Cacio e pepe (translated as ‘cheese and pepper’ and pronounced kaa·chee·oh ee peh·pay) is a ridiculously simple and delicious Roman-born pasta dish made with pecorino romano cheese and ground black pepper. No, seriously. This creamy, cheesy, peppery, and slightly spicy dish is reminiscent of real fettucini alfredo or pasta carbonara. It comes together really quickly and we almost always have the ingredients on hand.
Our cacio e pepe is made with pappardelle pasta, freshly grated pecorino romano cheese, and freshly ground black peppercorns. The only other very important “ingredient” is reserved starchy pasta water. This serves as a means of extracting pepper flavor and providing the backbone for the cheese.
Many variations of this recipe call for butter and olive oil, however, this is the most traditional way to cook the dish.
Tips for Making Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e pepe is a very simple dish but you need to be sure to get the process and ingredients right for the best results.
- Use a large nonstick pan or dutch oven. A nonstick surface makes the process a little easier but use the largest pan you have so you can adequately toss the pasta in the cheese sauce.
- Always use freshly ground whole peppercorns. Most people at this point have a pepper mill/pepper grinder in their kitchen. Opt for this over pre-ground black pepper or anything like that. Traditionally, whole peppercorns are pre-toasted (whole) prior to being ground and added to the pan. This is not always feasible so it’s fine to toast them after they have been ground. Always opt for a course grind.
- Always use a block of pecorino romano cheese (nothing pre-grated). This ensures fresher flavor and better melting. Use the finest cheese grater (smallest holes) you have so the cheese melts quickly and evenly. Pre-shredded packaged cheese tends to clump more because of the preservatives. Parmigiano reggiano can be substituted. The same rules as above apply.
- Remove the pan from the burner when you add the cheese. Overheating the cheese causes clumping that can’t be reversed.
- Boil pasta just under al dente. The pasta will continue to cook in the pan and the extra texture is going to make this dish that much more memorable. I love using pappardelle and bucatini since it’s larger. Regular or thick spaghetti would probably be the most authentic.
- Read the entire recipe process beforehand and have everything prepped so you can move quickly when you need to. The key ingredient in the recipe is starchy pasta water. This provides a vehicle for the cheese and contributes to the creaminess.
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Cacio e pepe is a classic Roman-born pasta dish made with pecorino romano cheese and ground black pepper.
- 12 ounces pappardelle, fettuccine, bucatini, or spaghetti
- 2 cups (.5 lbs) very finely grated pecorino romano cheese (do not buy pre-ground)
- 2 teaspoons freshly cracked black peppercorns (coarsely cracked)
- Reserved pasta water ( about 1 1/2 cups)
- Salt for pasta water
- See note below on optional chopped bacon**
- Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. You will be cooking pasta until it’s a little firmer than al dente. Just to note, you’re going to want to save the pasta water for later steps so do not discard it at any point. Read the tips in my post for best results!
- Meanwhile, heat ground black pepper in a large nonstick pan or dutch oven on high heat for 1 minute. Once the pasta has been cooking for about 6 minutes, add 1/2 cup of pasta water to the pan. Simmer until the liquid is slightly reduced, about 3-4 minutes. The aroma should be intense!
- Once pasta is just under al dente, use tongs to transfer it directly to the pan with the pepper sauce. Toss to evenly coat in the pepper water. Reduce heat to medium and add an additional 1/2 cup of pasta water and continue to cook, tossing occasionally, until pasta is al dente.
- Turn off the heat. If you have an electric range, remove the pan from the burner. Sprinkle half the cheese over the pasta and toss until melted. Repeat with the remaining cheese and toss until creamy and fully incorporated. You can add extra pasta water as needed if the sauce feels too thick. Serve immediately topped with extra cracked pepper and grated cheese. The dish tends to lose it’s creamy texture if it sits out for too long.
This dish does not need any additional salt. It has plenty of salt from the cheese/pasta water.
Cheese should be very finely grated, almost powdered form. Do not buy pre-grated cheese because the preservatives will cause clumping.
You can add chopped bacon for additional flavor. Fully cook the bacon first and set aside on a paper towel to drain. Add bacon at the very end just before plating or sprinkle on top.