Recipe Review

I Tried Food52’s Classic Cacio e Pepe and Didn’t Expect These Results

published Mar 17, 2023
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Cacio e pepe recipe by Food52 in a bowl on a marble surface
Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

When searching for contenders for recipe showdowns, I look for little twists, secret ingredients, unusual ratios — things that set the ingredients or technique apart from more common versions. I was excited about trying chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Sara Jenkins’ recipe on Food52 because she had done a lot of the legwork that I do for these reviews. This recipe was written after trying a slew of other unique techniques, and landed on this method as the best of the best.

Get the recipe: Sara Jenkins’ Cacio e Pepe on Food52

How to Make Food52’s Cacio e Pepe

The recipe starts with crushing 2 tablespoons of peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Once the peppercorns are ready, warm them in a pan in some olive oil while you bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a ladleful of hot water to the pan with the pepper, then add 2 tablespoons sea salt and 500 grams of spaghetti to the boiling water. Cook for 2 minutes less than the package calls for.

Use tongs to remove the pasta from the water straight into the pan. Toss the pasta over very low heat until almost all of the water is absorbed, then remove to a warm bowl. Add grated Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano to the pasta a handful at a time, tossing all the while. Add splashes of reserved pasta water as needed until you have a creamy sauce that coats the noodles.

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

My Honest Review of Food52’s Cacio e Pepe

This recipe was both overly fussy and not detailed enough. Crushing the peppercorns took longer than I expected, and they ended up flying all over my kitchen counter. I’m not entirely sure what the benefit of adding the hot water to the olive oil and peppercorns was versus using the seasoned, starchy pasta water. The recipe calls for an exact amount of salt to be used for the pasta water, but doesn’t indicate an amount of water, so the seasoning level will still vary pot to pot. The recipe also calls for 500 grams of pasta. This is the standard box if using an imported Italian brand, but more than the 16 ounces common in domestic brands. Using tongs to transfer the pasta from the pot to the pan was a mess. I don’t have the clearance between my stovetop and my range hood to lift the strands completely out, and I ended up dropping a lot of pasta all over my stove. The pasta also cooled considerably in the time between being transferred from the boiling water to the cheese being added. When I added the cheese to the pasta in the bowl off of the heat, the harder Parmigiano-Reggiano never fully melted and I didn’t get a totally creamy sauce.

Eating the pasta was still delicious — just not quite what I had hoped for. The coarsely ground pepper was the most aggressive of the bunch. The pasta doesn’t really cook much after being removed from the heat, and I personally would have preferred it to cook for a minute longer. The 50/50 ratio of Pecorino Romano to Parmigiano-Reggiano also felt too far off from all of the other versions I tested. The nuttiness was much stronger than the punchy brightness that’s expected from the Pecorino. I found the untraditional ratio to be especially odd, as the headnotes are adamant about not including butter because it’s not classically included. (Neither is olive oil, strictly speaking.)

When I went back to review the recipe for this write-up, I was surprised to see a video. I made a point to watch any available accompanying videos for all of the recipes. But I had missed this one originally. Watching it after the fact, there are quite a few discrepancies between it and the written recipe. The peppercorns are crushed under a cast iron skillet, not a mortar and pestle. The starchy water is added to the oil and pepper, not the unseasoned hot water indicated in the text. The pasta is never transferred to a warm bowl, but kept in the skillet the entire time. And while I used cheese I had finely grated in the food processor, the cheese used in the video was clearly grated on a box grater. I think all of these small changes could have really impacted the final dish.

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

If You’re Making Food52’s Cacio e Pepe, a Few Tips

  1. Watch the video in addition to reading the recipe.
  2. Consider using freshly ground pepper, or reduce the amount if crushing it by hand.
  3. Grate the cheese on the small holes of a box grater.
  4. Toss the pasta with the cheese in the pan instead of transferring to a bowl.

Overall rating: 7/10