Find out more how to make perfect Cacio e Pepe, the classic Pecorino Romano and black pepper pasta from Rome once declared by the late Anthony Bourdain, “the greatest thing in the history of the world.”
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One of the most spectacular dishes I’ve ever eaten in Rome is also one of the easiest to reproduce at home. It happens how often? Cacio e pepe has been my obsession since the day I first saw Anthony Bourdain devouring a pasta bowl in Rome. He was so enamored with the classic Roman pasta dish that he even declared “[Cacio e Pepe] could be the greatest thing in the history of the world.”
The perfect Cacio e Pepe plate at a Rome restaurant.
Cacio e Pepe was my first meal in Rome. Let me just say: I “got it” at first bite. Cacio e Pepe is such a simple dish on the face of it—a simple combination of pasta, cheese, pepper, and olive oil—yet it’s so incredibly aromatic, luscious, and rich. It’s creamy, warm, and ever-so-spicy. Cacio e Pepe is mac and cheese for grownups, the best hangover food, and the thing I’d probably request for my last meal on earth.
Although digging into Cacio e Pepe at home may not have the exact same charm as enjoying it in a busy Roman restaurant, I can tell you there are few dishes more satisfying to serve—and dig into—than a perfect bowl of Cacio e Pepe.
It all starts with cooking pasta, and then heating up the olive oil. When you add Pecorino romano cheese to the pasta, magic happens. The cheese melts into the sauce and it emulsifies to make the best, most flavorful, pasta ever.
Cacio e Pepe may be the definition of a simple and quick dish. However, it is important to know how to create the most delicious version possible.
Cacio e Pepe remains one of my all-time favorite meals. I’ve been making it pretty much every week for years, so I’m happy to share all my best tips to help you enjoy this classic Italian pasta at home.
How to Make Perfect Cacio e Pepe VIDEO
Enjoy this video of me making Cacio e pepe. Learn the secrets and tricks to creating the famous Roman pasta.
Helpful Tips for Making Perfect Cacio e Pepe
What does Cacio e Pepe mean?
Cacio e Pepe literally means “cheese and pepper” in Italian. Named after the Roman dish of pasta, it is as straightforward as the dish: It describes two ingredients that you will need.
What are the ingredients of Cacio e Pepe’s sauce?
You will need some olive oil, crushed pepper and some Pecorino romano cheese. That’s it!
Find out how to combine these ingredients like magic and create the most silky, creamy, delicious sauce ever.
From where is Cacio e Pepe?
Cacio and Pepe are a traditional pasta from Rome. Cacio e Pepe, together with alla Gricia, carbonara and amatriciana is considered to be the most famous pasta dish in Rome.
What makes Cacio e Pepe so creamy?
Cacio-e Pepe pasta is creamy because of these two ingredients:
When pasta is cooking, starch in the water will be released. The starchy water helps melt the cheese and emulsify the sauce. It also helps to bind the pepper to the pasta.
Do you have butter and cream in the authentic Cacio e Pepe recipe?
Authentic Cacio e Pepe does not use butter or cream. Cacio e Pepe is rich and creamy without the use of butter or cream. What you need to achieve perfect Cacio e Pepe isn’t more fat but the right technique! (And I’m here to help you with that!)
The Right Pasta for Cacio e Pepe
Cacio-e Pepe uses spaghetti alla chicarra as its traditional pasta. Also known by tonarelli It’s a thick, long pasta with a square shape. This type of pasta can be a bit harder to find in regular grocery stores, but it’s readily available in Italian stores and online.
You can also use spaghetti—but not spaghettini, because you need a slender but thick pasta that cooks in 12 to 14 minutes. Linguine as well as bucatini are also good options.
Left: Tonnarelli (Spaghetti alla Chitarra); Right: Spaghetti
Two quality indicators are important when looking for the best pasta for making Cacio e Pepe.
1. “Tafilata al Bronzo” – Bronze-Cut (or Bronze-Die) Pasta: This type of pasta is extruded through bronze dies, which are perforated metal plates that cut and shape the pasta. The bronze molds create a pasta that has a porous, rough texture. This allows for the pasta to absorb and attract sauces. This texture is perfect for Cacio e Pepe: the pasta’s creamy sauce perfectly sticks to strands of bronze-cut pasta, making the dish even more delicious.
Many grocery stores carry bronze-cut pasta. If you don’t want to buy big brands, look for packaging printed with Italian letters. Many pasta brands with bronze cuts are packaged in paper bags rather than boxes.
Barilla is one of the big names that has released pasta with bronze cuts. These are often labeled “artisanal.” Again, look for the words “bronze-cut” anywhere on the packaging to make sure you’re getting the right thing.
2. “Essiccata Lentamente a Bassa Temperatura” – Slow-Dried at a Low Temperature: Industrially made pasta is made in extremely large quantities and needs to dry quickly so it can be packaged, shipped, and sold as fast as possible. It is necessary to expose pasta to high temperatures to speed up drying. Higher temperatures evaporate moisture more quickly. It prevents pasta starch protein development, which leads to a pasta with poor texture.
Slow-dried pasta, which is slow-dried at lower temperatures, is exactly what it sounds like. The proteins are allowed to fully develop which results in a chewy and delicious pasta. Also, slow drying results in pasta with a chalkier texture. It allows sauces to stick better to pasta’s surface and absorb flavors.
You can find slow-dried pasta in almost all grocery stores. You can look for the words “slow-dried” anywhere on the packaging, but the most obvious tell-tale sign is the texture of the pasta: if it’s shiny and smooth, it’s quick-dried. If it’s rough, matte, and chalky-looking, it’s most likely slow-dried and bronze-cut.
