Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Perfecting Potato Gnocchi

If you’re a home cook with a penchant for making different, possibly challenging, foods, there’s a good chance you have at least tried to make gnocchi before. You’ve heard people say “Making gnocchi is so easy!”, and, “You’ll have so much fun making your own gnocchi, you’ll never buy it premade again!” Bolstered by promises of the pleasure and simplicity of creating these little potato dumplings, you sought out a recipe from a book from your cookbook shelf, or maybe your favorite recipe website. You start out strong, cooking your potatoes, and lining up your ingredients. Things are still going all right when you mash your hot potatoes with flour and egg to create your gnocchi dough.
Here’s where you hit your first bump, though: the dough is not a dough at all, just a goopy, mushy lump that you can’t imagine will ever be gnocchi. Not to worry, though: just work a little more flour in, and let it absorb some of that excess moisture. Soon enough, you do have a dough-like mass that you can divide up and roll into long strands that you can cut into gnocchi. It isn’t as elementary as your recipe suggests, though: the dough doesn’t roll out easily—it breaks, and is uneven, creating gnocchi of every imaginable shape and size, other than, of course, the perfect little dumplings you desire. There is flour everywhere and all you can think is how certain you are that this will not come out as you had hoped, and how long this will take to clean up. When finally you have a sheet pan of gnocchi in various forms, you get a pot of water up to a boil, and then skeptically dump the little lumps in, hoping for a miracle.
Just as your recipe says, you wait for the gnocchi to rise to the surface of the water, and then remove them to a separate bowl. The first few come out looking all right, but then the gnocchi still in the pot, waiting to be removed, are beginning to disintegrate in the water. You frantically try to get them all out, but meanwhile, those first few are getting covered in the mush you’re pulling from the pot, and beginning to fall apart themselves as the heat from the rest of the gnocchi steams them. What you’re left with is a watery bowl of mashed potatoes, and the feeling that if you can’t make the apparently simple potato gnocchi, what kind of a cook are you?

I use the second person in the story above in the hopes that you, reader, can empathize with me since this is exactly what happened to me the first few times I tried to make gnocchi. After a few failed attempts, though, I started to realize what was causing me problems, and I have figured out a few tricks to make gnocchi that is, I daresay, enjoyable and straightforward to create.
I have provided a recipe below, but the truth is, making wonderful gnocchi is not about having the perfect recipe. Getting gnocchi right is about knowing the right techniques, the right tricks, if you want to call them that, to creating this Italian classic.
First: you will need to cook your potatoes, but do NOT boil them! Boiling adds even more moisture into to your already water-filled potatoes. Instead, bake the potatoes in their skins. They will lose moisture this way and concentrate the starches, which is what you need to hold your gnocchi together.
Next, get the consistency of your dough right, but don’t over-mix it. You do want a dough that is slightly moist, but not overly wet. I find it best to be conservative when adding flour, then continue to work in just enough to get your dough to the right consistency. Be careful about over-mixing, though: mixing develops gluten in the flour, toughening your gnocchi. You want gnocchi that is light and fluffy.
When rolling out the dough to cut the gnocchi, divide the dough into small portions and roll gently, exerting only the slightest amount of pressure to create long “snakes”. Try to cut them into evenly-shaped dumplings, but don’t worry too much about this. As long as they’re roughly the same size, they will cook evenly.
Finally, you need to get the cooking right. Get a large pot of salted water up to a rolling boil, and have a large bowl ready to the side. When the water is ready, add the gnocchi, being careful not to crowd the pot. If necessary, cook the gnocchi in batches. Now, as soon as the gnocchi rise to the surface of the water, remove them using a slotted spoon and place them in the bowl. It’s good to allow the gnocchi release some steam for a few seconds after they’ve been pulled from the water. After a moment, add them to your sauce, which you should have gently simmering on another burner. Once all the gnocchi has been added to your sauce, give it a toss and serve it up right away.
Now, a note on sauces: there are endless possibilities in terms of what sauce you can serve with gnocchi, but personally, I prefer something not too heavy. This time, I made a cream sauce with leeks and bacon, and it was good, but maybe even a little too rich. Gnocchi is fabulous with a braised meat sauce, as long as it isn’t too thick. Small, spring vegetables are also good, or try a fresh tomato-basil sauce.

Potato Gnocchi
Serves 4
1 ¼ lbs. russet potatoes, washed and dried
¾ cup flour
2 eggs
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F. Poke a few holes in the potatoes to allow the steam to escape. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes. While potatoes are still warm, peel, then mash them, or pass them through a food mill or ricer.

Mix in ½ cup of the flour, eggs, salt, and pepper (this is best done while potatoes are still warm) until dough is formed. The dough should be wet, but not too sticky or gooey. Add more flour if necessary.

Roll the dough into two rolls, about 1 inch thick on a lightly floured surface; cut them into ¾ inch pieces. Place the pieces on a sheet pan, lightly dusted with flour.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the gnocchi. As soon as they rise to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon to a bowl on the side. Serve immediately with sauce.


  1. Sounds great! I've always been reluctant to try making gnocchi. But this has convinced me that it's totally doable.

    I'll try to post about how it turns out.

  2. I haven't tried to make it myself yet. I remember watching you make once...wasn't it blue cheese gnocchi or something??
    Maybe we'll make it together this summer.