Not since the success of chex mix chicken tenders has a dish has garnered as much triumphant excitement in my kitchen as this one-skillet cacio e pepe rigatoni.
If you don't know what cacio e pepe is, it's an Italian pasta dish whose name translates literally as "cheese and pepper." (I can never quite pronounce it right, so click here to hear the correct pronunciation).
So yes, cacio e pepe is a cheesy, peppery pasta — like a very fancy kind of mac and cheese. It's so, so good and just extremely comforting to eat on those nights when you just can't be bothered to make something with more than 4 ingredients.
Traditional cacio e pepe is one of those so-simple-it's-complicated pasta dishes where everything needs to be done just right. Done correctly, the pecorino romano cheese and starchy pasta water form a velvety sauce that evenly coats the noodles.
Do even a single step incorrectly, however, and the pecorino cheese clumps up, creating a stringy and unappetizing mess.
Personally, I have very little patience for dishes that require that level of precision. I respect the heck out of the finesse and technique and anyone who can pull them off, and I will gladly order those dishes in restaurants.
But when I'm cooking at home on a regular weeknight, I don't find it enjoyable to chase perfection. I want reliability and I want room for error.
As we were packing up our apartment to move last month, I found myself making a lot of those one-skillet pasta dishes where you add just enough water that it absorbs into the pasta or evaporates by the time the noodles are done cooking.
Mostly I made variations on this Martha Stewart genius recipe, but as we ran out of tomatoes and basil I began combing through the fridge to see what else I could work with. The end of a wedge of pecorino romano and small block of parmesan cheese caught my eye.
What about one-skillet cacio e pepe? a little voice whispered in my head. Jimmy had made cacio e pepe the traditional way a few times before (with moderate success) so we put our heads together and came up with a recipe we thought might work.
Would the cheese clump up if we added it at the beginning? Would the cheese prevent the pasta from absorbing the water? Would we end up with a silky sauce or a sticky mess?
The only way to find out was to give it a try.
I am so pleased to report that even our very first attempt at one-skillet cacio e pepe worked beautifully. That's how foolproof this recipe is. We were elated.
There were a few moments of panic where it looked like maybe the cheese wouldn't melt or that the water wouldn't absorb, but in the end, it worked perfectly. And that's that on trying new things in the kitchen even when you aren't sure how they'll go!
Blooming the pepper in the butter before you add the pasta to the pan helps the pepper flavor absorb into the noodles so there's a bit of a peppery kick, but it's evenly distributed rather than just when you bite into a chunk of peppercorn.
The pasta cooks to a perfect al dente texture, and the blend of cheeses melts and combines with the starchy pasta water forming a silky, cheesy sauce that evenly coats the noodles.
Like I said, I have little patience for finicky recipes that require perfection. When I want a one-skillet recipe, I want something foolproof. And the method we settled on for this one-skillet cacio e pepe is basically that.
It may not be perfectly traditional, but it requires very little perfection to make a cheesy, peppery pasta dish that's nothing short of perfect.
a few quick notes
- My preference is to use rigatoni here but you can use any short, twisted, or tube-shaped pasta you like. I haven't tried it with long skinny noodles and I don't see why it wouldn't work with them, but the sauce is best imo when it can get into all the nooks and crannies of the more interestingly shaped pastas.
- You must use pecorino romano and parmesan cheese. You can't use all pecorino or all parmesan. The two cheeses melt very differently (parmesan melts quickly, pecorino does not). If you try to use just one of the two cheeses I can't make any promises for how successfully this will turn out.
- I make no promises for how this will work if you use the pre-grated cheeses. Get the whole bricks or wedges and use a microplane or the small holes on a box grater. You'll get the best results that way.
- The recipe calls for 3 cups of water for 8 ounces of pasta, but depending on the size of your skillet and how much pasta you're using you may need to adjust. My rule of thumb is that you should have just enough water to mostly cover the pasta, but that it's okay if some of the pasta pieces are only partially submerged. It's easier to add more water if you need it than to remove water if you add too much, so err on the side of less to start.
- Set your timer according to the package directions for al dente pasta. If the water completely boils away before the timer is done, add a splash more as needed until the pasta is cooked through. Test a noodle for doneness before you remove the skillet from the heat.
one-skillet cacio e pepe rigatoni
- 2 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 8 oz rigatoni
- 3 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup parmesan cheese (fresh and finely grated)
- ½ cup pecorino romano cheese (fresh and finely grated)
- Melt butter over medium heat. As soon as butter is fully melted, add pepper, and cook until quite fragrant, about 30-60 seconds.
- Add the water, then the pasta and the salt. You may need slightly less or slightly more than 3 cups of water, depending on the size of your skillet — just enough to barely cover the pasta. It's okay if bits of pasta are poking above the water, as long as most of the pasta is covered.
- Crank the heat to high. As soon as the water starts boiling, set a timer for the "al dente" cooking duration on the pasta box. Stir frequently to prevent the pasta from sticking to the bottom of the skillet. The water will bubble vigorously and there will be lots of steam as the water absorbs into the pasta and evaporates simultaneously. Just keep stirring. Add a splash more water if needed, but try to resist — trust the process.
- When there's about 2 minutes left on your timer, start adding the cheese about ⅓ cup at a time. Stir constantly to keep the pasta and cheese from clumping on the bottom of the pan. When the timer is up, test a noodle to make sure it's done. If the noodles aren't done, cook for another minute or so stirring constantly.
- Remove the pan from the heat and continue stirring off heat until all the cheese has melted and formed a glossy, shiny sauce that clings and evenly coats the noodles.
- Serve immediately.