How to Make Perfect Cacio e Pepe
I consulted the experts, and they had some strong opinions.
Cacio e Pepe roughly translates to cheese and pepper in Italian. The basic ingredients of this creamy dish are simply that, so you’d think it would be easy to make. It is. But it’s also not.
Depending on which chef you talk to, there are some distinct differences in how Cacio e Pepe is prepared based on its history and evolution as a Roman classic. “The origins of this dish are broken down into the myth, the dogma, and the reality,” says chef Evan Funke of Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles. As Funke describes it, you can be very stubborn about making Cacio e Pepe in its original state, “but the reality is that it’s undesirable and less palatable to eat the dogmatic version of this dish.”
WATCH: This Omelet Tastes Just Like Cacio e Pepe—Minus the Pasta
What does this mean for you? Well, I’m going to walk you through the construction of the dish, how it’s prepared, what ingredients are ideal, and how to make it at home. It’s easy. But also not. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll truly understand how far cheese and pepper can really go.
Get your pasta right
Which pasta should you use for Cacio e Pepe? “In our opinion, tonnarelli is in fact the best one for it. It is of course not enough to simply serve ‘tonnarelli’ and a lot of attention and care should go towards having the perfect tonnarelli to achieve the dish that one wants,” says Lele Massimini of Los Angeles’ Uovo. Whether it’s tonnarelli or spaghetti alla chitarra, it’s important to have a thicker, longer pasta noodle where the starch helps grab the sauce in its final state.
Choose your cheese
The thing is, there isn’t a choice. “Pecorino Romano is the go-to. I like it because it’s salty, and I want the richness and creaminess of the cheese without all that funk,” says chef Adam Sobel of Cal Mare in Los Angeles. It’s important to finely grate the Pecorino Romano so it’s easy to melt using the pasta water. But we’ll get to that.
Salt the water
“The idea that it should taste like the ocean is absolute garbage. I season all of my pasta water as if it was an aggressively seasoned soup. It should taste good but not too salty,” Funke says. The Pecorino is your salt additive, so don’t go overboard on salting the water. Also, the timing of Cacio e Pepe is important, so get your water ready and start boiling it now.
Try our: Cacio e Pepe with Sauteed Shrimp
Know your pepper
To roast, or not to roast—that is the flavor profile question. “Although it’s a little polarizing, I use an abundant amount of black pepper,” says Funke. Black, ground pepper is incredibly important to making this dish pop. Many chefs use Tellicherry peppercorns, which traditionally come from India. The debate on the pepper is whether to roast it or not. Chef, cookbook author, and Roman food expert Katie Parla says she doesn’t like roasting the pepper because she thinks it gives it a metallic flavor. Funke fries it in a small pat of butter until it gets brown and frothy.
The butter/oil debate
This is where dogma and reality come to a head. Though Funke and Parla disagree on roasting the pepper, they do agree that making Cacio e Pepe with ONLY cheese and pepper is great if you can serve it immediately. The problem is that the cheese can get clumpy if you wait too long to eat it. As a result, many chefs use extra virgin olive oil or butter to cream up the sauce. “The reality is trattorie here in Rome often use oil. [You] never see butter here, that’s gross, but the standard in the U.S.,” says Parla. If you do use butter, the most important thing is to use VERY little. Too much and you’ll be serving butter noodles. Great for your three-year-old, terrible for Cacio e Pepe.
Let’s get started—with butter
I’m going to give you two methods, with and without butter. If you want to go without, skip ahead. Get your pan to a medium heat and throw in your pepper. Then add your butter (only about 20 grams, or about 1.5 tablespoons, per serving). “Don’t melt the butter entirely. Get it frothy so the pepper is infused into the butter,” says Funke. At this point, you can start cooking your pasta. Once you’re about halfway through cooking, add a couple of ounces of the pasta water to the butter/pepper and bring it to a boil.
Let’s get started—without butter
“I make a pec and pepper paste in a bowl,” says Parla. Take your Pecorino and your pepper and throw it into a dry pan. The pan should be big enough for your pasta because it’ll be thrown in here as well. Using the pasta water, melt the cheese down and stir it with the pepper, making a paste. Don’t add any extra heat to this part of the process.
Try our: Lobster Cacio e Pepe for Two
Get your pasta al dente
Al dente means “to the tooth” in Italian. What that means to you is that the pasta is firm but not crunchy. For the butter version of Cacio, cook your pasta to about 80% doneness, and then finish the rest in the pan with the butter and pepper and boiling water. For the non-butter version, you want it cooked fully to al dente before transferring.
Time to transfer
Don’t strain your pasta. Move it directly from the boiling pot into your pan. This way, a lot of the starchy water will transfer along with it, which is the key to the pasta holding on to the sauce.
You gotta work it
Regardless of whether you use butter or not, you’ll need to work your pasta. In both versions, the moment you transfer to the pan, you need to vigorously toss the pasta. Funke says to “add the pasta [into the pan] with a touch more water and then use forceps or tongs to swirl and toss it until the pasta is leaching out the last 20% of uncooked doneness into the water and until it starts to coat the noodles. Right before it turns from watery to glossy, add Pecorino into the toss. Then add a splash more water to melt the Pecorino.” For the unbuttered version, you can add more pasta water while you toss it to continue melting the cheese and make it creamier. The tossing is critical in both versions because it will help emulsify all the ingredients into the creamy sauce you desire.
Time to eat
For the non-buttered, the final step is to take the pan and place it back on top of the steaming pot of water. Continue to vigorously toss the pasta while it heats up from underneath. The moment it starts to get stringy, that’s your cue that the dish is done. Take it off the heat and serve it. For the buttered version, simply move it to a plate, twirl it up, add more Pecorino, and enjoy.