Making the best Cacio e Pepe starts with using the best pepper. Find out what ones to use as well as the other ingredients to finish out this simple, yet delicious dish.
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Making great Cacio e Pepe comes down to two things - technique and ingredients. Alton Brown helped me get the technique down.
As for the ingredients, I have collected the best individual ingredients I could find to make the best tasting dish. Cacio e Pepe is a dish of simple ingredients, where the quality of those ingredients can really make the dish something special.
With the ingredients we share in this post, you can take a dish that is great and make it "hall of fame worthy" 🙂
Most Cacio e Pepe recipes begin with these ingredients
- Long pasta
- Hard, aged cheese
- Fat (olive oil or butter)
The take on them varies from recipe to recipe and some add in additional ingredients.
🍴 Popular Recipes
I did some research on some of the most popular Cacio e Pepe recipes, to see how they differed in ingredients. Here are my findings:
|Chrissy Teign||Adds Pancetta, lemon juice, red pepper flakes and arugula. Uses only Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese|
|Giada De Laurentiis||Much the same as Chrissy, but does add in Pecorino Romano|
|Smitten Kitchen||Sticks to just 3 ingredients - spaghetti, Pecorino Romano, and pepper|
|Bon Appetit||Recommends along with spaghetti using bucatini or egg tagliolini|
Adds butter. Recipe has a higher percentage of Parmesan than Pecorino
|Anthony Bourdain||No oil, butter instead. Pecorino only.|
Read our review of Alton Brown's Cacio e Pepe recipe
As you can see there is many ways you can tweak it. But it really comes down to the cheese, the pasta, and the pepper. You nail it on those ingredients and you are going to have a winner.
✈️ Best Pepper
Cacio e Pepe means "cheese and pepper". Both of them are integral to the dish. I am going to give pepper just a slight edge here over cheese - that's a rare situation in my house. But I truly think that the dish is as good as the pepper you use, more so than the cheese.
If you pick out the pre-ground stuff from the store, your dish will be missing life. You need that aromatic element provided by freshly cracked peppercorns.
For that I turn to my favorite spice purveyor - Burlap & Barrel. They are a single origin spice company that works directly with the growers, cutting out the middle man, and obtaining a fresher product.
Burlap & Barrel carries 4 different types of peppercorns - Zanzibar Black Peppercorns, Robusta Black Peppercorns, Purple Peppercorns, and Fermented White Pepper.
- Zanzibar Black Peppercorns - Winner of the Gold medal for quality by Monde Selection source, grown by a cooperative of small farmers on the Zanzibar islands off of the eastern coast of Tanzania.
- Robusta Black Peppercorns - These peppercorns from Vietnam have the classic pepper flavor that we all love.
- Purple Peppercorns - Vine-ripened peppercorns grown by two friends on a small, organic farm in Vietnam.
- Fermented White Pepper - White peppercorns are fermented via traditional methods in Bangka Island in Indonesia.
What I love is doing a 50/50 mix of the purple and fermented white pepper. The purple adds a fruity, spicy kick while the fermented white adds a funky umami flavor. Simply amazing.
🍝 Spaghetti vs. Bucatini
The majority of the recipes call for spaghetti. I myself am a Bucatini fan. I like this pasta because it's thicker, giving you more to bite into. And you'll love the little holes in the middle.
Bucatini does take longer to cook so you may need to watch the water level more closely when using it as a substitute for spaghetti.
Also, it's vital to choose bronze die pasta. This means the pasta was extruded through bronze dies instead of a non-stick material. While it's hard to clean up, the pasta will have a rougher exterior. This helps sauces adhere to it better, which is especially important in Cacio e Pepe.
🧀 Pecorino Romano Cheese
In case you didn't know, Pecorino Romano is a sheep's milk cheese. Pecorino actually means "of sheep" in Italian. The cheese has a pleasantly sharp & salty flavor. Depending on how salty your cheese is, you may want to adjust the salt in your recipe.
If you can find it, buy it whole and grate it yourself. Not every store carries it but many do. I can count on Trader Joe's to have it, but it's usually grated already. It will do if you are not able to find anything else.
🛢️ No Oil?
Could you make it without oil? Sure. The starchy water, combined with the cheese is amazingly enough to bring a sauce together. The oil does add a fruity element which I like.
Some recipes call for butter. Normally I don't balk at using butter, but in my opinion, I think the dish is creamy enough without it. I would rather have the flavor of a good olive oil.
🍽️ Our Recipe
The recipe I have settled on as my favorite is Alton Brown's with some modifications. Instead of spaghetti, I of course use Bucatani. And I use 100% Pecorino Romano instead of adding some Parmesan. I figure Parmesan gets enough use in my household, give the full spotlight to Pecorino - plus it's so stinking good.
I also use less salt and pepper than Alton because I felt his was too strong, plus the Burlap & Barrel pepper I use packs enough flavor you don't need 2 tablespoons of it!
Bucatini Cacio e Pepe
- 1 pound Bucatini pasta bronze dyed if you can
- ½ tbsp Burlap & Barrel Purple Peppercorns cracked
- ½ tbsp Burlap & Barrel Fermented White Pepper cracked
- 5 ounces Pecorino Roman cheese
- ⅓ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 cup starchy pasta water
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- Combine pasta and salt in a high sided saute pan.
- Add enough cold water to cover the pasta. Cover the pan if you have a lid. Bring to a boil over high heat.
- When water reaches a boil, remove the lid and stir with a pair of tongs.
- Decrease the heat to medium. Make sure the pasta remains submerged. Only add more water if the pan looks dry.
- While pasta is cooking, in a large mixing bowl combine the pepper, olive oil, cheese. You can save a little bit of these cheese if you want for topping of the pasta at the end.
- Combine the ingredients until they form a thick paste and set aside.
- After 5 minutes of simmering, ladle a cup of the water into a measuring cup.
- Start with a ¾ cup and slowly drizzle the bowl with the cheese. Combine until smooth. If too clumbly you can add more of the water.
- At about the 10-12 minute mark, the pasta should be al dente. Check frequently for doneness.
- Using tongs, remove the pasta from the pan, allowing it to drain in midair for a few seconds before adding it to the mixing bowl.
- Stir vigorously with the tongs for 2 minutes. It may look like it’s not going to come together, but give it time and a lot of force. If it’s still too clumby add more cooking water.
- Serving pipping hot!
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