A few weeks ago, I came down with a nasty cold that lingered in the form of an even nastier cough. It kept me up for several nights, the bed shaking with each hacking eruption, but even worse, it threatened to keep Kate, my girlfriend, up as well. I did the right thing and wandered off to the couch each night so that she could rest.
Each time, she'd plead with me to let her sleep on the couch instead.
"Baby, the couch is so hard and uncomfortable, and you're sick: I should sleep there!"
"No," I'd insist, wedging my words between bouts of coughing. "I honestly like how firm it is, and I know you don't."
See, we've had an ongoing disagreement about how firm a mattress should be, with me preferring more solid ones and her enjoying soft, pillowy ones. We've managed to find a happy medium, but when it comes to our couch, I'm the only one with a shot at being comfortable.
This whole episode got me thinking about potato gnocchi. So much has been written about the supposed qualities of perfect gnocchi—specifically, that they should be preternaturally tender and cloud-like, holding their shape just long enough to dissolve on your tongue—that I think it's warped our standards a little. I agree with those criteria to a point, but I also think there's room for personal preference. Some of us really are after little fluffy clouds. Others might appreciate gnocchi that are just a tad firmer.
I know that in my own life and travels, I've eaten some excellent gnocchi of a variety of sizes and textures, and I wouldn't be quick to dismiss some of them just because they were firmer than others.
That said, I don't think anyone who's eaten great gnocchi would argue that they should ever be as firm as, say, my couch, nor as chewy as gum, nor as heavy as bricks. Just as I'd rather not sleep on a pile of jagged rocks, there are limits to what can be called good in the world of little potato dumplings: Some version of light and tender is what we're after.
I start with this as a way to calm nerves. Yes, potato gnocchi can be tricky, and yes, they will likely require some trial runs before you become expert at making them. But no, you don't have to set the bar at alchemical levels, thinking that the only correct way is to transform inherently heavy potato and flour into little white orbs that vanish into a mist as soon as you take a bite. That's a nice ideal to work toward, but there are plenty of good, more substantive gnocchi along the way.
No matter the gnocchi you aspire to, getting there is something of a journey. I've been there: I was taught by an old Neapolitan nonna in Italy, whose expert hands made the process look ridiculously simple. After that, I prepared them frequently during my days as a restaurant cook, and recently, I made batch after batch to develop this recipe. And yet, I still feel like my gnocchi are a work in progress. That's no reason to feel discouraged, though, because long before your gnocchi become legendary, they're going to be very, very good. And that, too, is a great thing.
Foolproof Gnocchi? Don't Be Foolish
Potato gnocchi are famously inconstant. In all my research, I have yet to see a good recipe that doesn't warn the reader that its measurements are an approximation, and that only by developing a sense of how the dough should feel will you be able to home in on just how much flour to add and just how much (or how little) the dough needs to be worked.
The trouble is the potatoes themselves, which, even within a specific variety, can range quite a bit in terms of moisture and starch levels. Moister potatoes will require more flour; drier ones less.
"This is the kind of cooking that requires us to rely on our senses more than our scales and measures, to pay attention to the way things smell and look and feel. "
I've racked my brain trying to think up a clever way to sidestep these inconsistencies and develop a foolproof recipe that works exactly the same way every single time, no matter the cook, but I've come up empty-handed. The reality of making gnocchi is that there is a kind of intuition that needs to be developed. This can be frustrating to those of us who want to outsmart a recipe on a path to precision and certainty, but there's another, I think better, way to look at it. This is the kind of cooking that requires us to rely on our senses more than our scales and measures, to pay attention to the way things smell and look and feel. It's a critically important part of cooking, and learning to make gnocchi may well be one of the best ways to train those skills. Embrace uncertainty!
In fact, one of the best pieces I've read on the more intangible aspects of gnocchi-making was written recently by the chef Marco Canora in Lucky Peach; I have to credit Canora not just with that but with influencing gnocchi recipes considerably, at least here in the States. Canora's recipe has been famous ever since it helped land Tom Colicchio's restaurant Craft a glowing New York Times review many years ago, back when Canora worked there. It's the recipe Colicchio still uses today (more or less), and some of its tricks, including using a bench scraper or similar tool to cut the flour into the cooked potato, are common in many recipes now, including mine here.
Still, despite the need to develop intuition, there's plenty to know that will help you get a heck of a lot closer to the bull's-eye than if you just started shooting blind. Let's take a look.
Which Potato Type Is Best?
You must use a russet potato to make good gnocchi. That's the advice most North American experts give. In other parts of the world, including Italy, it's common to see the same advice, but for other similarly dry and starchy potato varieties.
There's no doubt that a dry, starchy potato is one of the best bets for making gnocchi with a lighter and fluffier texture. After all, the more water a potato contains, the more flour you'll have to add to soak it up, and the more flour you add, the denser the gnocchi will become.
