The Cacio e Pepe Treatment: From the OG Pasta to Anything Goes
The combination of black pepper and cheese that defines this eponymously-named Roman pasta is now popping up in recipes for chicken, scones, and even popcorn. See all the ways you can apply the “cacio e pepe treatment” to your food.
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People have been staring at a nearly empty kitchen trying to figure out what to do with some noodles and a hunk of cheese for a very long time. Cacio e pepe might seem like a trendy dish that came out of Covid cookery, but its history runs deep: This minimalist Roman pasta has been evolving for the last 1,000 or so years, according to most food historians. At about the same time during the 14th Century, dried pasta became commercially available in Naples; perhaps cacio e pepe was simply a matter of time.
Today the dish is one of the fab four Roman pastas that have made the storied city a global culinary powerhouse for generations. It’s become so popular that now it’s a flavor: You can find it in scones and snacks, meaty main courses and vegetarian delights, or even a pizza.
But why did this thousand-year-old dish captivate our hearts along with our bellies as we trudged through another year of the pandemic? Perhaps it’s the quiet magic of making an amazing meal out of nearly nothing: Some pasta, pepper, and cheese has no right to taste so luxurious so fast, and yet it does. Somehow a simple technique with a handful of good ingredients delivers a decadent dish you can make even when the cupboard seems bare. It is, quite simply, a little act of culinary faith that yields a mini miracle on a plate. And sometimes that’s enough to get you through.
So enjoy the recipes that follow — perfect a classic bucatini cacio e pepe, then try a recipe from its next stage of evolution. And send your triumphs our way! Tag us @yummly on your social media posts and share some inspo; everybody wins.
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Everything you need to succeed at cacio e pepe >>
Cacio e pepe pasta dishes with a twist >>
Cacio e pepe-themed main courses >>
Oven amore: baking with cacio e pepe >>
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Everything you need to succeed at cacio e pepe
Grab your grater, tongs, and an open mind!
What is in cacio e pepe?
Apart from Italian ingenuity and a bit of dairy-based magic, the simplest versions of this pasta dish call for hand-grated Pecorino Romano, freshly cracked black pepper, long-stranded pasta — usually bucatini or thick spaghetti — and some of its starchy pasta cooking water. Some recipes will also add a little olive oil, additional dairy fat via butter, or a few spoonfuls of cream to help keep the sauce from clumping. Feel free to disagree about the most authentic version; arguing about what’s supposed to be in this dish only makes it taste more Italian.
Does it matter what kind of Pecorino cheese I use?
When a recipe has only a few ingredients, it’s worth it to spring for top-notch ingredients. There are many Pecorinos made in Italy, most of them sold young to be enjoyed casually with a swig of wine, but Pecorino Romano cheese is the big, funky, sassy, salty star in this dish. In Italy this group of cheese is always made with sheep’s milk (pecora is Italian for “sheep”), and it does well in a smooth sauce; the two best brands sold in the States are Locatelli and the lesser-known Fulvi. Don’t reach for a wedge of American-made Pecorino at the market: Those are often made with (the more available) cow’s milk, but don’t melt nearly as well. You can add nuance to this dish by blending in another hard cheese, but don’t skimp on a good Italian Romano!
Is it OK to buy pre-grated cheese for this dish?
Sadly, it is not. Most pre-grated hard cheeses also contain anti-caking agents, which in (what should be) a smooth and creamy cheese sauce results in little gritty bits no matter how you prepare it. Consider it a trade-off: The only other tasks in cacio e pepe recipes generally involve boiling water for pasta and grinding some black pepper (it goes without saying, but opt out of pre-ground pepper!). A little elbow grease to grate Romano cheese (or Parmesan if that's what you have) while the water boils is a small price to pay for culinary ecstasy.
But I can boil the pasta as usual, right?
You could, but why not make it easier to succeed at this quick Roman dish? The starchy salted pasta water left behind once the pasta is done cooking (it should be barely al dente when you pull it from the pot) helps thicken the dish, so the less water you use, the more starch per spoonful of water and the easier it is to thicken the sauce. But using less water makes it important to stir it frequently to ensure the noodles don’t clump.
This excellent version of the classic cacio e pepe recipe delivers an astonishing dinner triumph in a flash.
Cacio e Pepe
This Roman triumph of a dish has only a handful of ingredients. If you’ve been yearning to make spaghetti cacio e Pepe, look no further. Clear instructions make it easy to master the quick technique, and the lipoproteins in the butter ensure the sauce stays smooth and supple. This version includes both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano in equal parts, but feel free to experiment with different combinations.
Cacio e pepe pasta dishes with a twist
Cacio e pepe recipes level up to the next stage of noodle-lution.