Due to the longer drying times, slow-dried pasta tends to be more expensive than commercial pasta. A 12 oz bag slow-dried pasta could cost you $1-2 more. While I can’t say the extra investment is always required, I absolutely urge you to splurge on bronze-cut, slow-dried pasta to make Cacio e Pepe. The only thing that makes a recipe good is how few of its ingredients it uses.
Do not throw out pasta cooking water.
Cacio e Pepe is best made with pasta starch. It is true that pasta releases starch while it cooks. The starchy water aids in melting the cheese and emulsifying sauce. It also helps to bind the pepper to the pasta.
You’ll get some of that starchy goodness from the pasta cooking water, and then you’ll get even more of it released straight into your skillet as the pasta finishes cooking. My recipe calls for the pasta to be cooked halfway in the traditional way. The pasta cooks in a lot less water if you add some pasta water to the skillet. This will concentrate the starch in your water, and make the cream sauce.
Cacio e pepe pasta made with starchy pasta cook water is the best!
This Italian cooking process is known as risottatura—yes, it’s the same technique used to make risotto. You can see how creamy risotto is as it cooks. This happens even before adding cheese. Risotto rice is high in starch, and this is why the rice becomes creamy as it cooks. When you put Cacio e Pepe pasta into a skillet, the same thing happens. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Note that you’ll get much better results (i.e., a creamier sauce) if you use slow-dried pasta. Here are my tips for choosing the best pasta to make Cacio e Pepe.
The Right Cheese for Cacio e Pepe
You will find cheese in the heart of this recipe. Make sure to use genuine Pecorino Romano cheese to create perfect Cacio e Pepe. Pecorino cheese is a hard, salty, aged Italian cheese made with sheep’s milk. The original origins of this cheese were made in Lazio (the province that is home to Rome). Cacio e Pepe, a traditional Roman pasta dish is made with this cheese.
Pecorino Romano is a protected designation of origin (PDO), which means that the cheese must “be produced, processed, and developed in a specific geographical area, using the recognized know-how of local producers and ingredients from the region concerned” (source). You can recognize authentic Pecorino Romao cheese by its distinctive off-white coloration and stamped, rind. You can find it in grocery stores in the form of wedges.
Authentic Cacio e Pepe recipes exclusively use Pecorino Romano cheese. The cheese’s sharp saltiness perfectly seasons the sauce, and its aroma is synonymous with the classic pasta dish. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is also a favorite of many chefs. Although this isn’t authentic per se, it’s a very common substitution.
Cacio e Pepe I make most often with Pecorino romano cheese. But sometimes I add a third Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. It adds warmth to the dish and helps soften the sharper flavors of Pecorino Romao cheese. To me, this combination of cheese leads to a dish separate from authentic Cacio e Pepe because the flavor is quite different, but it’s still extremely delicious all the same.
How to Grate Pecorino Romano to Make Perfect Cacio e Pepe
Although you might not realize it, the quality of the cheese grated can make perfect Cacio e Pepe. Indeed, if the cheese is grated too coarsely, it won’t emulsify into a smooth sauce, and you’ll end up with blobs of coagulated cheese. If you end up with such a result, I’m sad to say there’s just no way to fix it. Sure, the dish won’t be super appealing, but it remains totally edible. Don’t throw it away! Enjoy―and make sure to use the following tips next time you make Cacio e Pepe.
I’ve tested so many grated cheese textures over the years, and I’ve concluded that the best tool to grate Pecorino Romano to make perfect Cacio e Pepe is a Microplane. A Microplane makes super fluffy clouds of extremely thinly grated cheese. This finely grated cheese seamlessly melts in the sauce when it is slowly added to the pasta.
Grated cheeses are available in many stores. However, this can work great for some other dishes. I don’t recommend pre-grated cheeses being used to make Cacio e Pepe. Some pre-grated cheeses are more difficult to melt and can become dry. Sometimes, anti-clumping agent are added to grated cheeses. These agents can affect the texture and flavor of your sauce.
Take a slice of Pecorino Romano cheese, and then grate it with a Microplane. By following these two simple tips, you’ll be that much closer to producing perfect bowls of Cacio e Pepe!
Do weigh cheese for Cacio e Pepe—don’t scoop it
It is difficult to measure cheese using cups when making Cacio e Pepe, particularly if it is grated with a Microplane. Microplane-grated cheese is so fluffy, it’s impossible to accurately measure it by packing it into cups.
You must weigh the cheese to accurately determine its size for Cacio e pepe.
Cacio e Pepe: How can you prevent your cheese from clumping
Here are three easy tips to prevent your cheese from clumping when it comes to Cacio e Pepe
Whole peppercorns are best for the best taste
To make Cacio e Pepe, you want coarsely ground black pepper—not super finely ground, almost powdery black pepper. To get the best taste, use whole peppercorns. You can lightly crush them with a mortar-and-pestle or a rolling mill. Cacio and Pepe that has been freshly crushed peppercorns is more flavorful.
Before serving, crush additional peppercorns and sprinkle them over the dish. Cacio e Pepe’s enticing scents can be fully developed by the combination of fresh and cooked black pepper.
Can you find meat in Cacio e Pepe Pasta?
There is no meat in Cacio e Pepe; it’s a vegetarian dish. This recipe only requires four ingredients, which are pasta, cheese (black pepper), olive oil and garlic. While you’ll find some recipes that do incorporate fried pancetta or guanciale, the use of cured meat in the dish isn’t authentic.
Want to try more authentic pasta dishes?
These authentic Italian pasta recipes make a great weeknight meal. Simple ingredients can create delicious dishes that the entire family will enjoy. Get inspired by this collection of delicious pasta recipes!
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