Cheesy, rich, and a little indulgent, this Vegan Cacio e Pepe is basically grown up mac and cheese. With only a few simple ingredients, this simple and easy dish packs a mighty bunch of flavor in a sophisticated and feels-fancy package.
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Hey Internet, I am so excited to share this recipe with you today. Termed grown up mac and cheese, it’s actually more like the O.G. mac and cheese.
The traditional cacio e pepe (pronounced kah-chee-o ee peh-peh) involves starchy pasta water, pecorino romano cheese, and black pepper. Even the name is literally ‘cheese and pepper’ in Italian.
So, this deviates a little bit since we aren’t using cheese. I definitely garnished this with a (liberal) sprinkle of vegan parmesan cheese…
But I didn’t want it to be a necessary ingredient for folks that may not have access to vegan parmesan.
So, the ingredients I use are pretty much what you’d have hanging out in your cupboard or at your local grocery store.
But don’t let that fool you… this vegan cacio e pepe is so incredibly delicious, easy to make, and boy, does it feel like a sophisticated dish you could serve guests. It’s also fast enough for a simple weeknight meal.
I love how quickly this simple, no-fuss meal comes together. Blend up the sauce, pour it on the pasta, mix it in, sprinkle with cheese and pepper--and serve.
A blended sauce is definitely not authentic for this dish, but it helps make up for the lack of cheese and it really does taste amazing. Try it, seriously.
What You’ll Need
- Pasta: While any pasta will work, a nice spaghetti is best for this recipe. Use gluten-free pasta to make this dish gluten-free. Technically, tonnarelli is the most traditional pasta for cacio e pepe. However, it can be challenging to find. I like to use spaghetti or bucatini. For these photos, I used Signature Reserve bronze cut slow dried spaghetti and let me tell you… it was fantastic. Big difference from regular spaghetti, but not as thick and firm as bucatini. It was almost… fluffy? Worth it.
- Pasta water: When you’re finished boiling the pasta, strain in a colander over a large bowl or measuring cup to reserve the pasta water--you’ll need around a cup and a quarter but feel free to over-reserve and measure out what you place in the blender. If you forget, it’s not the end of the world--you can use unsweetened non-dairy milk or regular water to blend it--but there’s something luscious and amazing about using the cooking water. A lot of starch from the pasta is released into it, and this helps emulsify the sauce and helps it stick to the pasta when you mix it all together. Try it--you won’t be disappointed in this classic sauce-method that Italian dishes are famous for.
- Raw sunflower seeds: Raw cashews, white beans, or silken tofu are all good substitutes for the sunflower seeds here. Steamed cauliflower may also work. I like to use raw sunflower seeds because they are far cheaper than cashews, but richer than beans or tofu and create a lovely creamy sauce. They’re also not slightly sweet like cashews are.
- Olive oil, optional: You don’t absolutely need olive oil in the sauce but it adds to the creaminess and the flavor of the sauce. If not using oil, just add a little bit more starchy pasta water.
- Garlic: This is not a traditional ingredient in this recipe either, but I found it was a great addition that added some aromatic qualities to this dish that it was missing without the pecorino romano.
- Nutritional yeast: This is almost necessary to replace the cheesy flavor in the sauce. If you hate nutritional yeast I would substitute your favorite vegan cheese (yes, put it straight in the blender)--vegan parmesan or similar would be best here.
- White or yellow miso paste: Miso is great in this because it not only gives it a salty flavor (we aren’t adding any other salt) but it also gives it a really delicious umami type of flavor that we’re missing without adding dairy cheese. It’s delicious, good for you (probiotic!), and it really enhances the dish. Choose mellow white or yellow miso for this dish--don’t use another kind as it will change the flavor profile. If you are soy-free, look for chickpea miso at your local health food store or in an Asian grocery. If you can’t find the miso, just use salt to taste. Start with a teaspoon of sea salt, blend, taste, and adjust as needed. You can also salt your individual bowl.
