With only 5 ingredients, this cacio e pepe recipe is the Italian version of mac and cheese, and the ultimate easy pantry staple answer to, “What do we have to eat?”
My husband is a black pepper fan. Make that a fiend. He adds it generously and freshly ground to everything he eats. It’s just one reason why this super simple pasta recipe is one of his favorites. The other being how incredibly easy it is to make.
Cacio e pepe—Italian for cheese and pepper—is the Roman version of good old American mac and cheese, and somehow, it seems even easier to make. But why is it the simplest dishes with the fewest ingredients seem to be the hardest to get right? It’s all in the method my friend. Successfully making this dish involves using quality ingredients and knowing a few tricks, and once you do, it’s viva la pasta!
I’ve made and remade this dish time and time again and can confidently say I’ve nailed the method for an awesome cacio e pepe in a sauce that’s lush, creamy, and won’t end up in clumps of cheese. Here’s how you will too.
What’s In Cacio e Pepe
True Italians eat pasta nearly every day for lunch and are some of the most fit and healthy in the world. Their lunchtime pasta dishes are typically very simple in ingredients and always call for the best made Italian pasta, forged through bronze dies for that rougher texture that signals high quality semolina wheat and longer, natural drying times that produce lower gluten levels, instead of being baked in a hurry for mass production. My favorite DeLallo pasta is imported from Italy with all the goodness made there and I always feel good about eating it, especially in dishes like this.
This simple sauce calls for just four ingredients to bring the lushness to life. It’s spicy thanks to freshly cracked black peppercorns and depending on your choice of cheese, can be funky and flavorful or somewhat salty and sharp.
Here’s what’s in this cacio e pepe recipe:
- Bucatini, tonnarelli, or spaghetti noodles—avoid using linguine or other thin noodles
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Black peppercorns
- Kosher salt
- Finely grated pecorino romano cheese (a sheep’s milk with a stronger, funky flavor) or Parmesan cheese (cow’s milk that’s salty and nutty)
- Hot, starchy pasta water you’ll reserve from cooking
Prep the Cheese & Pepper
This dish moves fast so having your ingredients in place before starting cooking is always a good idea.
Authentic Roman cacio e pepe calls for pecorino romano, a younger sheep’s milk cheese that has a stonger, more funky flavor than another option to use, Parmesan cheese that is made from cow’s milk. Another hard cheese, Parmesan is older and harder with a nutty, salty flavor and is more readily available.
No matter which cheese you decide upon, make sure it’s fresh and grind it very fine so it melts easily into the sauce. I grate about 1 cup, more than enough for the pasta and garnish.
How to Grind Black Peppercorns
The essence of this dish comes from the spicy bite of freshly ground and cracked black peppercorns. For the best flavor, always grind the pepper right before using.
I’ve dedicated a coffee grinder to grind peppercorns and control how coarse or fine they become. If you don’t have a designated coffee grinder, place the peppercorns on a cutting board and press the bottom of a pot or skillet to crush them.
How to Make Cacio e Pepe
To make this recipe, start out with two high-sided 11-inch skillets: One skillet to cook the pasta and one skillet to cook the sauce and toss the pasta.
Choose one skillet to cook the pasta to create a starchy pasta water. Add the pasta so it lays flat in the skillet and cover with 4-5 cups of water. Our goal here is to create a very starchy, concentrated water to make a thicker, lush sauce. Boiling the pasta in an abundance of water dilutes the coveted starch. If you don’t have two high sided skillets, cook the pasta in a pot but with only the 4-5 cups of water to cover. You’ll end up adding 1 ½ to 2 cups of the starchy water to the pasta sauce as it cooks.
Choose another high-sided skillet to create the sauce and toss the pasta. You’ll want plenty of room for tossing the pasta in this pan with the sauce later.
Melt the butter into the olive oil with the cracked black peppercorns. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the base of the sauce. Using a combination of butter and olive oil raises the smoke point of the butter so it doesn’t burn, and butter adds flavor with the olive oil. Toasting the peppercorns in the combo releases the pepper’s essential oils to become more fragrant and flavorful. Cook for 1-2 minutes then remove from the heat.
Finish Cooking the Pasta In the Sauce
Add water to the skillet with pepper, butter and oil. The starchy water is the third wheel of this party that brings the fats from the oil and butter together as one, emulsifying the sauce so it’s creamy and doesn’t separate to become greasy. In the final 4-5 minutes of the pasta cooking, ladle ½ cup of the starchy cooking water into the skillet with the butter, olive oil and pepper. Be careful to avoid getting burned as the water will spatter and bubble in the still warm pan. Ladle another ½ cup of the starchy water into the pepper sauce and cook over medium heat, swirling the sauce together to emulsify and combine.