I wanted to see just how absolute this rule is, so I tried making gnocchi from a few different kinds of potatoes, include plain white ones and Yukon Golds. As it turns out, the rule is not as absolute as some might have you believe. The truth is, you can make really good gnocchi from a range of potatoes, including white- and yellow-fleshed varieties. Yellow-fleshed ones, for example, create more silken gnocchi with a rich, eggy appearance, even when no egg has been added.
But the truth is also that those potatoes are much more prone to gumminess than starchy russets are. You can make good gnocchi with them, but it's more difficult to do. My advice is simple: To start out, limit yourself to russets until you get a good feel for how the whole thing works. Then, if you're curious, play around with other types. The worst that happens is you waste a potato or two in the process. The benefit is, you'll come away with an even more fine-tuned sense of gnocchi dough as you experiment.
One factor, though, does hold across the board: New potatoes are very problematic because they're so much wetter inside. When it comes to gnocchi, the older the potato, the better. It can be hard to know just how old a potato is when you buy it at the supermarket, but even in my own tests, I found that the potatoes that sat on my countertop for several days, sprouting little eyes all over, made better gnocchi than those same types of potatoes did in earlier days.
The Best Way to Cook the Potatoes
We've already established that drier potatoes make gnocchi dough that is less prone to being gummy and dense. So, how should we cook them?
The answer is baking. To prove it, all you have to do is bake and boil some whole potatoes and compare their weights before and after. In my tests, baked potatoes lost roughly a quarter of their water weight during baking, while boiled potatoes lost none.
As far as baking, many experts say that you should bake the potatoes on a bed of coarse salt. Some explain that this is to allow air to circulate around the potatoes; others say that salt helps draw out more moisture. Using the same before-and-after weight tests, I was able to debunk the moisture theory: Potatoes baked on a bed of salt lost roughly the same amount of water weight as those baked either on a rack or directly on a baking sheet. (In fact, in my tests, the salt-bed potatoes lost less water than the others, though the results were close enough that I'm considering them equivalent.) And, for those who might be wondering, tasting the potatoes revealed that baking on a bed of salt does not season or otherwise significantly change the flavor of the potato flesh, so that explanation is out, too.
The air-circulation theory, on the other hand, holds more weight (ahem). Comparing all the potatoes side by side, it was clear that those held aloft above a metal baking sheet, whether on salt or on a rack, baked evenly all over, while those baked directly on the baking sheet had a tendency to overcook and form crisp spots in the flesh where the potatoes were in contact with the metal.
In short, it doesn't matter how you bake the potatoes as long as you don't bake them directly on a sheet of metal. Salt and a rack both work equally well, but, frankly, so does baking the potatoes directly on the oven racks themselves, saving you the trouble of having to dig out any equipment at all.
To Egg or Not to Egg?
Okay, so here's one of the really big questions. In some gnocchi recipes, egg yolks are added; in others not. In Italy, opinion is split, with some regions favoring yolks while others shun them. I've even seen multiple versions of Canora's recipe, sometimes with egg yolk and sometimes without.
What's the difference?
I made batches both with and without egg yolks to compare them directly. In short, yolks make a more cohesive dough that is easier to work with and easier to roll out without breaking. When cooked, gnocchi made with egg yolks are more likely to hold their shape, so there's less risk of them disintegrating in the water.
But yolk-y gnocchi (say that five times fast) are also firmer than their egg-free counterparts, and, while the effect is very subtle, they have less of a clear potato flavor.
My advice here is similar to what I've said above: If you're new to gnocchi-making, start with yolks. I've found that one large yolk per pound of potato (weighed before cooking) is sufficient. Once you've become comfortable with that, start making batches without yolk until those come out well, too. Then decide which you prefer.
The photos in the step-by-step below show the process with yolk, but you don't need to change the method if you skip the yolk. Surprisingly, in my tests, I didn't find that I needed to add much more flour to the dough with yolk: Roughly a quarter cup of flour per pound of potato was the ballpark ratio that worked for me, whether I was using yolk or not. The beauty of this is that you can memorize the basic ratio of flour to potato, and either include the yolk or not—no need to keep two different ratios in your head to account for the presence or absence of egg.
I studied a lot of recipes and tested several ratios when working on this recipe. The variation out there is huge. At the high end, I saw some recipes that called for a full cup of flour per pound of uncooked potato, while others called for as little as a quarter cup per pound. Based on a five-ounce weight per cup of flour, that's a spread of anywhere from 1.25 to 5 ounces per pound of potato, a pretty big difference.
After trying out a handful of these ratios across the spectrum, my preference falls at the low end: The less flour you can add to the potato while still managing to make a cohesive dough, the better, since additional flour only increases the density of the gnocchi while diluting their potato flavor.
A dough using a low, quarter-cup-per-pound ratio will be moist and slightly sticky, which is okay. Just flour it well on the outside to prevent it from sticking to your hands and the work surface when you roll it and cut it into gnocchi.
