I can see you out there, skipping the pasta water steps of pasta preparation—the reserving some of the starchy pasta water, and the tossing the cooked pasta and sauce with the pasta water to bring everything together. I can see you, being skeptical of the necessity of these steps. I see it! It makes me sick.
Maybe you feel that you can get away with this baloney, this vile shirking, when you are making ragù. Fine. Fine! Suit yourself! See if I care. But you cannot do this with cacio e pepe. Or anyway I hope that you will not. If you skip the pasta water steps with cacio e pepe, then you are just making pasta with cheese and pepper.
Cacio e pepe, for those unfamiliar, is … well, uh, it’s pasta … with cheese and pepper. The name literally means “cheese and pepper” (cacio is just another Italian word for cheese). When Italian speakers, Romans specifically, say that they are making cacio e pepe, they are literally saying that they are making cheese and pepper. They are not saying that they are making cheese and pepper and pasta water. You could say that this fatally undermines the thrust of the previous paragraph, if you want to be a real big-time jerk.
I hope to persuade you anyway. At any time you are free to cook some spaghetti and simply toss it with some cheese and pepper. That is fine, assuming the cheese is safe to eat; by the time I was 25 I had done this, at a conservative estimate, eleventy billion times. But! Adhering (this is a pun) to the pasta water steps transform the whole deal, from just some shit you threw together to land in your stomach like a bowling ball and make you fall asleep into something much more exciting than mere pasta with cheese and pepper, something worth reserving (another pun!) the name cacio e pepe for.
I will prove it. Or rather I will help you prove it to yourself, through the power of blogs. Let’s make some cacio e pepe.
Here are some things that you will need. Not many things!
You will need some pasta. This should just be spaghetti, though if you want to go for bucatini I will not fuss about it; sometimes one simply must have the heartier bite of bucatini. I suppose it’s possible that you live in “a fancy place” or even possibly “Italy” but anyway somewhere with “culture” and/or “lots of pasta-makers trying to distinguish and sell their pasta,” in which case, wow, look at you, Captain Fancyplace/Italy; maybe you can and will decide you want to score one of the very many slightly thicker varieties of (for all practical purposes) spaghetti that do business under other names. Suit yourself. I recommend: Spaghetti.
If you are not serving your cacio e pepe as part of a multi-course meal, but rather as a main course with maybe like a salad or some vegetation on the side to make the whole thing seem a little less grotesquely imbalanced toward those foodstuffs most compatible with death, then I recommend assuming that each adult might eat as much as a third of a pound of pasta; this may not be the case, but then you will have enough. For the purposes of this blog, let’s proceed as though you are using one pound of pasta, and then you can do the math to scale things up as necessary.
You will need pecorino cheese, ideally grated yourself, by hand, but in a sealed tub if that’s all you can get; around two thirds of a cup (measuring after grating) per pound of pasta, with maybe a little extra. This should be pecorino Romano, which is convenient since that’s by far the easiest sort of pecorino to come by in North America, where I am writing this blog. Under the strict and unlikely circumstance that you live in a place where one simply cannot get any pecorino whatsoever via any practical means, I will grudgingly forgive swapping in Parmigiano Reggiano, since that’s the one Italian hard cheese you can find pretty much anywhere, in exchange for the solemn vow that before you die, you will make cacio e pepe with pecorino cheese, or at the very least take a trip to a place where it can be had, and have it.
The thing is, this food does not have a lot of ingredients. In fact it has, depending on how you regard the slight application of oil and herbs that you will apply to it after it is finished cooking and on the plate, somewhere between four and six total ingredients. The closest thing to a star ingredient that it has, flavorwise, is the cheese. What I am getting at here is that while you certainly can use the waxy pre-grated stuff trafficked as parmesan in green shaker cans at many of our nation’s normal grocery stores and supermarkets—just in the sense that I cannot stop you from doing that except by attempting to talk you out of it—there is no particular reason to attempt cacio e pepe at all in that case.
