This Simple Trick Is the Secret to Foolproof Cacio e Pepe

published Feb 22, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Amelia Rampe

A good bowl of creamy, peppery cacio e pepe is one of the most dreamy pasta dinners around. And with a mere four ingredients (Pecorino, black pepper, pasta, and water), you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a super simple dish to pull off.

I thought so myself. But after trying several versions, I discovered that it’s trickier than it looks. It’s too easy to end up with a dish that is lumpy, grainy, or even dry rather than the blissfully cheesy results you want. Not to worry! We have found a simple, foolproof trick that will get you on the way to making delicious and creamy cacio e pepe every single time. Here’s what you need to know.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Amelia Rampe

For a Smoother Sauce, Start with a Cheese Paste

Though the dish has just four ingredients, you won’t make a good version of this classic Roman dish by just tossing everything together in a big bowl. If you grate the cheese directly onto the hot pasta, you’ll end up with small clumps of cheese that don’t blend. Conversely, if you dump the hot pasta over a bowlful of grated cheese, you’ll find that the bulk of the cheese becomes stuck to the bottom of the bowl (and what does end up on your pasta will taste weirdly dry and grainy).

So, to make the best cacio e pepe, you want to start by making a cheese paste. It’s an extra step, but trust me, this is worth it, and it doesn’t add any extra time to the dish: You can do it while the pasta water is boiling.

Start by using a Microplane or another zester-style grater to finely grate your cheese (preferably Pecorino!) into a snowy mound in a large bowl. Add fresh-cracked pepper, and whisk the two together with ice water. That last part is key. Using cold water helps to prevent that clumpy, separated sauce, since the cheese won’t start melting until it hits the hot pasta. What you should see when you’re done is a thick, mostly smooth paste that’s frosting-like in consistency.

Once the pasta is cooked, add it to the cheese paste along with some starchy pasta water, and quickly stir everything together. The result is a creamy sauce that perfectly coats the strands of pasta.

Get the recipe: How to Make Cacio e Pepe