Cook the pasta 2-3 minutes shy of it being al denté. Similar to the method I learned at a cooking class in Italy for my Pasta Pomodoro recipe, the pasta is finished cooking in the sauce to absorb the flavors and let the pasta starches do more work to thicken the sauce. The pasta should still be firm and with a bit of snap when it’s ready to be combined with the sauce.
Transfer the pasta to the pepper sauce. Turn off the heat and use tongs to transfer the almost al denté past noodles directly into the pan with the black pepper mixture. Cook and toss the pasta in the peppered water for 1-2 more minutes or until it’s done to taste, adding more starchy water as needed.
Stay Saucy, Say Cheese!
Here’s the part where this recipe can go sideways, but if you’ve followed the directions above, you should be in good shape to miss the clumps of melted cheese and master this noodle baby. Who knew such a simple recipe could get so technical, right?
Remove the pasta from the heat. Now that the pasta is sauced, adding the cheese off the heat makes it melt better into the sauce more cohesively instead of shocking it and seizing.
Sprinkle on a handful of cheese at a time. Some recipes suggest dumping the whole batch of cheese in at once and vigorously stirring to combine. I’ve found adding the cheese in 2-3 stages works better.
Toss instead of stir. Lifting and tossing the pasta in the sauce instead of stirring round and round is one of the keys I’ve found to keep the cheese from becoming stringy, clumpy and a mess. Let’s keep this saucy, shall we?
How to Avoid Clumps of Cheese In Cacio e Pepe
One of the biggest complaints about making cacio e pepe is the cheese can clump as it melts to become leaden molten cheese balls. I mean, I’m okay with a cheese bomb most days, but when I’m hoping to incorporate a creamy sauce, it’s not the time.
Here’s what I’ve found helps avoid the cheesy clumps:
- Always use fresh, finely grated cheese. Whether it’s pecorino romano or Parmesan cheese, hard cheeses are older and aren’t as meltable. To help offest that fact, grate your cheese super fine from a fresh block. Or, if buying the pre-shredded version, pop it in a food processor or blender and whiz until it’s finely ground. And never use the grated cheese from that green can. Is that even real cheese??
- Cook the olive oil, butter and pasta water together to create and emulsify the sauce. Adding the starchy pasta water to the oil and melted butter binds the three together rather than separating them like in salad dressing. The starch is the extra component to emulsify and thicken the sauce so it coats the noodles and absorbs the cheese as it melts instead of making it stringy or clumpy.
- Don’t dump the cheese all at once. Add the cheese to the sauce ¼ cup or so at a time for the best meltability.
- Don’t be stingy with the starchy water. Don’t be shy when finishing the pasta and mixing with the cheese. Add more starchy water to loosen it for a lighter coat.
What to Serve With Cacio e Pepe
- Arugula Salad With Shaved Parmesan Three Ways
- Avocado and Tomato Salad
- Avocado Grapefruit and Fennel Salad
- Cantaloupe and Mozzarella Caprese Salad
- Easy 5-Minute Parmesan Zucchini
If you make this recipe, please let me know! Leave a rating on this recipe below and leave a comment, take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #foodiecrusheats.
How to Make Creamy Cacio e Pepe
- 8 ounces bucatini or spaghetti
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 teaspoons fresh, coarsely ground black pepper
- ¾ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese or romano cheese , about 3 ounces
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley , if desired
- Add 4 cups water to a large pot or high sided skillet with the pasta and salt and bring to a boil. Cook for two minutes less than the package instructions direct so the noodles are still firm with a bit of snap, and chewy.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat another large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil, butter and freshly ground black pepper. Stir until the butter melts and the pepper becomes fragrant.
- When the pasta is 2-3 minutes from being done cooking, carefully add in ½ cup of the pasta water to the olive oil pepper mixture (it will bubble and splatter). Add another ½ cup of the pasta water and stir or toss the pan to combine.
- Use tongs to transfer the pasta to the oil, butter, and black pepper sauce, reserving the rest of the original pasta water. Don't worry about completely draining the water from the pasta, it will just add to the creaminess. Continue cooking the pasta in the oil and pasta water combo for 1-2 more minutes or until the pasta is cooked al denté stirring and tossing so each strand is coated. Add more pasta water if needed to resemble a sauce, stirring to thicken and coat. Remove the pan from the heat and sprinkle with half of the cheese. Quickly toss the pasta and cheese (avoid stirring vigorously or the cheese will get stringy and clump), adding more of the reserved pasta water as the cheese melts and loosens up, to make a lush, cheesy sauce. Add more cheese if desired. The sauce should be creamy and light, and coat each of the pasta noodles.
- Taste for seasoning and add more pepper if desired. Sprinkle with a little chopped parsley for color if you'd like. Serve hot.
More Easy Pasta Recipes to Try Now
- Pasta Pomodoro Sauce
- Shrimp Scampi Pasta With Zucchini Noodles
- Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
- Easy Parmesan Buttered Noodles
- Meyer Lemon Fettuccine
- 35 Best Pasta Recipes To Make Now
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