Pasta: It’s All About the Filling

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A variety of stuffed pastas — think ravioli and tortellini — are sold fresh or frozen in supermarkets, but they can’t compare to the delicate pasta pillows you can make at home. The best stuffed pastas are made from paper-thin dough, then filled with a mixture of ingredients, from cheese and greens to savory meats.


Get started with our simple guide:


Shapes for Stuffed Pasta


Italian cooks all over the country fashion stuffed pastas in dozens of shapes with names like anolini, cannelloni and conchiglioni. Here’s how it breaks down:


Half-moon-shaped dumplings, made from disks of fresh pasta 2 inches in diameter.
Similar to cannelloni in shape and use, these pasta are made from a crepelike batter.
Miniature versions of ravioli made from 1 1/2-inch squares of pasta.
The large version of conchiglie or “shells,” these conch shell-shaped pasta are used for stuffing.
Try: Stuffed Shells with Pork Ragu
Thin sheets of pasta cut into 3 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch rectangles. Rolled around filling, they resemble large tubes.
Try: Cannelloni with Spinach and Pine Nuts
Made by forming 2-inch rounds of dough into tight little rings.
Try: Beef Tortellini in Broth
2 to 2 1/2-inch squares of fresh pastas containing a variety of fillings. Can be cut with a straight edge or fluted edge.
Try: Wild Greens-Filled Ravioli with Walnut Sauce
Resembling tortellini but made with 3-inch squares and folded to make a peak at the top.
Dried or fresh noodles that are about 4 by 5 inches and usually layered with filling and baked.
Try: Lasagna alla Bolognese


Fillings for Stuffed Pasta


The fillings for stuffed pasta are as varied as the shapes. The classic cheese filling for ravioli is a blend of ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, egg yolk and nutmeg. Meat fillings are usually reserved for smaller stuffed pastas, such as the celebrated tortellini, which traditionally conceal a mixture of prosciutto, mortadella, veal, pork and Parmigiano-Reggiano. As with other Italian dishes, no codified formula exists for fillings; the recipes vary with longtime customs, family tradition and locally produced meats and/or cheeses.


Sealing Stuffed Pasta


Stuffed pastas must be sealed perfectly to cook properly. First, using a pastry brush or your finger, lightly paint water, milk, beaten egg or egg yolk mixed with a little water on the pasta around the filling. Then cover the filling with the pasta (usually by folding pasta over the top) and press out all the air as you seal the dough firmly around the filling. Trapped air will cause the pasta to inflate in the cooking pot. If the seal is not secure, the pasta an also break open in the pot and lose its filling.


Cooking & Serving Stuffed Pasta

You will usually need to cook stuffed pasta in two batches to avoid reducing the water temperature too much. First, depending on the recipe, bring broth or salted water to a rapid boil, then gently slip in the pasta. Cover the pot until the water returns to a boil, then uncover and cook, gently stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for 3 to 5 minutes. Do not let the water boil too hard, or the pastas may knock against one another and break.


Most stuffed pastas are done when they float to the surface, but a simple test is a better indication: using a wire skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer a single pasta piece to a cutting board. Cut off a corner with a paring knife. If the pasta looks cooked through and the corner tastes tender, the pasta is done. Use the skimmer or slotted spoon to transfer the remaining pasta to a warmed serving dish.


Some stuffed pastas are eaten in broth. Others are eaten with a simple sauce and sometimes a little grated cheese, with just butter and cheese, or with a light cream sauce and cheese. Never use a heavy sauce with a stuffed pasta, as it can easily overwhelm its natural delicacy.


Ready to get started? Begin with this step-by-step guide to making ravioli, then perfect your skills with the Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Butter above or one of our other favorite ravioli recipes. Stay tuned for the next step: a tortellini tutorial!

14 comments about “Pasta: It’s All About the Filling

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  6. Phylliss Henry

    I need help finding a piece of equipment. I make my own pasta dough and ravioli fillings. I’ve used an electric cookie press with a plastic tube, using the eclair tip to fill the pasta–until I broke the plastic tube with a too-thick filling. I need a replacement and want a metal tube, and would like it to be electric (but I can forgo that part if I can find metal). I can’t find anything in the general merchandise on-line. Can anyone give me leads to commercial equipment? It doesn’t have to be a cookie press, just something similar, like an honest to goodness, pasta filler press like thing.

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  8. joyce

    Phylliss Henry,
    how about just using a ziplock, no tip. just clip the corner to the size you want. throw it away when you are done. wilton has a tip called “easy fill” i use for more watery things. again using a ziplock, cut the corner and attach the tip. fill the ziplock, but not too full, what you can handle in your hand to squeeze filling out.
    Hope that helps,

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