I've been craving an authentic cacio e pepe recipe ever since I moved back from Italy. So, I wanted to share my one-pot, foolproof cacio e pepe recipe with exactly three ingredients (no butter!) and needs all of twenty minutes.
Psst, this recipe is a throwback to my friendship with folks at a small restaurant in my neighborhood - the same place Anthony Bourdain loved. So you know it's time tested and delicious.
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🍲What is cacio e pepe?
Cacio e pepe literally means "cheese and pepper" in Italian (cacio, in the local dialect, literally refers to pecorino Romano, i.e. the pecorino of Rome). This is a simple Roman pasta (there's a tale that peasants invented this because they had no meat, but here we are). Move over, fettuccine Alfredo, the classic cheesy pasta is in town.
💭 Why you'll love this recipe
- Inspired by Anthony Bourdain's favorite cacio e pepe in Rome: This is a recipe I first learned to make when I lived in Rome, from Anthony Bourdain's favorite restaurant.
- Uses only three ingredients: Traditional and authentic cacio e pepe does not use butter or cream. True to that, this recipe uses just three ingredients.
- Comes together in under 30 minutes: This recipe is as quick as it's delicious, so it's perfect for a quick weeknight meal or your next date night!
📋 Ingredients & Substitutions
You need three ingredients for this authentic Roman pasta: pasta, pecorino, and pepper. I know it's hard to get the exact ingredients sometimes, so I've listed a few substitutions. But this recipe is made without butter, so read on!
What kinds of pasta can you use?
Traditionally, tonnarelli or bucatini. But, any thick pasta or spaghetti can work in a pinch too. The key is to get a tubular, long pasta to which the sauce can adhere to. Traditional tonnarelli is a little coarse, making it super delicious when you add cheese.
What kinds of cheese do you need?
The only cheese you'll need is pecorino Romano, the cheese native to that region. Try to get the sharpest pecorino Romano you can get your hands on and grate it fresh. If you can't find pecorino, especially vegetarian pecorino, you can use parmesan (but just note that the flavors will be slightly different since pecorino is sharper)
Do you use cream?
Only if you want my old Italian landlord to haunt you from his grave ... just kidding. But, seriously though - no cream or butter! Take the pasta water out when it's starchiest, i.e. right before you're going to drain it. That's all you need to bind the pepper and cheese into gooey, saucy goodness. Using cream dilutes the sharpness of the cheese and it's also not necessary!
♨️Step by Step Instructions
Cook the pasta to package direction
Make sure to use a gallon of water for every 16 oz (box) of pasta. Cook the pasta in that large pot of salted water to package instructions. 2 to 3 minutes before the pasta is done, remove a few tablespoons of hot pasta water in case you need to thin the sauce.
Create the magical cheese sauce
Throw the cheese, pepper and some cold water in a food processor and pulse until it gets to a silky consistency. Or, just use a fork or a whisk, and mix vigorously to combine until the sauce is smooth and silky. Add hot pasta water after to smooth out further into a creamy sauce.
Fold the sauce into pasta, one layer at a time
Then, once you have that magical cheese sauce, slowly layer it and the pasta like you would a lasagna. One serving of pasta, one spoon of sauce. Rinse repeat. Then toss and coat evenly. Voila! No more clumpy pasta.
👩🏽🍳Tips for authentic, foolproof cacio e pepe
- Use high quality cheese and grate it yourself . Get the best cheese you can afford, you won't regret it, and grate it yourself. Grated cheese often has potato starch or chemicals added to it, which makes it clump up and not melt. And you'll want to use the smallest hole for grating - it'll allow the cheese to melt uniformly into a consistent sauce!
- Use the right amount of water and drain at the right time. I typically don't have pasta water volumes, but the key to this recipe is thinning the cheese with the starchy pasta water. So, ensuring the right amount of starch to water is important. Use a gallon of water per package of pasta and reserve the pasta water 2 minutes before indicated al dente time (for instance, if package says 10 minutes, reserve water at 8 min mark)
- If mixing by hand, whisk, whisk, whisk - the cheese will melt. The process is fairly seamless with a food processor, but if you're mixing by hand, just keep whisking. Add cold water slowly to the grated cheese as you whisk (vs. adding it all at once). I suggest couple of tablespoons at a time. The cheese will appear clumpy at first but don't fret! The magic happens when you thin the sauce with hot water.
