When you think of Italian food, what do you think of? Is it pizza, spaghetti or lasagna? There is so much more to Italian food than that. One of those “other” dishes would be Gnocchi. What gnocchi is, how to make it and how to serve it are the subjects of this Cooking Tip.
The word “gnocchi” actually means “lumps”, although the word is said to derive from the old Lombard phrase knohha, meaning “knot” or from nocca, which means knuckles. We often call these” Potato Dumplings” but they were not always made with potato. This dish dates as far back as the 1300s when it was made from flour or breadcrumbs. A cookbook from 1570 contains a recipe made from flour/breadcrumbs/water and pushed through the holes of a cheese grater. The potato version probably began in the 16th or 17th century.
Since potato gnocchi are the main variety found outside Italy, let’s discuss how to make them. The goal is to make light and airy gnocchi although it is easy to end up with dense and heavy ones if you aren’t careful.
The type of potato is important. Almost all experts recommend using a dry, floury variety like Russets. Some feel that a white all-purpose or a Yukon gold are acceptable but if you have never made them before, stick with the Russet. They have a lower water content and a higher starch content. Because of this, you can add less flour, which means less gluten and an end product that is more tender.
How you cook the potatoes is a bit of a debate. There are those that only recommend baking them in their skins as this will remove moisture. Others feel the potatoes can be boiled but do advise to boil them in the skins to reduce moisture.
Whichever method you use to cook the potatoes, you then want to mash them while they are hot. The absolute best method for this (as well as making mashed potatoes) is to use a ricer. These are inexpensive tools that are worth the money.
After ricing (or mashing), the hot potatoes should be spread out on your cutting board or baking sheet so they cool and to maximize moisture evaporation.
Eggs are not a traditional ingredient although many recipes will add one as it makes an easier to handle gnocchi due to its capacity to help bind the dough together. This prevents the gnocchi from disintegrating in the boiling water. Eggs also add richness to the finished product. The downside is that the egg white can contribute to a denser and chewier gnocchi. Using only the yolk is a great alternative.
Once cool, it is time to make the dough. Mound up the cooled potatoes and start to add a bit of flour and egg, if using. As excess flour is the enemy to light and tender gnocchi, you only want to add as much flour as necessary to get a cohesive dough. Harold McGee says you should need less than 1 cup per pound of potatoes. Cook’s Illustrated recommends weighing your ingredients and using 4 ounces of flour to 16 ounces of riced potatoes. Whatever recipe you follow, do not add all the flour at once. Add it in stages to get the proper result.
The ingredients should be gently kneaded into a dough. Using something like a bench scraper and just scraping and folding can help in preventing over-kneading. Your goal is a moist but not sticky dough.
After you obtain a nice dough, it is portioned and rolled out into a thin rope. It is cut into pieces, generally about ¾ of an inch in size. Shaping into the traditional ridged C-shape is next. This can be done by using a gnocchi board or a fork. A wonderful friend who had lived in Italy gave me a gnocchi board and I love it. It is very easy to use.
For cooking, they are normally gently placed into boiling, salted water and cooked only until they rise to the surface. They are plated and dressed with a sauce. Some find that they can be cooked directly in the sauce without the boiling stage.
Sauces are varied but include marinara, pesto and a butter sauce with sage, herbs and/or garlic. One of my favorites is a sun-dried tomato pesto.
What are the problems that arise in making gnocchi?
- Dense and chewy gnocchi – this is normally due to adding too much flour and/or kneading too aggressively.
- Lumpy mashed potatoes – using a ricer will give you a smooth and airy result.
- Bland flavor – cooking them in salted water and then serving with a flavorful sauce is the answer to this problem.
Every area of Italy has its distinct gnocchi style and sauce.
- As mentioned above, gnocchi can be made with just flour and water although they will be heavier and denser than potato gnocchi.
- Gnudi di Ricotta – ricotta dumplings
- These are more common in Tuscany and use no potatoes. Rather, strained ricotta, egg, breadcrumbs and cheese are combined and rolled into balls before being dusted in semolina. After cooking, they are fried in butter until golden brown.
- Gnocchi alla Romana – semolina gnocchi
- This dish originated in Rome and is made with semolina flour. Traditionally, the dough is chilled, cut and baked with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
- Gnocchi Parisienne
- This is a French version of gnocchi. The base is a choux pastry (the dough used to make profiteroles.) The dough is dropped into water via a piping bag to cook followed by putting them into a pan of butter to crisp up. Finally, it is dressed with lemon juice and herbs.
- Eaten on the Italian island of Sardinia, this variety is made with only semolina flour and water, sometimes colored with saffron. This results in a denser and chewier gnocchi.
- The traditional sauce is Campidanese, a sausage, tomato and fennel ragu.
- These are very colorful as they are made from ricotta, spinach and Parmesan bound together by semolina and egg. They tend to be larger than other gnocchi, about the size of a golf ball.
Fresh gnocchi can be frozen uncooked for up to 2 months. Boil them frozen although it will take a bit longer. Store cooked gnocchi in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 4 days.
Have you made gnocchi? Although they do take a bit of practice and patience, they can be a delightfully different Italian meal.