By Will Packwood
Photography by Jenna Noel
A little over a decade ago, gnocchi was an unpronounceable word with an even more confusing meaning. Today, gnocchi is no stranger to restaurant menus and can even be found on most supermarket shelves. Though the word gnocchi in Italian refers to any dumpling—from potato to semolina to bread, cheese, even pumpkin—here in the U.S. potato is king. The best potato readily available in most markets is the russet.
Russet potatoes have the ideal ratio of starch to moisture, ensuring that the gnocchi will hold together without requiring too much flour, which makes the dumplings tough and dense. The finished gnocchi should resemble light, pillowy potato clouds.
Traditionally, cooked potato is mashed and mixed with flour, a small amount of beaten egg, salt, pepper and grated nutmeg. The dough is rolled into cigar-shaped logs, cut into half-inch to one-inch pieces and shaped using a riga gnocchi (a small wooden paddle that has grooves cut in one side), forming a dimple in one side and ridges on the opposite, which help to hold onto the right amount of sauce. After being shaped, the gnocchi are poached, not boiled, in lightly simmering water. (If the gnocchi dough is made correctly, the finished product would be too delicate to handle being thrown around in a boiling pot.) When the gnocchi float to the surface, they are removed and lightly dressed with sauce and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Gnocchi is intended to be served as a primo—the first course—and is often dressed with the sugo, the braising liquid or pan drippings from the main entrée. If the gnocchi precedes an entrée that doesn’t involve a sugo, it is usually dressed with a sauce that will complement the entrée—ragù alla Bolognese, pesto, marinara and butter with sage are common. Potato gnocchi dumplings are not intended to be—nor traditionally served—panfried, deep-fried, seared or “toasted.” These techniques are sometimes done to distract from the fact that the gnocchi are dense and poorly made.
Making great gnocchi doesn’t have to be difficult, but a few things have to be considered, and experience helps. I remember years ago when I called my mother from the kitchen phone to get her recipe for gnocchi. I should have known the response I was going to get.
“Well… I don’t know,” she said. “You cook the potatoes, rice them, mix in an egg and a little salt and nutmeg, then enough flour until it feels right.”
“Feels right” is a common expression when it comes to preparing many foods.
After that conversation, I spent time remembering the Sunday afternoons making gnocchi with my family and all the little details: the doneness of the potatoes before ricing, the temperature of the potatoes when we mixed the dough, the amount of flour, the texture of the dough, the level of simmer on the water and many more. In time, I adjusted a few things to account for how a restaurant operates as compared to how a home kitchen works, and eventually I had a recipe, or at least a ratio. But, I still had to train one guy—the gnocchi guy. He was the one who made the gnocchi every day at the restaurant and ensured that it felt right.
If you’ve never made gnocchi before, keep these things in mind:
• Cooking is fun and the reason you are making gnocchi is because you love gnocchi and love cooking even more
• Potatoes are cheap
• Every time you make gnocchi they’ll be even better than the last time
• Even bad gnocchi dumplings are pretty tasty
The recipe that follows should be thought of as a work-in-90-progress, and there will be slight variations every time you make gnocchi. Potatoes change throughout the year; most are harvested around the same time and stored in large hangars to be shipped out as needed. Potatoes used right after being harvested will have a higher water content than potatoes left to age for a few months. Starch content also changes slightly throughout the aging process. Eggs may vary slightly in volume, water and fat content, as well. All of these things are manageable, especially when you learn when the dough feels right.
2 large russet potatoes
1 large egg, whisked in a small bowl
Salt, pepper and nutmeg, to taste
1 c. (roughly) unbleached flour
Preheat the oven to 350°. Wash, dry and pierce the potatoes in several places with a fork or paring knife. Place the potatoes on a baking tray and bake until very soft, about 1½ to 2 hours. When the potatoes are done, remove them from the oven, cut a slit lengthwise in each and pinch them to open—allowing the steam to escape. This is an important step because it helps to eliminate a lot of unwanted moisture. Using a large spoon, remove the flesh of the potatoes from the jackets and put it through a potato ricer or food mill.
On a clean work surface, form the processed potatoes into a mound with a large well in the center and pour the beaten egg into the well. Season the potatoes with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Evenly distribute the flour over the egg and potato and slowly start mixing the flour into the egg while gradually pulling potato into the mix. Start gently kneading all of the ingredients together. The dough is done once all of the ingredients are combined and streaks of yellow egg running through the mass are no longer visible. Cover the dough with a kitchen towel.
In a large pot over medium-high heat, bring a generous amount of salted water to a low simmer. Clean the work surface used to make the dough and lightly dust it with flour. Divide the dough into 4 even pieces. Using one quarter of the dough, roll out a long, inch-thick cigar-shaped log. Using a pastry scraper or knife, cut the log into ½-inch to 1-inch pieces. Lightly dust a gnocchi paddle or fork with flour. Using your thumb, gently roll each piece over the paddle or fork—forming the ridges and dimple. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Once the gnocchi are shaped and the water is simmering, poach them in small batches. When they float to the top of the simmering water, skim them off using a strainer. Do not pour the gnocchi off into a colander as you would for cooking pasta; this would crush them. Transfer the gnocchi to a serving bowl and dress with desired sauce and grated Parmigiano.
Visit our recipe section for Will Packwood’s basic tomato sauce recipe