Gnocchi may have a longer history than pasta in Italy. A cookbook from the fourteenth century includes a recipe for gnocchi made by mashing together cheese and egg and mixing them with flour to make a dumpling. Today, you can find gnocchi made from potatoes, semolina, polenta, squash, ricotta, and bread. There are savory gnocchi for primi piatti, gnocchi served as an accompaniment to the main course, and even sweet gnocchi for dessert. There are gnocchi made as you would a ravioli filling, except that there is no pasta involved; these are known as gnudi (“naked”). Gnocchi, like pasta, can be enhanced by a number of different sauces, and there are stuffed and filled gnocchi as well.
It seems that you can find thousands of recipes for potato gnocchi. That doesn’t mean that gnocchi are difficult to make, however. In fact, it shows just how adaptable a simple gnocchi recipe can be when it travels from one cook to another. Some cooks may want to use whole eggs, some yolks only, and others no eggs at all.
What is true about gnocchi is that it is one of those recipes that you have to make a couple of times to get the feel for it. Cooking and drying your potatoes properly, and mixing in just the right amount of flour, is the key to success. While you are just learning to make these dumplings, we strongly suggest that you prepare a couple of test gnocchi first so that yours won’t disappear as they cook.
Some potatoes are starchy (russet), while others have a waxy texture (red, new, and Yukon Gold). If you use starchy potatoes, you will get the best result; if you use waxy potatoes, you may need a bit more flour.
Some recipes call for eggs or egg yolks to help hold the dumplings together. It is a little more difficult to keep the gnocchi from falling apart as they cook if you don’t use eggs.
Making Potato Gnocchi
- Put the potatoes into a pot with enough salted water to cover, and simmer long enough for the potatoes to become tender. Test them by piercing them with a wooden skewer or fork.
- Drain the potatoes in a colander. There will still be some moisture left in the potatoes; you can let it cook away by returning the potatoes to the pot and letting them dry over very low heat for a few minutes. Another option is baking the potatoes in their skins, which is a good way to ensure that they don’t become waterlogged, but baking potatoes takes longer than boiling them.
- Peel and purée the potatoes while they are hot for light, tasty gnocchi. Use a kitchen towel to protect your hands as you peel off the skin. Use a potato ricer or a food mill to purée the potatoes. These tools give the potatoes a lighter texture, but if you don’t have one of these tools you can use a handheld potato masher instead. We purée the potatoes directly onto a floured work surface, mounding them and making a well in the center.
- Combine the potatoes with the other ingredients. The potatoes should still be warm as you mix the gnocchi, but you should let them cool enough so that you can work the dough without burning your hands. Pour about half of the flour called for in the recipe around the outside of the potato mound. Add the eggs to the well and use the fingertips of one hand to mix in the egg. Use your other hand to hold up the potato wall and to pull in the flour until you’ve got a light dough. You may need to add more of the flour if the dough seems very wet or soft; the amount you need to add depends on the way you cooked the potatoes and the amount of water they absorbed during cooking. Before going on to shape the gnocchi, test a few pieces to be sure they have the right taste and texture.
Since you want add enough flour to bind the gnocchi but not so much that they become heavy or dense, you need to test them to see if they are holding together.
Put a small pot of salted water over medium-high heat and bring it to a gentle simmer, not a rolling boil. Pull off a couple of pieces of the dough that are about the size you want your finished gnocchi to be. Add them to the water and simmer over medium heat until the gnocchi rise to the surface and float there for 2 or 3 minutes.
If the gnocchi fall apart as they cook or when you try to lift them from the water, add a bit more flour to the dough and test again. Repeat, if necessary, until the test gnocchi hold together. Pay attention to the way the dough feels when the gnocchi hold together so that you can reproduce the texture next time. You should add more seasoning now, as well, if the gnocchi didn’t have as much flavor as you wanted.
Cut the dough into pieces about the size of an egg and roll each piece out on a floured surface into a long coil or rope about 1/2 to 1 inch thick. Cut the ropes into pieces about the same length as the rope is thick. You can simply cook them shaped that way, if you like, or you can roll them over the tines of a fork or a grooved surface (there are specific tools for shaping gnocchi available).
Once they are shaped, you can keep the gnocchi on a lightly floured tray or baking sheet for a little while, but if you plan to serve them later, it is best to cook them right away and then, when ready to serve, reheat them in salted water.
Very soft gnocchi (like those made with vegetable purées or ricotta) are easier to shape by scooping them using spoons and dropping them into the water, or using a piping bag with a wide plain opening to squeeze the dough out, cutting it into 1/2- to 1-inch long pieces as it drops from the bag into the water.
For most gnocchi, you need a generous amount of boiling salted water. Use the same pot that you would use to cook your pasta—tall and deep. The water should be at a gentle boil, with just a few lazy bubbles rising to the surface.
When you add the gnocchi to the water, they’ll drop to the bottom of the pot. As they cook, they will rise to the surface and float. After they have risen, let them cook for 2 or 3 minutes longer. Use a slotted spoon or a skimmer to lift the cooked gnocchi from the water; pouring them through a colander might smash them.
Gnocchi are delicious served very simply with just a bit of butter or some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. We like the flavor of brown butter and fried sage leaves for something a little more interesting. There are other sauces that are perfect for gnocchi as well. A simple tomato sauce works well, as does a more elaborate ragù made with rabbit. Cream sauces are also a tasty accompaniment. A classic sauce is fonduto, a cheese sauce made with Fontina, eggs, and milk. You might also serve them with sautéed mushrooms or other vegetables