Essential techniques, recipes, and more!
I've always had a thing for tortellini. I like that they look like plump little rings for even littler fingers. I like that they were supposedly inspired by Luciana Borgias' bellybutton. And I like that they're perfectly designed for catching brothy sauces in their folds. I even like that at fancy supermarkets they come in so many flavors. What I don't like is how, once you get them home and cook them up, they taste almost exclusively of dough. I don't know about you, but I have yet to meet a storebought tortellini—fresh, frozen, or dried—that I wanted more than, say, its ravioli counterpart. Which is why I especially like that I can make them myself.
If you're new to making fresh pasta, I've written a pretty thorough guide that you can reference when it comes to dough basics. But in short, all you'll need to get started is all-purpose flour, eggs, and salt. Plus, of course, your tortellini filling. It's not the most challenging of dishes to make, but I'm not gonna lie: In the world of labor-intensive foods, tortellini definitely fall into the realm of time-consuming, repetitive tasks. To make a meal for two will take you around half an hour of piping and folding.
But it's time well-spent, I promise! They're delicate, flavorful showstoppers that also lend themselves well to cooking with a partner or group of friends. Make it a social event and the time will fly.
Traditionally, tortellini are filled with minced and browned veal or pork loin, typically mixed with prosciutto and Parmesan cheese. The petite, plump pasta is served in a simple, sticky beef broth—a soupy winter dish known as tortellini en brodo. But this technique will work with any filling, from ricotta and Parmesan with a dash of nutmeg to butternut squash purée, and beyond. Here's how to get it done.
The very first step should be making your pasta dough and swaddling it tightly in plastic wrap. That way the dough can rest and hydrate while you prepare the filling. As for filling? While you're welcome to go with a classic meat-and-cheese mixture, I decided to stuff my tortellini with a savory mushroom-and-Parmesan filling and serve them in a brown butter sauce.
No matter what ingredients you use to stuff your pasta, it should be the texture of a dry paste—anything looser will make your tortellini prone to leakage and explosion when it comes time to cook them. This means cooking down any moist filling gently until all of its excess moisture is evaporated.
Shaping tortellini may seem daunting but it's really pretty simple, provided you have the right tools. Is it possible to make tortellini without a cookie cutter? Sure. Would I ever in a million years want to? Absolutely not. So before moving forward, make sure you have a round cookie cutter, ring mold, or biscuit cutter on hand. Don't have one? Try a small metal can, like a tomato paste can—my recipe is designed to work with a two-inch circle, but the same principles apply no matter what size you use. If you want to make enormous tortellini (or ridiculously tiny ones), be my guest.
You'll also want to have your filling cooled and ready. For each two-inch circle of dough we'll be working with, you'll want half a teaspoon of filling; if you're comfortable eyeing the amount, use a pastry bag (or a ziplock bag with one corner snipped off) since it's a little faster and neater. Otherwise, just grab a measuring spoon and keep it handy.
Finally, you'll want a pastry brush and a small bowl of water to seal the dough further down the line. Some people use egg whites instead of water, and if you have extra lying around, that's fine; it's just not necessary.
Once all your tools are within easy reach, it's time to start rolling that dough. To keep it from drying out, work with just a quarter of your dough at a time, keeping the rest under plastic or a kitchen towel. Roll it out to just thinner than 1/16th of an inch—usually the second-to-last setting on your pasta machine. Then, lay the dough out on a large, flat surface lightly dusted with flour (semolina flour is ideal, since it won't make your dough gummy if it gets moistened, but all-purpose is perfectly fine).
Working so that there's little-to-no space between the perimeter of each circle, you should be able to get roughly 30 circles from each quarter-batch of dough. You'll want to give the cookie cutter a little twist to make sure it cuts through all the way—there's nothing more annoying than having to go back and re-cut each circle. When they're all stamped, lift the excess dough up and cover all but a couple of circles with a kitchen towel to keep them from drying out.
Place half a teaspoon of filling in the middle of the first circle.
Then take your pastry brush and dip it in the water. Make sure to shake off most of the water before applying it to the dough—we're looking for a very light, thin layer of moisture. If the dough feels like it's sticking to the surface below, you're using too much.
Gently lift one side of the circle up and fold it over the filling to form a semi-circle.
Working from one edge, carefully pressing out any extra air, create a seal around the filling.
It should look like this:
Were you to stop here, you'd have a very small mezzaluna. You can even take a fork and press it like so, for some pretty detailing...
...or just keep that skill in your back pocket for a less labor-intensive meal. Using a three- or four-inch cookie cutter will make it an even easier dish. BUT we're here to make tortellini, so let's proceed.
Pick up both corners of your semi-circle and start bringing them toward each other, working slowly at first to make sure the dough doesn't split or break. You want to bring them all the way together, like so:
Then tuck one corner just behind the other and give them a little squeeze; they should stick together easily, but if they don't you can add an extra dab of water with your fingertip.
And voilà! Tortellini complete. Transfer it to a parchment-lined baking sheet dusted with a little semolina or flour as you work.
As you become more confident and comfortable with the process, you can increase your efficiency by placing ten or so dollops of filling at a time, brushing all ten disks with water, and then folding them one by one.
Once the tortellini are formed, you can also freeze them for later use if you'd like. Transfer the entire baking sheet of completed tortellini to the freezer and let them freeze solid. Transfer them to a zipper-lock freezer bag, squeeze out any excess air, and they'll stay good to go for about a month before the pasta begins to dry out. Frozen tortellini can be cooked straight from the freezer (about about a minute to the cook time, more or less depending on how large you made your tortellini)
Drop them into salted boiling water for four to five minutes and serve them with a drizzle of olive oil or a ladleful of brown butter, with some Parmesan cheese to top.
Yeah, you'll be feeling pretty good about yourself right about now.