according to the instructions outlined on the pasta box.
With about four minutes left in the pasta cooking time, put the oil into the frying pan. When the oil is adequately heated (about 30 to 45 seconds), place the garlic into the pan along with the red pepper flakes.
Cook and swirl the garlic, making sure it’s submerged in the olive oil, until the garlic just turns light golden in color.
Remove the garlic from the heat if you’re still cooking the pasta.
Before draining the pasta, use a ladel to reserve about ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
Drain the pasta.
Lately, we’ve been draining our pasta in a colander so that we don’t have to ‘fish’ in the pot for missing pasta strands.
Once drained, immediately move the spaghetti to the frying pan and stir.
Pour about ¼ of the reserved pasta water into the pan.
Add the parsley.
Remove the pan from heat and grate the Bottarga into the pan, gradually stir it into the pasta. Place the pan back on the heat and mix until until the pasta becomes creamy.
Add more pasta water if the pasta becomes too thick. Your goal is a sauce-like consistency.
Use a microplane to grate the Bottarga.
Serve in a warm pasta bowl. Do not add cheese to the Bottarga pasta dish.
We repeat for those in the back of the room – do not add cheese.
Spaghetti is a creamy pasta dish made with Bottarga, olive oil, garlic, starch water and garlic.
Bottarga is a sack of tiny salted and air-dried fish eggs that’s extracted from grey mullet or other fish like tuna or mackerel.
Bottarga has a savory salty, briny flavor that works well with pasta.
An unopened pack of Bottarga should safely last a year or even longer in the refrigerator. You’ll want to use the Bottarga within six months once the pack is open.
Did you make this pasta dish? If so, please rate the recipe below.
Spaghetti alla Bottarga Recipe
- Peel the outer skin from the Bottarga. There may be a middle vein on the sac that you'll need to remove. It should peel easily.
- Bring about 1 1/4 quarts of water seasoned with 12 grams of salt to a boil.
- Drop the spaghetti into the boiling water, making sure to submerge all of the pasta. Use the box instructions to set the cooking time. Stir the spaghetti frequently
- Once the spaghetti has started cooking, turn a small fire under a 10"/26cm non stick frying pan.
- With about 4 minutes left in the pasta cooking time, pour the olive oil into the frying pan.
- After the oil has heated, (It should be loose and shimmering. You don't want it smoking.), pour the minced garlic and the chili flake into the pan. The garlic should make a light sizzle when it enters the oil.
- Cook the garlic and chili until just fragrant and pale golden. The garlic should be softened, not toasted. Remove the pan from the heat. Do not turn off the fire.
- While the garlic cooks and about a minute before the pasta has finished cooking, ladle about 3/4 cups of the pasta water into a measuring cup.
- Drain the pasta into a colander. Once the pasta is drained, move it immediately to the frying pan and add 2/3 of the minced parsley. Place the pan back on the heat.
- Gradually mix the garlic, chili, parsley and about 1/4 of the pasta water with the pasta.
- When all of the water has evaporated from the bottom of the pan, remove the pan from the heat and grate all of the Bottarga on top of the pasta.
- Place the pan back on the heat and stir in the bottarga, gradually incorporating the rest of the pasta water until the pasta turns thick and creamy. (You may not need to use all of the pasta water.)
- Serve in deep bowls. Garnish the pasta by sprinkling the remainder of the parsley on top.
- This recipe can be doubled to serve four people.
- Other shapes of pasta will work but spaghetti is traditional.
- You may want to heat the pasta water in an electric kettle for speed.
- You can vary the amount of chili based on your taste or tolerance.
- You can use minced dry chili or fresh red hot chili pepper instead of Italian chili flake.
Hungry For More Pasta?
About The Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on their website 2foodtrippers. Since launching the site in 2012, they’ve traveled to over 40 countries in their quest to bring readers a unique taste of the world.
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Original Publication Date: February 13, 2022