Cacio e Pepe

$3.20 recipe / $0.80 serving
by Monti - Budget Bytes
5 from 6 votes
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Cacio e Pepe is my go-to recipe on those days that my to-do list has more items on it than there are hours in the day. This cheese and pepper pasta is the ultimate quick, delicious, and budget-friendly dinner. My foolproof Cacio e Pepe recipe has four ingredients: spaghetti, parmesan, black pepper, and butter. Bonus: It comes together in under 20 minutes and can feed your entire household.

Overhead shot of finished Cacio e Pepe in a pan with tongs in it.

What Does Cacio e Pepe Mean?

Cacio e Pepe is Italian for Cheese and Pepper Pasta. This iconic Roman dish was created by shepherds who traveled light and couldn’t carry a bunch of ingredients to feed themselves. So they needed their meals to be filling but easy to execute; all reasons this dish is a smash hit, especially if you’ve got kids. I’m not saying kids are sheep. Sheep listen and don’t talk back. Shepherds had it easy. #truthtopower #momlife

Ingredients for Cacio e Peppe

Traditionally Cacio e Pepe is made with:

  • Pecorino Romano
  • Coarsely ground black pepper
  • TonnarelliI

While I’m all about coarsely ground black pepper, to keep things easy and within budget, I use grated parmesan, a little butter, and spaghetti. So, no, this is not a traditional Cacio e Pepe recipe. Don’t come at me, purists.

I’m just trying to make life easier for folks that don’t have time to grind black peppercorns in a mortar. And while I know butter is a near sin in some parts of Italy (the North), it helps stabilize the cheese sauce for those people that just want to get dinner on the table without a bunch of fuss. Feel free to smash peppercorns, omit the butter, and work that pasta and cheese to your heart’s content.

What Pasta Can I Use For Cacio e Pepe?

Cacio E Pepe’s creamy, peppery cheese sauce requires a long noodle with some texture and toothiness, so it can cling to it without overpowering it. While tonnarelli is the traditional pasta used in this recipe, spaghetti or bucatini works just as great. Steer clear of linguine and angel hair which will fall apart quickly and become a gummy mess.

Overhead shot of finished Cacio e Pepe on a plate with a fork in it.

How To Make Cacio e Pepe

With just a handful of ingredients and one pan, Cacio E Pepe looks deceptively simple to make. However, if you want a creamy sauce, there are two things you need to make sure you do:

  1. When boiling your pasta, use a smaller pan and less water. This concentrates the amount of starch in the water, which will help your ingredients combine smoothly to create a velvety sauce.
  2. When you’re ready to make your sauce, cook on low heat; otherwise, your cheese will glop and get stringy. It’s ok if your sauce steams, but if you see it start to bubble, take the pan off the heat to cool things down quickly.

How long can you store leftover Cacio e Pepe?

Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to three days. Then, reheat leftovers in a pan set over medium heat. To loosen the sauce, add a tablespoon or two of pasta water to the pan (or plain water if you didn’t reserve pasta water). Stir constantly until the pasta is steaming.

Why You Keep Pasta Water

Pasta water is liquid gold when creating a sauce, especially a cheese sauce. As spaghetti boils, it releases starch into the water. That starch has incredible binding power and not only helps pull together a sauce, but it also helps the sauce bind to the pasta.

  • Try substituting pasta water for milk the next time you make boxed mac and cheese, and watch the magic happen.
  • Try freezing your pasta water in ice cube trays and tossing a cube in when making a pan sauce, beans, or soups.
  • Or melt the cube and use it instead of plain water when making bread, as the starch in the water will help the bread rise.
Side shot of finished Cacio e Pepe in a pan with tongs in it.

Can you Make Cacio e Pepe Ahead Of Time?

Most people will say you can’t make Cacio e Pepe ahead of time. Those people have never worked in a restaurant kitchen. To make your Cacio e Pepe up to a day ahead you will need to par-cook the pasta and the sauce.

For the pasta:

  • Cook the pasta for half the time recommended on the package. Drain the pasta, reserving about a cup of the pasta water.
  • Refrigerate the pasta water in an airtight container and spread the pasta on a sheet pan. Allow it to cool.
  • Once cool, toss with 1 teaspoon of olive oil per pound of pasta. Refrigerate for up to 24 hours in an airtight container 

For the sauce:

  • Dissolve 1 tablespoon of cornstarch into a cup of water. Add it to a small pan and bring it to a simmer, constantly stirring, until it thickens into a syrup. Allow the syrup to cool.
  • Then add the cheese, pepper, and butter to a blender. Pulse to combine the ingredients.
  • Next pour in the cooled cornstarch syrup. Blend until a thick sauce forms. Store in an airtight container with a piece of plastic placed over the surface of the sauce so a skin doesn’t form.

When it’s time to cook, boil the pasta in salted water for a minute or two, until just before al dente. Drain the pasta, removing it from the pan. Then bring a few tablespoons of the reserved pasta water to a simmer in the saucepan. Add the cheese sauce and stir until it loosens. Next, add the pasta. Finally, stir the pasta, adding pasta water little by little, until the sauce reaches your desired consistency.