Cacio e Pepe with Lemon
This lush and supple dish from Martha Stewart sets you up for success by using slightly softer Grana Padano cheese (since it melts a little better) to initially make the sauce and stirring in the traditional tangy Pecorino-Romano (which tends to clump in sauces) at the very end. A little lemon zest provides a soft and aromatic note that’ll have you reaching for this recipe again and again.
"Spicy Numbing" Cacio e Pepe
Now that Szechuan peppercorns are legal in the U.S., give your tongue a tingle with this blend of freshly cracked black, white, and Szechuan pepper for some East-West fusion cuisine that doesn’t disappoint. (And don’t worry, you’ll only be uncomfortably numb a few moments.)
Za’atar Cacio e Pepe
The beloved Middle Eastern spice blend elevates this bucatini cacio e pepe dish, thanks to the wizardry of Ottolenghi. Za’atar’s sesame seeds provide texture while the thyme and sumac give the dish an herby, lemony lift.
Instant Ramen Cacio e Pepe
This variation on David Chang’s popular recipe is the fastest route to buttery, peppery, Pecorino pleasure. Go from pot to table in under 10 minutes with nothing but instant ramen and as Chang calls it, “cheese water.” How can something so wrong taste so right?
Cacio e pepe-themed main courses
Bring some big main course energy to the table.
Cacio e Pepe Eggs with Olive Oil Toast
Breakfast for dinner never seemed so sexy. Or breakfast for breakfast, for that matter. Crispy toasts, softly poached eggs, and a vinaigrette that channels the best of cacio e pepe recipes is glorious any time of day.
Baked Chicken in Cacio e Pepe Bagna Cáuda Sauce
If ever there were an Italian food hug, this dish would be it: The lushness of a cacio e pepe recipe comes together with the funky warm bath of the Piedmontese olive oil, garlic, and anchovy pottage to gently roast a chicken in a mind-bendingly good sauce.
Cacio e Pepe Pizza
This recipe from Rome makes a half-dozen personal pizzas with an exquisitely tender crust, then pulls inspiration from the iconic dish with its dusting of Pecorino Romano and freshly ground black pepper, plus a drizzle of olive oil for good measure.
Cacio e Pepe with Sauteed Shrimp
Quick-cooking shrimp are the perfect companion for a lemony take on a spaghetti cacio e pepe recipe. Plus, the butter these sweet crustaceans are briefly cooked in is used to make the sauce, adding another briny layer to this luxe dish.
Snazzy cacio e pepe sides
Vegetables, sides, and snacks get bumped up thanks to the cacio e pepe treatment.
Charred Cacio e Pepe Cabbage
When you roast this member of the brassica family, boring green cabbage crisps up as its edges caramelize and it gently sweetens in the oven’s dry heat. Add a drift of grated cheese and black pepper once you’ve nestled the wedges into the mustard whiskey sauce and prepare for veggie bliss.
Cacio e Pepe Kugel Recipe
This treasured Jewish dish gets a brilliant kick of salty, savory heat from the Pecorino Romano and black pepper, only to be balanced by the gentle sweetness of Italian mascarpone and ricotta cheeses in the kugel. Plus, it reheats well if you’re lucky enough to have leftovers.
Cacio e Pepe Brussels Sprouts
Using pre-shredded Brussels sprouts helps this balanced dish come together quickly. The hint of bitterness in the sprouts is tempered by the umami of the Pecorino cheese, while toasted hazelnuts bring a cozy crunch that’s complemented by the heat of the black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes.
Cacio e Pepe Popcorn
Sometimes the simplest ideas work best. For authentic flavor, feel free to pop the corn kernels in olive oil, then simply top with grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper — and try not to be distracted by this sophisticated twist on an old-fashioned snack.
Oven amore: baking with cacio e pepe
Baked goods turn savory with these cacio e pepe recipes.
Cacio e Pepe Farinata
This OG gluten-free flatbread from Liguria calls for nutty chickpea flour in place of ground wheat, then is mixed with olive oil, water, and salt, and baked in a sizzling hot cast iron pan before being hit with a wave of pepper and Pecorino.
Cacio e Pepe Biscuits
Start your day with a smile when you whip up these delicately layered biscuits topped with grated cheese and zippy pepper. Split in half and spread with mustard and a bit of Southern ham and you might find yourself in hog heaven.
Cacio e Pepe Scones
These savory scones include a bit of floral peppery heat along with a sharp, cheesy note. A smear of butter and strong cup of tea rounds out an afternoon break or an early morning treat alongside some breakfast sausages.
Get inspired by a variety of Italian-themed meals in the articles ahead.