- Half a lemon: Just a small amount of fresh lemon juice adds a little freshness and lightness here and brings out the rest of the flavor.
- Freshly cracked black pepper: Since pepper is literally in the name of this dish, I recommend not skimping and going for freshly cracked black peppercorns. Freshly ground black pepper (by you, with a pepper mill) is SO MUCH BETTER than pre-ground black pepper that you buy at the store. I used to think this was a snobby thing--before I actually tried it. I always thought I just didn’t like black pepper. Well, that’s because I never tried it freshly cracked. If you aren’t into freshly cracked black pepper yet, this might just convince you. Oh, and you as much as your heart desires. I recommend grinding it right over your bowl of finished pasta, rather than blending it into the sauce.
- Vegan Parmesan, optional: While you don’t need this because the vegan cacio e pepe sauce is so good you could drink it with a straw, it’s the icing on the cake to sprinkle on a little vegan parmesan. I recommend buying a vegan parmesan block like Violife so you can finely grate it yourself. Some of the shredded vegan parmesan at the store is really big and I don’t like it as much, but that’s a personal preference. You could also use a homemade vegan parmesan topping if you don’t want to use store bought cheese, just sprinkle on a little more nutritional yeast, or just leave it with the pepper on top because honestly it’s so good even without the cheese on it.
How to Make Vegan Cacio e Pepe
- Note: If you do not have a high powered blender like a Vitamix, I advise you to soak your raw sunflower seeds (or cashews) in just boiled water until you’re ready to make the sauce--then make sure to drain them before adding them to the blender. This will help ensure your sauce is very smooth, not gritty.
- Start by cooking your pasta because you need the water from the cooked pasta to make your sauce. Because the miso is plenty salty, you might not want to salt your pasta water since we’ll be adding over a cup of the pasta water to the sauce. If you prefer to salt your pasta water, then use less miso/salt and add to taste.
- Once the pasta is cooked through, strain it in a colander positioned over a large bowl or measuring cup in the sink. Aim to get at least 2 cups so you have plenty.
- Add the sunflower seeds to the blender and add at least a cup of the starchy pasta water. I ended up using 1 + ¼ cups but you may need less.
- Add the olive oil, garlic cloves, nutritional yeast, miso paste, and lemon juice to the blender and blend until super smooth--I like to do a full minute in the blender. If you do not have a high powered blender, you may need to stop and let your blender rest--that’s how my old blender was.
- Add the sauce to the pasta, toss to combine and serve as much pasta into as many bowls as you’d like. Top with a liberal amount of freshly cracked black pepper (to taste) and sprinkle with some vegan parmesan if you’d like. Enjoy!
- You could definitely serve this with some veggies--it’d be great with some sauteed mushrooms, steamed broccoli, roasted brussels sprouts, or a side salad.
- Like most pasta dishes, this vegan cacio e pepe is best on the first night, but you can store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days in an airtight container.
Other Incredible Vegan Pasta Dishes You’ll Love
If you loved my vegan cacio e pepe, I bet you’ll also love some of these other pasta dishes.
- Vegan Carbonara
- Vegan Baked Mac and Cheese
- Lemon Tahini Broccolini Fettuccine
- Vegan Vodka Sauce (with pasta)
- Vegan Pasta Puttanesca
- Cashew Pesto (with pasta)
- Vegan Garlic Noodles
- Vegan Pasta Primavera
As always, I hope you love this recipe--I know I do, and Mr. Zardyplants does too. He gave me very high praise each time I made it… and that makes me so happy. :)
This vegan cacio e pepe is:
- A little indulgent in the best way
- A little cheesy
- A little peppery
- Kinda fancy
- And perfect for a quick and satisfying family dinner, but impressive enough to serve guests!
Let me know in the comments below if you make this recipe or tag me @Zardyplants on Instagram so I can see your beautiful recreations! If you tag me on IG, I will share your post in my stories :)
Also, one quick request: if you love how this recipe looks or tastes, please leave me a 5-star rating and a nice comment–ratings help more people find my recipes which helps me keep providing them! Thank you!