Saturday, May 30, 2020

Potato Gnocchi

It has been my intention to write a post on how to make potato gnocchi for almost as long as I have been keeping a blog.  I love good potato gnocchi.   In the early years I didn’t write it because I hadn’t perfected my written recipe—or my method of teaching—enough to give me confidence that everyone who used my recipe and method would have good success.  Then, I somehow never managed to get good pictures of the process (I was in a hurry…the room was too dark…etc). I corrected the first problem years ago.  And recently, when I taught an online “cook along” class all about potato gnocchi, the conditions were just right for taking pictures of the process.  So here it is.  Finally.

People have strong opinions about gnocchi….they either love them or hate them.  I suspect this is due to the wide variation in quality.  Potato gnocchi can be utterly delicious: light, tender pillows of potato floating in a flavorful broth, tossed in a rich ragû or tasty pesto, or lightly crisped from a quick sauté and tossed with seasonal vegetables.   They can also be gummy and heavy…true belly bombs.  To make things worse, this latter sort is often served drowning in an overly rich sauce.  I’m not sure why I like them so much, certainly I haven’t had too many good examples when eating out.  The ones I make at home are of the former variety.

The good news is that potato gnocchi are simple to make.  (There’s just no excuse not to make them at home.)  The trick to making gnocchi is a light, restrained touch.  If you add as little flour as is necessary to make a manageable dough and then work the dough as lightly as possible to avoid developing too much gluten (as when making a good pâte brisée), you will have good gnocchi.  If in addition you take the time to make them into petite little pillows—rather than large “two-bite” sized chunks—you will be the road to making excellent potato gnocchi. 

To begin, choose starchy potatoes.  Idaho Russets or Yukon Gold potatoes are perfect.  You will get an even better result if the potatoes are a bit older (since vegetables lose moisture as they sit in storage).  Then, bake the potatoes instead of boiling/simmering them which will introduce water.  (Even steaming will add water.)  

Baked potatoes, split while hot, to get rid of excess moisture via steam.

Baking the potatoes cooks the potatoes thoroughly without adding water. The drier the potato, the less flour you will need to hold the gnocchi together. 

Besides the flour and potato, most gnocchi include some egg.  There are very fine gnocchi makers who insist that egg should not be a part of the mix because it can give a rubbery texture to the gnocchi.  Also, because egg adds moisture, the dough will necessarily require more flour (which as noted above can contribute to heaviness or toughness).  But egg insures that the gnocchi will not disintegrate when they are cooked (since the egg protein sets the gnocchi before the water comes to a simmer).  No one has ever complained that my gnocchi are tough or rubbery.  So I am confident that as long as you are careful to use only as much flour as is necessary to form a cohesive dough—and don’t allow the gnocchi to remain in the simmering water too long (which will harden the egg protein)—you should be able to add egg without lowering the quality of your result. 

The other ingredient of note in my gnocchi recipe is a little bit of butter.  Alice Waters in her book Chez Panisse Vegetables includes a bit of butter in her gnocchi and I have always liked the added flavor and tenderness that results.  But you could easily leave it out if you prefer.

I mentioned above that you should make an effort to form petite gnocchi.  The reason for this is that small gnocchi will cook more rapidly and more uniformly than larger specimens.  Gnocchi that are not cooked through are doughy and heavy.  Because of the egg, gnocchi that are cooked too long can be rubbery.  Considering both these things, large gnocchi have the potential to be rubbery…or doughy…or both (if they are very large).  Making them small is a further guarantee that they will be tender and light.

As for the nuts and bolts process of making the gnocchi, it is very thoroughly detailed in the recipe below.  I will only emphasize a couple of things here.  First, the baked potato pulp needs to be passed through a food mill…or potato ricer…or a mesh sieve/tamis...or the large holes of a box grater—basically anything that will mill the flesh of the potato into a perfectly smooth substance without activating the starch by a vigorous stirring or back and forth motion.  Simply using an old fashioned potato masher is not enough.   

Secondly, the process of working in the flour is best accomplished on a counter top (or other flat work surface) with the aid of a bench scraper.  The cutting motion used will quickly and thoroughly incorporate the flour without developing the starch in the potatoes or too much gluten in the flour.  If you have never worked dough on a counter (rather than a bowl) it might feel a bit awkward, but the bench scraper will not only help cut the flour into the potato-egg mixture, it will also be used to clean the counter as you work.  It is counterintuitive, but dumping all of your ingredients out of the bowl and onto the counter is actually a very efficient and neat way to work.

Finally, the formed gnocchi should look like a little pillow with rounded edges, with ridges on one side and a dimple/divot on the other.  The ridges and dimple are formed simultaneously when you press the cut cylinders of dough against the tines of a fork with your thumb.  Because the finished gnocchi is generally rectangular in shape it seems to make sense to take the cylinder—which is longer than it is wide (like a rectangle)—and lay it across (perpendicular to) the tines of the fork and roll it forward  and off of the fork.  But in my opinion this is incorrect.  I think the cylinder should be placed on the fork upright…with one of the cut ends against the tines of the fork.  

Then using your thumb you press on the other cut surface—down and forward—squashing the cylinder down a bit as you roll it forward off of the fork.  

You will have to keep the fork and your thumb lightly floured because you’re working against the tacky cut surfaces, but when formed this way the gnocchi are plump and rounded….just like a little pillow of potato.

