This Roman ‘mac and cheese’ couldn’t be easier to prepare, or more delicious.
Put pasta together with cheese and black pepper and what do you get? A cheesy, creamy, peppery trifecta that’s made with readily available ingredients you likely have in your pantry right now. Next time someone asks you, What is cacio e pepe? you’ll have an answer ready (and maybe dinner, too).
Cacio e pepe, which translates to “cheese and pepper,” is a classic Roman pasta dish that takes its name from two of its key ingredients: Pecorino cheese, which in Roman dialect is known as cacio, and black pepper. The sauce, which is made in a skillet, comes together in less time then it takes to boil your pasta. Like many of the best things in life, it’s incredibly simple. Still, there are a few things to know when it comes to nailing the technique.
Choose a long pasta: Though cacio e pepe can be made with any pasta shape, the best variety for the dish is a long pasta that will twirl through and catch onto the lusciously creamy sauce. Spaghetti, bucatini (a thick spaghetti with a hole through the center), and egg tagliolini are all great choices.
Make this dish for two eaters (or slightly modify your technique for four): Since you’ll be finishing cacio e pepe in the skillet you make your sauce in, it’s best to cook no more than 2 servings at a time so that the pasta has ample space to meld with the sauce in the pan. You want to be able to quickly and gracefully toss the sauce and pasta together, which is easiest with 2 servings max. If you’re cooking for 4 eaters, cook all of your pasta in one large pot, but use two skillets to make the sauce and finish the dish.
Season your pasta water: Properly seasoned pasta water is water that is seasoned with enough salt so that it tastes, well, salty. Salty pasta water both seasons your pasta as it cooks and, in the case of a dish like cacio e pepe, also helps season the dish as a whole, as some of the pasta cooking water is used to make the sauce. Use about 1½ teaspoons of kosher salt per every quart of water that you use to cook your pasta. So for 4 quarts of water, you’ll use 2 tablespoons of salt.
Cook your pasta al dente: Al dente means “to the tooth,” and refers to pasta that’s cooked to a pleasant firmness, which some might consider slightly undercooked but which gives all pasta dishes a terrific texture. Since the pasta for cacio e pepe continues cooking in the skillet with the sauce after it’s drained, you’ll want to make sure you don’t overcook it during the boiling process. Taste a strand or two of pasta as the lower end of the cooking time stated on the box draws near. When the pasta tastes 1 to 2 minutes away from a perfect al dente, that’s when it’s ready to drain for this dish.
Reserve some pasta cooking water: Pasta cooking water is a critical sauce ingredient for cacio e pepe and many other pasta dishes. Not only does it add a nice seasoned, salty taste, the water also picks up starch from the pasta as it cooks, which gives the sauce body and helps it emulsify, or blend, with the rest of the ingredients. Before you drain your pasta, reserve some pasta cooking water in a measuring cup or bowl.
While the pasta is cooking, start making your sauce. The key for this dish is to have the pasta and sauce ready at about the same time, so that everything is nice and hot and your pasta stays al dente and doesn’t overcook. This takes a little practice, but it’s not hard to nail. Keep reading; we’ll guide you through the recipe. Before you know it, you’ll have it down like a pro.
Use coarsely and freshly ground black pepper. Though you can use pre-ground pepper for cacio e pepe, if you do you’ll miss out on the punch of flavor that’s a huge part of what makes the dish so great. When you grind your own black peppercorns, as you need them, you get the fullest expression of the spice: a sharp, peppery bite along with complex floral notes. Use a hand grinder or spice grinder, and grind just what you need for the dish.
Toast the spice in a dry pan. While this is not a necessary step in the cacio e pepe process, it’s a cool chef-y trick that helps elevate the flavor of the dish. Lightly toasting your pepper as a first step warms the natural oil in the spice, which heightens its peppery bite and brightens its natural floral notes.
Recipe: Cacio e Pepe for Two
- Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add 6 ounces of pasta.
- When the pasta is a few minutes from al dente, place 1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper in a dry skillet and gently toast over medium-low heat, swirling the pan to keep the spice moving (to keep it from burning). Toast the pepper until it’s fragrant and warm, about 1 minute.
- Add 2 tablespoons of cold cubed unsalted butter to the skillet. Increase the heat to medium and, gently swirling the pan over the heat, cook until the butter is melted.
- At this point, your pasta should be ready to drain, but before you drain it, reserve ¾ cup of pasta cooking water. (If you need a minute or two to continue cooking your pasta at this point, remove your butter mixture from the heat but be sure to warm it up again for a minute or so before you continue with the next step.)
- Add ½ cup pasta cooking water to the butter mixture, along with your drained pasta, and another tablespoon of cold cubed butter to the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-low/low and add ¾ cup of finely grated Parmigiano or Grana Padano cheese, stirring constantly with tongs until the cheese is melted. Remove the pan from the heat and add ⅓ cup of finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, stirring and tossing until the cheese is melted and the sauce is creamy. Add more pasta cooking water if the sauce seems dry.
- Transfer the pasta to warm bowls and serve immediately, topping with more cheese and freshly ground black pepper, if desired.