This post is about a little known pasta dish that is about as Italian as it gets… meaning that it’s simple, but finicky.
I had never heard of it before actually visiting Italy and ever since then I’ve been wanting to try a version.
It seems simple enough because it only has about six ingredients and takes fifteen minutes to make, but there are some very strong opinions on it.
I’m not 100% positive that a real Roman would approve of my version, but I can say that it’s definitely one of my new favorite pastas.
It’s the perfect example of how a few simple, but good ingredients can make a plain looking pasta dish taste out of this world good.
Cacio e Pepe means cheese and pepper in Italian and while those are the two main ingredients in the sauce for this pasta, the devil is in the details!
1) Get a large pot of water boiling that is heavily salted. I like to use about 1.5 tablespoons of kosher salt per gallon of water. The water should taste slightly less salty than ocean water.
2) Grind pepper coarsely. Add pepper to a large high-walled pan or pot. Toast over medium heat for 2 minutes until fragrant.
3) Add pasta to water too cook.
4) Add 1/2 cup of salty pasta water to black pepper to stop the toasting. Add butter and olive oil to sauce. Stir to combine.
5) When pasta is done, reserve 2 cups of pasta water although you will probably only need one.
6) Add one cup of pasta water to sauce and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer.
7) Drain pasta and add to sauce. Top with grated parmesan and toss vigorously to combine sauce, cheese, and pasta.
8) If sauce is too thin, continue to cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly until it thickens. If sauce is really thick, add more pasta water to thin slightly. The sauce should stick to the pasta.
9) Serve pasta immediately with some extra Parmesan cheese.
Five Ingredient Sauce
There’s really just five ingredients you need for this sauce: Pasta water (salted), black pepper, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and butter.
A large number of people will probably have everything they need for it in their pantry.
Since there are so few ingredients, it’s really important that the ingredients be as good as possible.
That means no pre-ground black pepper!
I went with the mortar and pestle this time around.
The key is to not over-grind the pepper. It should be a very rough grind so you have nice big flecks of pepper in your final pasta.
That’s why I went the mortar and pestle route. I knew I could control the grind and get exactly what I wanted.
Besides the pepper, it’s also really important to use some good Parmesan cheese.
It doesn’t have to be the best, but at least don’t get something that’s pre-shredded because that stuff isn’t quite as flavorful as a block of it will be.
At a minimum you want a cup of this for your sauce and some for sprinkling on top before serving, but you could up the amount in the sauce to 1.5 cups if you wanted.
Besides the pasta water, you’ll also need some olive oil and butter.
I bought some nice Irish butter and just used my normal pantry olive oil.
There’s no real standard here for what pasta to use. I think that the dish works best with long pastas like spaghetti or bucatini though.
For my version, I used a whole wheat spaghetti. I like the whole wheat kind because it’s a bit healthier and also has a great nutty flavor to it.
Starting the Sauce
The first step in getting this sauce going is to actually get your pasta cooking!
The most important part to getting this sauce right is to make sure your pasta water is well-seasoned. I like to use about 1.5 tablespoons of kosher salt per every gallon of water or even a little more for this version.
You can taste the water and it should taste almost as salty as the ocean.
You can start cooking your pasta when you start your sauce.
Once your pasta is cooking, add your pepper to a dry pan. Ultimately everything will be in this pan so make sure it’s large enough.
Toast the pepper over medium-high heat for a minute or two. I was shocked by how fragrant just the pepper became as it toasted.
Now you are going to need some of that wonderful pasta water.
By this point, the pasta has been cooking for a few minutes and the water is starting to fill with starch from the pasta.
Add about half a cup of pasta water to your toasting pepper. This will sizzle like crazy and stop the pepper from burning which is what you want.
Then add your olive oil and butter to the pan.
Things go fast from here on out!
Add the pan back on the heat and stir it or toss it lightly until the butter is melted. Eventually, all the ingredients will start to come together and form a light sauce.
This is looking good.
Finishing the Dish
When your pasta is done, scoop out another two cups of pasta water (although you will probably only need one cup), and then you can drain your pasta.
Add about a cup of pasta water to your sauce and let it simmer for a minute so it thickens. Because the pan is so large, liquid should evaporate pretty quickly out of it.
Then drain your pasta and toss it directly into the pan!
Go ahead and add your cheese at this point also.
You’re basically done!
Keep tossing the pasta and the sauce until it thickens nicely. The cheese should melt pretty quickly and the sauce will turn smooth and silky.
If the sauce is too thin and watery, just keep tossing it over the heat for a minute or two and it will thicken really quickly. If it’s really thick then add some of the extra pasta water you saved to thin it out a bit.
Ideally, the sauce will completely coat the pasta and when you pull it away from the sides of the pan there will be just a little bit of sauce hanging onto the pan. This means that the sauce is thick enough to coat the pasta, but not super-thick.
Balancing this sauce and getting the right texture is the tricky part of this recipe.
If I can do it, you can do it.
That’s all there is to it! Serve this as soon as possible with some extra cheese on top.
Heck, you could eat it straight out of the pan if you wanted.
I like this pasta for so many reasons. It’s incredibly flavorful even though it uses just a few ingredients. It takes almost no time to make so once you get the hang of it, you can toss it together on a whim.
The only downside about this pasta is that it doesn’t keep well at all. It’s made to be eaten right away. Just make enough to serve as the leftovers won’t be nearly as good.