I’m sorry if that seems snobbish; it isn’t intended to be. I have enjoyed a hundred times and will enjoy again simple bowls of spaghetti tossed with the very most dishonorable of jarred tomato sauces and then topped with the most suspect of grated cheese; I have eagerly shaken that same grade of cheese out of the lil’ grenade-shaped glass cheese-shakers onto the most haphazardly chosen slice-joint pizza slices, and wolfed the result down with a spiral-eyed trancelike fervency that would have gotten me burned at the stake in earlier eras. It’s fine. Food needn’t be reputable to be delicious. The point here is that the reason to make cacio e pepe, out of all the things to make with a pound of pasta, is that you have some really fucking good pecorino cheese to do it with; if you do not have some really fucking good pecorino cheese to do it with, it is fine simply to do something else, and bide your time until you can get some really fucking good pecorino cheese with which to make cacio e pepe. That is what I recommend, anyway.
You will need black pepper, somewhere in the neighborhood of a tablespoon per pound of pasta. Here once again I must note, annoyingly, that while this certainly can be the pre-ground stuff, it really shouldn’t be; that stuff is not nearly as fragrant or sharp as when you grind the actual peppercorns yourself at or only shortly before the moment of their usage. Even using three times as much of the pre-ground stuff won’t get you there. It simply doesn’t taste as good.
I don’t recommend, like, standing over the cooked pasta later on, grinding and grinding and grinding pepper with your pepper mill. For one thing because that’s miserable, but also because I don’t want your pasta to sit there, neglected, while you grind pepper over it. So it’s OK to grind some pepper into a little bowl beforehand. Just not too far beforehand, lest you lose its fragrance and potency. Not the day beforehand. Maybe like, 10 minutes beforehand. Maybe while the pasta is boiling.
You will need salt. Strictly speaking you will not need extra-virgin olive oil or chopped parsley, but personally I am fussy about dressing pasta with some fresh oil and herbs and it just looks weird and unfinished on a plate to me if it doesn’t have fresh oil and herbs on it; when I made the cacio e pepe in the photo up there, as you can see, I dressed it with a little bit of oil and herbs. That’s really it. You will need water, but I consider that too obvious for boldfacing, and no one can tell me otherwise.
As for hardware, naturally you will need a pasta pot. You’ll need two reasonably long-handled cooking implements (spoons, those weird pasta-spoon things, serving or dinner forks, a couple of clean windshield scrapers, you get the idea) or, failing that, a big pair of tongs, for tossing the pasta. Two big forks is the ideal for this, but I trust you to figure something out. You will need a colander, and also a heat-resistant measuring cup or mug or bowl for gathering and reserving a little starchy pasta water later on. You’re going to want about half a cup of pasta water per pound of pasta.
In many traditional cacio e pepe preparations, as with the ultimately pretty similar fettuccine Alfredo, the cooked pasta is tossed together with the other stuff in a big huge serving bowl. That’s basically fine, but it’s not what I want you to do today, for reasons that will be clear later on, probably because I will decide to enumerate them explicitly down below, when I get there. Who can say. Let’s move on. To the cooking part!
Fill that pasta pot with water and heat it on the stove. When it’s hot but maybe not quite yet boiling, add salt to the water and taste it. This will not be the most helpful or specific of instructions, but I encourage you to take it as a sign of the great trust between us and of my faith in your judgment, rather than as a sign of me being very lazy and bad at this job: The water should taste like salt but not, like, really salty. You do not need really salty pasta-water for this. The cheese is plenty salty, and there will be plenty of it. All the same you do want the pasta and the pasta-water to pull their own weight, flavorwise, and for that the pasta water needs salt.
I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be. Please just put some salt in the friggin’ water and taste it. Does it taste OK? Then it is OK.
When the water comes to a nice energetic boil, dump the pasta in there, stir it around for a few moments, and set a timer. The timer should be for the number of minutes the pasta’s packaging says will make it al dente, minus one minute.
