Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Popular Cacio e Pepe Recipes and the Winner Is the Epitome of Cheesy, Creamy Comfort Food

published Mar 21, 2023
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Lineup of four different cacio e pepe recipes in bowls on a marble surface
Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

I’ve never bothered following a recipe for the classic Roman pasta cacio e pepe. It’s a pretty straightforward dish — dried pasta tossed with Pecorino Romano cheese, lots of black pepper, and starchy pasta water to make it saucy. It’s a delicious dish I’ve relied on when the pantry was bare and I needed to make a meal out of just a few things. But finding the correct ratio of ingredients and technique that produces a creamy sauce is actually quite tricky. 

So when presented with the idea of this recipe showdown, I was ready to dig in. I’ve always had issues with a clumpy sauce, but it’s still always been tasty enough for a Tuesday night that I was never too bothered by it. Could I find a technique that would deliver consistent, deliciously creamy results?

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Meet Our 4 Cacio e Pepe Contenders

When reading through different recipes, I looked at both ingredients and technique. Traditionally, cacio e pepe includes only Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper in the sauce. Many recipes also include butter and/or olive oil, and sometimes some Parmesan in addition to the Pecorino. As for technique, I looked for recipes that were a little outside the box of just simply stirring grated cheese into hot pasta. 

Smitten Kitchen’s foolproof cacio e pepe is an editor favorite. The unique use of an immersion blender to make the sauce was intriguing to me. I was eager to see if this method really was “foolproof.”

Food52’s cacio e pepe was developed after chef and restaurateur Sara Jenkins tried a slew of quirky ingredients and techniques. I was hopeful the initial trial and error would produce a superior pasta.

Maialino’s cacio e pepe comes from the namesake popular New York City restaurant and uses a full quart of pasta water to make the sauce. Would it produce something rich and creamy, or watered-down?

The Pasta Queen’s cacio e pepe mixes the cheese and pasta water into a sauce before adding it to the pasta. Would this reverse in steps ensure a clump-free sauce?

How I Tested the Cacio e Pepe Recipes

Ideally I would have tasted all of these dishes side by side, but cacio e pepe does not hold well — it really needs to be eaten immediately. I tested them back to back, trying a few bites of each. My husband and two kids weighed in with their opinions on taste as well.

Cacio e pepe uses so few ingredients that it’s noticeable when you use better-quality ingredients. I opted to use middle-of-the-road options versus store-brand or going super high-end. I used De Cecco spaghetti, California Olive Ranch olive oil, and Kerrygold butter. I grated the cheese right before cooking. If there was no specific grating method called for in the recipe, I went for a fine grind in my food processor. I used a coffee grinder to coarsely grind the peppercorns right before cooking.

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. For Parmesan Fans: Food52’s Cacio e Pepe

This version uses a 50/50 blend of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano. While not traditional, it’s helpful if you’re not a huge fan of Pecorino’s naturally sharp flavor. If you try this recipe, I really recommend watching the video and taking cues from that in addition to the written recipe.

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

2. For the Traditionalist: The Pasta Queen’s Cacio e Pepe

This recipe had my favorite ratio of pasta to cheese and pepper. I also liked that it stuck to the traditional three ingredients. But I ran into some trouble with a pretty big discrepancy when making the sauce between the written recipe and the video. The Pasta Queen’s content is generally video-first, and I think watching and following her videos would potentially give you better results than just reading the written recipe.

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. For Cheese-Lovers: Smitten Kitchen’s Foolproof Cacio e Pepe

Unfortunately, despite the very thorough instructions, this recipe was not foolproof for me. That said, I really appreciated the attention to detail and visual cues provided in the recipe to help the cook. The immersion blender was a bit finicky, but it did help produce a smooth sauce. The recipe recommends adding 3/4 of the cheese sauce and tasting before adding more, which I would definitely recommend. This recipe uses nearly twice the cheese of the top recipe, which isn’t for everyone.

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. For the Creamiest Sauce: Maialino’s Cacio e Pepe

This was the only recipe that produced a flavorful, truly creamy sauce. It’s the epitome of what I think of when a bowl of creamy, cheesy pasta comes to mind. It could have used a little more cheese, but there may be a discrepancy based on the differences of measuring by weight and volume. The pepper in this one was also a little over-the-top. But the technique is what crowned this one the winner. A full quart of pasta water is cooked down to become the sauce while vigorously stirring the cooked pasta, creating a creamy, starchy base not unlike risotto. This recipe included olive oil and a little butter as well. While not traditional, I personally really liked the flavors both brought to the final dish.