Published April 1, 2012. From Cook's Country.
Is store-bought tortellini any good?
Tortellini, a stuffed ring-shaped pasta filled with meat, cheese, vegetables, or a combination of the three, is traditionally made by hand. And gently tucking it into shape is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon—a very long afternoon. But if we want to eat tortellini more than once or twice a year, we needed to find a supermarket brand that we like. We gathered seven widely available prepared brands of cheese tortellini: two refrigerated, two dried, and three frozen. Then we called 21 editors and test cooks to the lunch table for a blind taste test.
Supermarket tortellini is formed by a machine that rolls and slices pasta dough into flat squares and then fills the squares and folds them into rings. Whether handmade or commercial, tortellini has two basic elements: the pasta wrapper and the filling. Their ratio is important. Too much filling and the little pouch will burst. Too little, or too mild, and all we taste is pasta. The thickness of the pasta wrapper is also important. It must be sturdy enough to hold the filling and withstand boiling but not be so thick that it becomes doughy, especially with its folded over and doubled edges. We sought both great flavor and a delicate pasta package.
To begin, did it matter whether the pasta was refrigerated, dried, or frozen? Many pasta fanatics insist that fresh is better than dried or frozen. While we had no fresh pasta in our lineup, we did include two slightly pricier refrigerated brands. Surprisingly, one finished third, behind a dry and a frozen brand, and the second dead last. The third-place finisher earned praise for its “firm and chewy” pasta, but its faint filling left something to be desired. Weak flavor also accounted for the last-place finish of the other refrigerated pasta. Our winner was a dried tortellini. A cheese filling that sits on the shelf may seem suspect, but companies use a special drying procedure to ensure a safe product: After the tortellini are formed, they’re run through a steam pasteurization machine until their centers reach a safe temperature. Then they are dried, stabilized, and packed for distribution. Cooking reconstitutes the dried tortellini.
A flavorful filling proved much more important than the type of pasta. We flipped over each package and perused the nutrition label for clues as to what makes for great filling. The winner was stuffed with a mixture of ricotta, Emmentaler, and Grana Padano cheeses. Tasters described it as “creamy,” “pungent,” and “tangy.” Salt, of course, also has a big impact on flavor, so we cooked and measured out 100 grams of each tortellini and sent them to an independent laboratory for sodium analysis. As is often the case at America’s Test Kitchen, we liked salt. At 310 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, our winning tortellini had the highest sodium level among all the brands we tested. Cheese is often high in sodium, especially pungent hard cheeses like Grana Padano, so we weren’t surprised that our winner boasted both bold cheese flavor and lots of salt. And while salt levels alone didn’t track perfectly with our ratings, our bottom brand, deemed “flavorless” by tasters, had the least salt in our lineup: 120 milligrams per 100 grams.
The thickness of the pasta wrapper affected our rankings, too. After tasters complained of “gummy” and “doughy” pasta, we brought calipers into the kitchen to measure the thickness of each wrapper and found that the figure varied from 1.2 millimeters to 2.38. The two brands that tasters found too thick measured 2.25 and 2.38 millimeters. We preferred wrappers that measured 1.8 millimeters or fewer.
Our winning brand combined “tender and delicate” pasta (1.35 millimeters thick) with a creamy, flavorful cheese filling. The fact that it’s dried, so we can keep a bag in our pantry, is a plus. A quick-cooking pantry staple means dinner can be on the table pronto.
*Sodium levels were analyzed by an independent laboratory and are expressed in milligrams per 100 grams.