Published January 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
Store-bought cheese ravioli offer convenience, but would any pass muster?
Ravioli is Italian for “little turnips,” but these squares or rounds typically encase a filling of meat or cheese. Homemade versions can take most of an afternoon to cut and press by hand. Store-bought cheese ravioli—machine-punched from sheets of pasta sandwiched around mounds of filling—offer convenience, but would any pass muster? We wanted a flavorful, cheesy filling and no structural issues: Ravioli need a thick enough pasta wrapping so they won’t burst in rapidly boiling water and a generous cheese-to-pasta ratio.
We rounded up five nationally available brands (four frozen and one refrigerated), and boiled them before tossing them with a small amount of neutral-tasting, plain olive oil. Then we called tasters to lunch.
The brands that we liked best had the most cheese per square (or round), with almost 1 gram of filling for every 2 grams of pasta. Our favorite provided “a burst of creamy cheese” with every bite and a “perfect dough-to-filling ratio”; the runner-up had enough “creamy, plush, rich” cheese for tasters to detect it melting as they ate. All of the brands we sampled remained intact in boiling water, but some had shells so thick and doughy, we were left searching for the filling. “Need more cheese!” tasters grumbled.
Cheese type also factored into our selection, with tasters preferring brands stuffed with enough nutty, glutamate-rich Parmesan and Romano to round out their use of ricotta. A ravioli that relied on cracker meal as a secondary ingredient got thoroughly panned—“Honestly, I can’t taste any flavor at all in the filling,” one taster put it. A light hand with herbs and spices was also key. “Taste herbs and pepper, not cheese,” some complained of the low-ranking brand. One ravioli with dehydrated onions drew complaints for a “pasty” texture and a flavor like “onion powder overload!” The right amount of seasoning was another predictor of success. Brands with less sodium per serving were “terribly bland,” tasting “like chewy plastic” or “more like pasta water than pasta or cheese.”
The brand we liked best had everything we wanted: a “creamy, plush, rich” blend of three cheeses, enough salt to bring these flavors forth, and a “perfect dough-to-filling ratio.” Its uniform squares will never pass for homemade, but they got better than passing marks.