Growing up, I was an unusually picky eater. I insisted on ordering a separate cheese pizza when we got take-out (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), so I drowned my portion in butter and cheese instead. I still think about how comforting those buttery noodles were, but it wasn’t until I went to culinary school that I realized I had an excuse to make this dish as an adult.
It’s a classic Italian pasta dish—cacio e pepe—which translates to “cheese and pepper.” It tastes strikingly similar to mac and cheese, and it’s so easy to make.
Like most simple dishes, there are a couple tricks to perfecting the recipe. 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. Read on to learn more!
How to Make Cacio e Pepe
- 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
Yield: 4 servings
Editor’s Tip: It’s important to use a Microplane to grate the cheese for this recipe. Pre-grated cheese won’t melt into the sauce quite right. You can find a Microplane for less than $15 (like this one on Amazon), and you’ll use it again and again for tasks like zesting citrus, mincing garlic or softening butter.
Step 1: Cook the pasta
The general rule of thumb for cooking pasta is to use four 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 later!
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 oversalt the pasta water! Since you’ll be using the reserved cooking water later, adding too much salt can cause the final dish to be excessively salty. This is how to salt pasta water the right way.
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 pepper and cook for one minute, swirling the pan as you go. Toasting the black pepper not only infuses the butter with flavor, but it also 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. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the remaining butter and 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.