Once you get the hang of it, making gnocchi is not difficult.  But like a lot of handmade foods (fresh pasta, for example…or meatballs), it is a process and it does take time.  Fortunately the formed gnocchi freeze beautifully. (Spread on baking sheets and freeze the gnocchi until hard, then transfer to freezer bags for storage.)  And while many recipe writers will tell you that you can cook the gnocchi from frozen (straight out of the freezer), I have found this to be a risky proposition.  Dropping the frozen gnocchi into a pot of boiling water is like dropping ice cubes into the water.  The temperature of the water drops and even over high heat, as it recovers, the edges of the gnocchi begin to fall apart in the lukewarm water.  By the time the water boils, you might have potato soup. 

Instead, when you want to cook your frozen gnocchi, spread them out on a semolina dusted baking sheet and leave them (uncovered) for about a half hour until they have thawed.  You can then cook them exactly as you would if they were freshly made. 

Before I finish, I wanted to give a plug for something new I'm doing on my Instagram feed.  I have begun to post short cooking demonstration videos to IGTV.  My first one was for the ever popular Cream Scones that I posted many years ago.  The most recent is for the potato gnocchi in this post.  I have made an effort to describe the process in detail here...but having a video to watch can only help.  If you have questions, please feel free to post them here...or on my IG feed.

Potato Gnocchi

2 russet potatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs.)
1 c. all-purpose flour (about 4 to 4 1/2 ounces)
1 to 1 1/2 T. butter
1 egg, beaten
salt, pepper & nutmeg, to taste
Semolina flour

Prick potatoes and bake in a preheated 400° oven until quite soft and tender—about 1 hour.  As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and pass through a food mill.  

Add the butter and seasoning (start with 1 t. kosher salt, several grindings of black pepper and a pinch of nutmeg) and combine lightly with a fork.  Add the egg and blend into the potato in a few strokes.

Place the flour in the center of a clean counter and turn the potato mixture out onto the flour.  

With a bench scraper, cut the flour into the potatoes just until it has disappeared.  

Knead briefly to form a soft, slightly tacky, dough.  

Cut the dough into eight pieces.  On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece out into a long rope that is about 1/2-inch thick.  

Place the ropes on a floured or semolina dusted cookie sheet and let rest for 1/2 hour at a cool room temperature.  

To form the gnocchi, place each rope on the floured board and cut crosswise into ¾-inch-thick slices.  

To finish shaping, place one of the cut surfaces of the gnocchi on a floured fork.  With your (floured) thumb press the other cut surface down and away from yourself, rolling the gnocchi off of the fork as you do.  You should end up with a small dumpling that has the marks of the fork on one side and a dimple from your thumb on the other.

Place the finished gnocchi on a semolina dusted sheet pan and scatter more semolina over all.  Set the gnocchi aside until you are ready to cook them—ideally they should be cooked within 1 to 3 hours.  They may also be frozen at this point. 

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.  Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil or melted butter on a sheet pan or large platter and set aside.  Add the gnocchi (don’t overcrowd the pot—cook in 2 batches if necessary).  Carefully run a flat wooden spoon or heat proof rubber spatula over the bottom of the pan to make sure the gnocchi aren’t sticking.  Continue to cook for 1 minute after the gnocchi float to the surface—or about the time the water begins to return to a boil.  Lift the gnocchi out of the water with a mesh strainer and spread them in the prepared pan.  Serve immediately dressed with your favorite sauce or drizzled with more melted butter and grated Parmesan. 

Makes 4 entrée or 6 appetizer or side-dish servings.

Working ahead:
  • Make the gnocchi up to a week ahead and freeze before boiling.  Freeze on flour or semolina dusted sheets and when hard, transfer to freezer bags.   When ready to cook, spread the frozen gnocchi on semolina dusted sheets and let sit (uncovered) at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes (during which time they should thaw).  Cook as for fresh. 
  • Another way to work ahead is to serve sautéed gnocchi.  (I actually prefer them this way—they are even lighter.)  To prepare them, boil the gnocchi as directed and spread on an oiled or well-buttered sheet pan.  Set the gnocchi aside and allow them to cool.  The gnocchi may be cooked an hour or two ahead and left (uncovered) at room temperature.  When ready to serve, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat.  Add 1 1/2 T. of the butter.  When the butter begins to brown, add half of the cooked gnocchi.  Increase the heat to high and cook the gnocchi in a single layer—tossing once or twice—until the gnocchi are golden brown and crispy in spots and hot through (about 2 minutes).  If you like, add some minced herbs—chives, parsley, etc. at this point.  Transfer to a serving platter and repeat with the remaining butter and cooked gnocchi.  Serve immediately.
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Stephanie W said...

Thanks so much for sharing this recipe and photos! I haven't tried making gnocchi in a year and might need to give it a go again. :)

Paige said...

I hope it works well for you! Once you get the feel for it, it goes very quickly.

kwgarden said...

Thank you for this recipe. I'm going to try making gnocchi!

Paige said...

I'm glad you found the post helpful! I would love to hear how it goes for you when you make them. (Also, if you are interested, I am scheduled to give a one hour Zoom class on Potato gnocchi this coming Tuesday. You would be able to make them along with me. You can read about it and sign up here: )