Overhead shot of finished Cacio e Pepe in a pan with tongs in it.
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Cacio e Pepe

5 from 6 votes
Cacio e Pepe is a mouthwatering pasta dish that uses four ingredients, comes together in twenty minutes, and feeds your entire household. Before you know it, you'll be yelling "Dinner's ready!"
Side shot of finished Cacio e Pepe on a plate with a fork in it.
Servings 4
Prep 5 mins
Cook 15 mins
Total 20 mins

Ingredients

  • 3/4 tsp salt ($0.02)
  • 1/2 lb dry spaghetti ($0.67)
  • 4 Tbsp salted butter, divided* ($0.60)
  • 1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper plus more for garnish*, ($0.16)
  • 1 cup Parmesan, grated, plus more for garnish*, ($1.75)

Instructions 

  • In a large skillet bring 6 cups of water and 3/4 teaspoon of salt to a boil. Add the dry spaghetti and cook for two minutes less than the package directions call for.
  • Reserve a cup of pasta water before draining the spaghetti. Place the spaghetti in a bowl and set it close to the stove to keep it warm.
  • In the same pan you cooked the spaghetti, melt 2 tablespoons of butter with the black pepper over medium heat. Cook until fragrant.
  • Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water to the pan and stir until a glossy sauce forms.
  • Turn the heat down to low and add the spaghetti to the pan. Top with the grated parmesan and the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
  • Use tongs to quickly mix the parmesan, butter, spaghetti, and pepper sauce until a creamy sauce forms. Serve immediately and garnish with additional pepper and parmesan cheese.

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Notes

*If using unsalted butter, add 1/4 teaspoon of salt to the sauce.
*If using finely ground black pepper (like the kind that comes pre-ground) use 1/2 teaspoon.
*Try to use fresh parmesan, which will actually melt. If you use the powdery stuff in the green bottle it will leave you with a grainy sauce.

Nutrition

Calories: 410kcalCarbohydrates: 43gProtein: 17gFat: 19gSodium: 930mgFiber: 2g
Read our full nutrition disclaimer here.
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Side shot of finished Cacio e Pepe in a pan with tongs in it.

How to Make Cacio e Pepe – Step by Step Photos

Raw spaghetti in a pan of boiling water.

In a large skillet, bring 6 cups of water and 3/4 teaspoons of salt to a boil. Add a 1/2 pound of dry spaghetti and boil for two minutes less than the package directions call for, until just before al dente.

A ladle reserves pasta water from a pan of cooked spaghetti.

Before draining the spaghetti, reserve 1 cup of pasta water. Once drained, place the spaghetti in a bowl and set it close to the stove to keep it warm.

Pasta water, butter, and pepper in a pan.

In the same skillet you used to cook the spaghetti, melt 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper over medium heat. Simmer the pepper in the melted butter until fragrant.

Hand whisking sauce as it reduces.

Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water to the pan and stir until the sauce becomes glossy and thickens.

Grated parmesan and butter on top of cooked spaghetti.

Turn down the heat from medium to low. Add the spaghetti, the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and the cup of grated parmesan.

Overhead shot of finished Cacio e Pepe in a pan with tongs in it.

Over low heat, use tongs to combine the parmesan, butter, spaghetti, and black pepper sauce until a creamy cheese sauce forms. Add more pasta water to thin the sauce if necessary. If the sauce starts to simmer, take the pan off the heat.

Side shot of finished Cacio e Pepe on a plate with a fork in it.

Plate your Cacio e Pepe immediately and garnish with more grated parmesan and a few more grinds of black pepper. Try not to gobble it up so fast that you cover your cheeks with cheese sauce. (That’s mostly a note for me. I inhaled this stuff so fast, I left Beth clutching her pearls. )

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    1. Hi, Debbie! The cheese likely clumped because the pot or pan you were using was still too hot when the cheese was added. Next time, make sure to take the pan fully off the heat source before adding the pasta water and cheese. Add the pasta water first, if it boils at all, that means the pan is too hot. Continue to stir the pasta and pasta water together, which will help cool it down a little faster. You can also add the cheese in multiple additions — stirring vigorously to incorporate it into the sauce before adding more. I hope you have better luck next time. This is a simple recipe but it can be difficult to execute (especially the first time!), so don’t give up! ~ Marion :)

  1. Fast and TASTY! Highly recommended for a easy January 2nd supper. Happy new year to all!

  2. I think you might’ve gotten your Italian regions slightly confused? Because I live in the north and we love our butter and dairy here haha. Southern Italy is more partial to olive oil :). Also, I compared this recipe to the one on Memorie di Angelina (my go-to source for authentic Italian recipes), and they are rather similar. The only “new” addition seems to be the cornstarch slurry when prepping ahead. So your version really doesn’t stray all that far :) (in case someone was curious about that).

  3. Very easy and goes with just about everything. Depending on my mood, I may alter the black pepper in the recipe. I do even use the parmesan in the green topped container if I really crave this. It is a forgiving recipe.

  4. ” I’m not saying kids are sheep. Sheep listen and don’t talk back. Shepherds had it easy. ” LOL
    I am totally trying this tonight and probably very frequently in the future

  5. Hiiiii welcome to my belly.

    We love cacio e pepe.

    We doubled this recipe and shopping at Kroger it was about $8-10 to feed our whole family.

    Like the BB team said, don’t @ me. I get that this is not how they do it in Italy. But having EATEN this meal in Italy multiple times, this is an amazing fake.

    I’d write more but I’m gonna go hork down another helping while watching re-runs of Dr. Pol.

    TLDR, just make it.

    1. Hi, Mel! Looks like it wasn’t saved for some reason — I’ve added it back, and you will find it in the usual spot (at the bottom of the recipe card)! ~Marion :)