How to Make Cacio e Pepe
It sounds like a fancy Italian dish—but cacio e pepe is a simple dinner that's easy to make.
Growing up, I was an exceptionally picky eater. I insisted on ordering a separate cheese pizza when we got takeout because picking off the pepperoni was not an option. When my mother made pasta for the family, she set aside a serving of noodles just for me. I wouldn’t eat tomato sauce (too messy) or proteins (too chewy), so I drowned my portion in butter and cheese instead. Those buttery noodles were comfort food for me, and it wasn’t until I went to culinary school that I realized it’s actually a classic Italian pasta dish.
Cacio e pepe translates to “cheese and pepper.” It’s the grown-up version of buttered noodles. It tastes strikingly similar to mac and cheese, and it’s so easy to make.
Cacio e Pepe Recipe
Like most simple dishes, there are a couple of tricks for making good cacio e pepe. If you want the sauce to turn out velvety smooth, use less water than usual to boil the pasta, then save some of the cooking water to create your sauce.
This recipe makes four servings.
- 8 ounces uncooked long pasta, like spaghetti, linguine or fettuccine
- 6 cups water
- 1-1/2 tablespoons kosher salt (plus additional for seasoning)
- 1/4 cup butter, cut into cubes and divided
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (plus additional for seasoning)
- 3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan, Grana Padano or pecorino Romano
Editor’s Tip: Use a Microplane to grate the cheese for this recipe. This fine-bladed grater is relatively inexpensive, and it’s useful for other tasks like zesting citrus, mincing garlic or softening butter. If you don’t have one, use the smallest side of a box grater; do not use pre-grated cheese because it won’t melt into the sauce quite right.
Step 1: Cook the pasta
The general rule of thumb for cooking pasta is to use 4 quarts of water for every pound of pasta. We’re going to reduce that amount by about a quarter to make the water extra starchy. It might seem odd to boil pasta in such a small amount of water at first, but you’ll become a believer when you taste the sauce.
In a medium-sized pot, bring the water and salt to a boil. Add the pasta, breaking it in half if necessary to get it to fit into the pot. Boil the pasta according to the time listed on the package directions for al dente pasta. Before you drain it, set aside 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Editor’s Tip: Don’t over-salt the pasta water! Since you’ll be saving your pasta water, adding too much salt can cause the final dish to be too salty.
Step 2: Start the sauce while the pasta cooks
While the pasta cooks, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet. Choose a skillet that will be large enough to hold the pasta later. Add the freshly ground black pepper and cook for a minute, swirling the pan as you go. Toasting the black pepper infuses the butter with flavor and removes the pepper’s sharp, spicy edge.
Step 3: Bring it all together
Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water to the skillet and bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the cooked pasta and toss to combine, cooking it for a minute to warm the noodles through.
Remove the skillet from the heat and add the remaining butter and Parmesan cheese, stirring constantly until the cheese is fully melted. Add additional pasta water if the sauce seems too dry. Season the pasta with salt and pepper and serve each portion with extra grated cheese, if you like.
Tips for Making Cacio e Pepe
Why is my cheese getting clumpy?
Cacio e pepe sauce is super creamy and smooth, so clumps indicate that you may have used the wrong cheese (or the wrong grating method). We recommend freshly grating the cheese instead of using store-bought bags of grated cheese. You’ll also want to use the finest grater possible. The fine blades on a Microplane are ideal, transforming a block of cheese into a pile of fluffy shreds that integrate perfectly into the sauce.
If you used the right cheese and cheese grater, the issue may be technique. Make sure the pasta water is brought to a simmer or it won’t be hot enough to melt the cheese. Don’t skimp on the stirring step, either. This ensures that the fats from the butter and cheese emulsify into the pasta water to achieve the ideal level of creaminess.
What kind of proteins pair well with cacio e pepe?
This pasta shines in its simplicity, so almost any protein pairs well with cacio e pepe. Our favorite additions allow the cheesy sauce to take the forefront; accentuate its richness by adding cured meat such as bacon or pancetta. Light seafood also works well, so try adding juicy shrimp or pan-fried salmon. For a heartier option, look to breaded Parmesan pork cutlets or air-fryer chicken cutlets. In a pinch, leftover rotisserie chicken also works well.
What other pasta types can you use for cacio e pepe?
Long pasta (such as spaghetti, linguine or fettuccine) are traditional in cacio e pepe, but experiment with other pasta shapes. Try short pastas that cling to sauce, like cavatappi, fusilli and rigatoni. We also like bucatini (a long pasta that looks like spaghetti). This variety is hollow in the middle, so it eats thick and chewy but delivers more sauce to the palate with every bite.