Cacio e Pepe, which translates to ‘cheese and pepper,’ is a traditional Roman dish made with Pecorino Romano, a sharp and salty sheeps milk cheese, and laced with spicy black pepper. It is a creamy pasta, yet prepared without the use of oil, cream or butter, if you can believe it. The preparation is the key. If you do not handle the ingredients properly, you could end up with a stringy, chewy, clumpy, dry mess of a dish, but not to worry, I will walk you through the recipe. It is not difficult to learn and once you understand the technique, your life will be forever changed!
Cacio e Pepe is made with four simple ingredients- fine quality black peppercorns, fresh and finely grated Pecorino Romano, a good dry pasta, and starchy pasta water. Since this dish only uses a handful of ingredients, I think it makes sense to talk about them in detail before we get started.
Choose a high quality dry pasta. As much as I love fresh pasta, a high quality dry spaghetti works best for this dish. You want to look for a spaghetti that has been extruded through a bronze die. Extruding through a bronze die is a slower process than, for example, extruding through plastic or silicon dies, and the result is a pasta with a rougher texture which allows the sauce to cling better. My go to dry pasta is DeCecco, but there are many others to choose from.
Use freshly grated Pecorino Romano. The most important thing to know about the cheese is not to use pre ground, pre packaged Pecorino. At first glance, using pre packaged grated Pecorino seems like the perfect short cut, but unfortunately, pre grated cheeses include preservatives that keep the cheese from clumping. While it may accomplish this task well, the additives also keep the cheese from melting into a smooth, homogenous sauce. Another quick note on the cheese, a fine grate is necessary for the the cheese to melt seamlessly into a creamy sauce.
Use freshly ground pepper. When it comes to pepper, choose whole peppercorns and crush or grind them yourself. Pre-ground pepper will not yield the flavor you are looking for. I use whole Telecherry black peppercorns. If you cannot find Telecherry, any whole black peppercorn would work as a substitute. You can use either a pepper mill, or a mortar and pestle. I prefer using the latter because I can see the peppercorns as they break and I can create the texture and consistency that I want– some larger, some finer. And, to extract the best flavor, it helps to toast the peppercorns prior to grinding. This helps to wake up the flavors, making them intensely fragrant.
Pasta Water. Until now, I have not considered pasta water to be an ingredient, but the longer I cook, the more I realize that it is, and an important one at that. Since the Pecorino is salty by nature, this is the rare instance where I would recommend going a little lighter on the salt in the pasta water. And, while it may seem obvious, I think it is worth mentioning, that the less water you add to the pot, the more concentrated the starch will be, which will ultimately help to thicken the sauce and help it cling to the pasta. For this reason, when filling your pasta pot, I would recommend using less water, as opposed to more. And, one final word on the water, don’t get rid of the pasta water until after you serve the pasta! Pasta water has come to my rescue countless times over the years! If the pasta sits a little too long before serving it can stiffen up. This is where the pasta water can work wonders! Drizzle a small amount over the top of the dish and jiggle the pasta around to loosen it up before everyone sits down. Unless they see you do it, no one will be the wiser!
While the traditional recipe only uses the ingredients above, I would be remiss not to mention that I tested this recipe with the addition of olive oil, as well. I had seen it done in other places, and since I am such a huge olive oil fan, I had to try it. The result? Amazing. So, here is an alternative for you to try.
Variation on the original: Add 1/2 cup – 1 cup pasta water, 1 – 1 1/2 tsp toasted ground black pepper, 2 cups cheese to an immersion blender. Start the blender and then add 1/4 c-1/2 c olive oil.
The olive oil adds a fruity note to the sauce and the added benefit is that the sauce doesn’t seize up. You can transfer it to a saute pan and keep it warm over low heat on the stove and then add the pasta to it. To my fellow olive oil lovers, this is silky, smooth, perfection!
You would think this amount of prep and instruction would lead to a time consuming and complicated recipe, but lucky for us, that is not the case. This pasta can be made, start to finish, in half an hour. Okay, I think I’ve said enough! Let’s get started!
To begin, set a pasta pot to boil over high heat and salt the water.
Next, finely grate the Pecorino Romano into a small heat safe bowl or saute pan and set aside.
When the pasta water comes to a boil, add the spaghetti and cook pasta per package instructions to al dente.
While the pasta cooks, make the cheese paste. Put the pepper and finely grated cheese into a heat safe bowl or saute pan, add a small amount of pasta water (3-4 Tbspns) and mix until you have a creamy paste.
Note: The heat from the pasta water is all the heat you will need to melt the cheese. Do not heat the mixture on the stove. In order to achieve the right consistency, the mixture needs a gentle heat source.
When the pasta reaches al dente, remove the pasta from the pot with a tongs or a pasta spoon, and add it to the mixing bowl or saute pan. It’s okay if the pasta retains some of the water because it will help to create the sauce.
Then, mix vigorously until you have a smooth and creamy sauce. If the sauce is too dry, add pasta water a little at a time, until you reach your desired consistency.
Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
- 1 lb spaghetti
- 2 cups Pecorino Romano, finely grated
- 1- 1 1/2 tsp whole peppercorns, toasted and ground
- pasta water, as needed
- Set a pasta pot to boil over high heat and salt the water.
- Finely grate the Pecorino Romano into a small heat safe bowl or saute pan and set aside.
- When the pasta water comes to a boil, add the spaghetti and cook pasta per package instructions to al dente.
- While the pasta cooks, make the cheese paste. Put the pepper and finely grated cheese into a heat safe bowl or saute pan, add a small amount of pasta water (3-4 Tbspns) and mix until you have a creamy paste. Note: The heat from the pasta water is all the heat you will need to melt the cheese. Do not heat the mixture on the stove.
- When the pasta reaches al dente, remove the pasta from the pot with a tongs or a pasta spoon, and add it to the mixing bowl or saute pan. It's okay if the pasta retains some of the water because it will help to create the sauce.
- Mix vigorously until the sauce is smooth and creamy.If the sauce is too dry, add pasta water a little at a time, until you reach your desired consistency.
- Serve immediately. Enjoy!