This is not because the pasta’s packaging is wrong; the people who made it certainly know their pasta and its attributes better than I do. This is because the pasta is going to get some additional cooking after you remove it from the water, and you do not want it to become mushy. So like, for example, the spaghetti in the photo up there, the package says 12 minutes to fully cooked, 10 minutes to al dente, so I boiled it for nine minutes; by the time I was done doing what else this preparation requires doing to it, it was al dente.
While the pasta is cooking is a good time to do some of the other very few cooking tasks involved with this: Shredding the cheese if you haven’t already, grinding the pepper if you haven’t already, putting on some pants if you haven’t already. By the time you are done doing this stuff, you will have done like … 90 percent? … of the cooking. This really is very simple stuff. You could even say that it’s insulting to presume it justifies an entire blog, but surely you would not say something as rude as that.
OK! Did the timer go off? Shit! I mean to stop you like 30 seconds ago. Let’s go back in time. When there’s less than a minute left on the timer, working quickly, extract around a half-cup of pasta water per pound of pasta; you can ladle it into a bowl or mug or you can dunk the mug straight in there or whatever. Now it is OK for the timer to go off. Let’s skip ahead to when that happens.
Hey, would you look at that, the timer has gone off. Drain the pasta, with no worries that you forgot to reserve any of the pasta water, because clearly you already remembered to do it, one paragraph ago. Return the pot to medium heat on the stove and dump the drained spaghetti, the pepper, and the pasta water into the pot.
Grab your implements! It is time to toss and toss and toss and toss the pasta. That’s tossing and not stirring: Slide your implements down under the pasta, lift it without squeezing tightly, and let it fall, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat, with an eye to making sure that you’re not just tossing the same couple of strands each time, but rather getting to all of it in equal measure.
Your wrists will get a little sore, and you will continue tossing. The aroma of warm black pepper will waft up to your nose and cause you to drool disgustingly, and you will continue tossing. The stars will wheel through the sky in their cosmic indifference to your hunger and impatience and the soreness in your wrists, drifting into new and horrifying constellations signaling eldritch horrors beyond humankind’s comprehension, and still you will toss and toss. For several minutes anyway.
What is happening all the while is, the pasta is absorbing a little bit of the moisture from that pasta water; at the same time, the heat is causing the rest of it to evaporate, slowly. As it does, it gradually reduces to a starchy goo, a sauce, which coats the pasta and makes it sticky and gives it a satin sheen. I promise this is happening while you are tossing, and I also promise that if it is not happening then it is because you and not I screwed up somehow.
After a few minutes, the pasta will have become sticky with this goo, and there will not be a bunch of runny water in there with it anymore. Now it is time to chuck the grated cheese in there and, guess what, you’re not gonna believe this, do a couple more minutes of patient tossing and tossing, juuuust until the cheese is all melted and distributed among all the spaghetti. (You waited to do this until after you’d reduced the pasta water because otherwise, by the time you’d finished reducing the pasta water, the cheese would all have melted down and stuck to the bottom of the pot, a terrible waste of precious cheese.)
That was it. That really was it! Turn the heat off. What you have now, in that pot, is saucy and velvety and rich and unified; it is not just noodles with cheese and pepper on and among them. It is those things brought together, by the miraculous pasta water, into something new and whole that coats your tongue and floods your senses, that needs its own name (even if that name, as we have discussed, just amounts to listing the ingredients in another langauge): cacio e pepe. Serve it immediately.
You can pile this into a big serving dish and dress it with a drizzle of oil and some of that chopped parsley and a scattering of however much of the pecorino you held back, or you can twirl big gorgeous tangles of it onto individual dishes and then dress each one. I recommend something cold and/or acidic and/or sparkly to drink, for cutting through the impossible richness between bites, if you can break away from your cacio e pepe long enough to drink, or to breathe. Good luck with that.