Dinner Tonight: Tortellini with Brown Butter and Sage Recipe

Brown butter with sage is almost archetypal, but the deliciousness (and simplicity of preparation) of brown butter never ceases to amaze me. The process is simply to cook butter gently in a skillet until the water in the butter has evaporated, which allows the temperature of the fat to begin rising. If there were, say, onions in the pan also, the heat would transfer to them and they would begin to caramelize—but with nothing else but the butter, it's the milk solids that begin to brown. In no time, the butter takes on marvelous depth of flavor and a mouthwatering nuttiness. It can be used in any number of sauces, but something about it is just a perfect match for the woodsy flavor of sage leaves that crisp up in the pan.

The other classic combination here is to serve brown butter with pumpkin or butternut squash ravioli. But for a quick meal, it's an unlikely candidate. I find the quality of frozen tortellini is usually pretty decent, so it's become a quick lazy dinner. Filled pasta could also be replaced with a good spaghetti or other shape. The sage leaves can be left whole, or for less unwieldy mouthfuls, sliced into strips. I like to add a splash of lemon juice to balance the richness of the brown butter, and when I'm feeling reckless, a shower of Parmesan cheese doesn't hurt.


  • 1/2 pound dry pasta or two servings of frozen tortellini
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup sage leaves, about 10 to 15, left whole or thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, or to taste
  • Freshly grated black pepper
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly grated Parmesan (optional)


  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil; add salt. Cook the pasta or tortellini according to package instructions, then drain.

  2. In a small skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Continue cooking until the butter begins to brown, keeping a very close watch to ensure it doesn't burn. Keep in mind that the temperature will continue to rise even off the heat. When the butter is nearing completion, add the sage leaves to crisp in the hot fat. Remove from heat and add the lemon juice to halt the cooking, plus a pinch of salt (unless you're using salted butter).

  3. Toss the drained pasta into the skillet, coating well with the sauce. Finish with black pepper and Parmesan, if desired. Serve immediately.