This recipe does not use any butter or oil and that typically runs the risk of the cheese getting clumpy. The secret to avoiding that? Whisking or mixing it vigorously to ensure it forms a sauce.
Traditional recipes use only pecorino, but you can use parmigiana in a bind (or combine the two). Romano is a hard cheese and Italian Romano is named Pecorino.
Make sure to read the post above, but you basically ensure the right water to pasta ratio while cooking it, set aside pasta water with starch 2 minutes before that's done, whisk some Pecorino with cold water and then hot water to make a sauce, and layer in the sauce.
This is a personal choice! I don't like to overpower the dish with pepper so I use 2 teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper. You can increase the quantity or toast the pepper before adding it to the sauce in order to amplify the flavors!
🍷 Storage & serving suggestions
This recipe can easily be scaled down on the recipe card, and where possible, I suggest making it fresh. However, if you made extra, you can just store in the fridge, portioned out. Then, add a splash of water to the portion, and microwave for 1 minute, stirring once in between.
You can serve the cacio e pepe as a side to any meaty dishes if you have a carnivore in the family, or serve this as a main "primi" with a side salad (like my Brussels sprouts Caesar salad or my kale salad with pecorino and pepitas). It pairs quite neatly with a ton of stuff, but try to sneak in a glass of wine if you can - because nothing pairs better!
Personal Note: I didn't know when I lived in Rome that this was Anthony Bourdain’s favorite bowl of cacio e pepe. In fact, he loved the place so much that he wanted to keep it a secret. Small mom & pop restaurants would get flooded with positive reviews, grow an admirable following, but crumble under pressure. That said, I’m glad to report that this restaurant is still going strong, and the cacio e pepe is delectable. If you're heading to Rome and want to know, leave me a comment!
Don't forget to check out some of my other pasta recipes:
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Authentic Cacio e Pepe
- 10 oz bucatini pasta, see substitutions in post
- 2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground and coarse
- ¼ cup water, reserved from cooking pasta
- 2 cups Pecorino Romano, freshly grated, additional for garnish
- Bring three quarters of a gallon of water to boil (roughly 2 liters, i.e. 10 cups of water) with salt. Add pasta and cook pasta slightly under the time mentioned on the package (typically about 8 to 9 minutes for al dente texture)
- As pasta cooks, grate about 2 cups of Pecorino Romano (using the smallest hole on your grater). Set aside in a large bowl.
- Heat a skillet on medium heat, and add a generous amount of freshly cracked pepper to toast it.
- Use a ladle and scoop out some of the pasta water into the skillet with the pepper. The water will bubble, and turn somewhat white due to the starch (but this is good, because it'll help the cheese and pepper bind to your pasta!)
- Add a quarter cup of the pasta water to the bowl with the cheese, ideally one tablespoon at a time and whisk it together using a fork to create a thick paste. Add cautiously since you don't want it to get runny (but don't fret if it does, just add more cheese!) Unconventional, tech-savvy tip: Don't comAdd the cheese and pepper to a food processor along with a tablespoon of cold water and pulse until forms a "lumpy" mixture (or use a fork)
- Remove the pasta and add it to the skillet with the pepper and water, and toss to coat. Add half a cup of pasta water to the skillet. If the water gets absorbed, add a bit more as well as fresh cracked pepper and keep mixing. The starchy pasta water is critical for binding with the cheese to create a smooth sauce!
- Turn the heat off, and add the cheesy paste to the skillet with the pasta. Toss evenly until it's nicely combined, and smooth (the cheese should not be chunky).
- Serve hot with a grind of coarse black pepper and a sprinkle of cheese!
- Use the right amount of water! Typically, I am not picky about the amount of water to cook pasta. But the key to make the sauce perfect is getting the optimal starch content in the pasta water. So, you need to measure your water (at least the first couple of times, until you know how much it ballparks to!)
- Use a long, thick and hollow pasta if possible - long pasta helps coat the cheese sauce evenly and keeps it delicious!
- Once you add the cheese, if the pasta feels like it's clumpy, you can add some of the water you reserved to make sure that the pasta is coated evenly.
- Unconventional, but tech-savvy tip: Okay, don't come after me, but if you don't want to figure out how to toss and coat evenly, a trick I've found is to take a small food processor and add the cheese and some pasta water to it and give it a good whizz. This makes a super creamy paste. Then, add that to the hot skillet with the pasta, pasta water and pepper.
Note: This recipe was originally published on 27 January 2020. It was updated on 18 April 2021 with new FAQs and tips!