In my recipe and tests, I used only all-purpose flour. Some people swear by Italian "00" flour, others say cake flour works best. Most of us, though, tend to have only one kind of flour in our pantries, and it's all-purpose, so that's what I wanted to use here. If you're interested in experimenting with other flours, by all means do so, but if not, don't fret: Great gnocchi absolutely can be made with all-purpose flour.
As for how to measure the flour, this is a case where I think using a measuring cup is just fine. We recently published a detailed piece on how to measure, which sets out some important basic standards while stressing the superior accuracy of a scale for some dry ingredients, since volume measurements of compressible ones like flour can vary widely.
In the case of potato gnocchi, though, because we're already dealing with the variable moisture content of the potatoes themselves, being extremely accurate with the flour measurement doesn't really get us anywhere. A measuring cup is sufficient: Add a portion of the flour to the potato and work it into a dough, then add more as needed until it feels just right. Some days, you may end up adding a little less than the full quarter cup per pound. On other days, you may need to add a little more. In the end, you just have to feel it out.
Knead or No-Need?
Once you've decided on whether to use egg yolk or not, and you've sprinkled your flour all over the dough, the next big consideration is how to combine them together. Overwork it and you'll develop the flour's gluten too much, resulting in hard, gummy gnocchi. Under-work it, and you won't form a proper dough; the gnocchi may look good, but they'll start to fall apart once they hit the water.
Canora's trick is to start with a bench scraper or similar tool to cut the flour into the potato instead of working it in with your hands, the idea being that the cutting motion helps mix the ingredients together with minimal gluten development. Only after they've been cut together does he switch to a hand-mixing method.
I tested his method, using both a bench scraper and a pastry cutter. (I figured the multiple wires on a pastry cutter would make even quicker work of the process, which they do.) I also made batches using only my hands.
Truth is, it can work either way. I was able to mix the dough with my hands and achieve results that were indistinguishable from the bench-scraper method. That said, I see no harm in Canora's trick, and I think it's worth using. At its worst, it offers little to no benefit. At its best, it provides some good insurance against gluten development, and will increase your chances of making light gnocchi that aren't gummy.
No matter which method you start off with, there are some important details to keep in mind when you do start using your hands. Namely, you don't want to knead the dough—at least, not in the traditional, bread-making sense of the word. With bread, the motion involves folding and then pressing the dough down while stretching it out with the palm of your hand, with the goal of developing the wheat gluten.
With gnocchi, you want none of that lateral shearing/stretching motion, since gluten development is your enemy. Instead, you want to simply fold the dough over itself and then gently press down flat with your hand, repeating only as much as is necessary to completely incorporate the flour.
Are the Ridges Necessary?
The last big decision for your gnocchi is one of form. Classically, gnocchi are ridged, which can be done either on the tines of a fork or using a little wooden paddle called a rigagnocchi (from riga, the Italian word for "ridge" or "line"), which is designed expressly for that purpose. Some people claim that the ridges help the sauce cling to the gnocchi better.
A lot of chefs skip this step; some claim that it's unnecessary and that it doesn't actually help with sauce adherence.
From what I can tell, the ridges really don't help all that much to make the sauce stick, but another feature of the ridging process does. See, when you ridge the gnocchi, you roll them with your thumb along the rigagnocchi or fork tines. On one side, you get the ridges; on the other, you get an indentation from your thumb, and this indentation definitely helps pick up extra sauce, almost as if there's a tiny little cup in each gnocco.
Whether the time and effort to put ridges on each little dumpling is worth it to you is a personal call. It's certainly not essential. In the step-by-step below, I skip it, but if you do decide to do it, these photos give you an idea of how.
Step by Step
We start by baking the potatoes whole, and we want to get them very tender all the way through, since undercooked potato will fight you every step of the gnocchi-making way.
As soon as they come out of the oven, split them in half lengthwise. If you use tongs to steady the potatoes, you won't have to wait for them to cool at all. This helps the steam billow out instead of being absorbed back into the potato flesh as it cools.
Then, as soon as you can handle them, scoop all of the flesh into a ricer or food mill fitted with its finest disk, and press the baked potato out onto a work surface. You can also push the potato through a fine-mesh drum strainer, if you have one, but other methods of mashing, like using a potato masher, aren't a good idea here, since the last thing you want to do is overwork the potato before you even start to add the flour (not to mention that any mashing method that leaves chunks is not going to work for gnocchi).
In case you're curious, I've found that once the potatoes are riced, you'll be working with almost half the weight of potato that you started with, so a pound of whole potatoes, uncooked, will end up close to eight ounces once riced. This makes sense when you factor in both water loss during baking and the removal of the skins before ricing.
Once again, the sooner you can rice or mill the potatoes, the better, since it will let more steam escape. See the steam in the above photo? Better it float off into the air than reabsorb into my potato. Spreading the riced potato into a flat, even layer (instead of letting it pile up in a heap) will allow even more surface area for steam to lift off. Let the potato steam and cool for a few minutes.
If you're using egg yolk, now's the time to drizzle it on. Try to get it all over the potato in a thin stream.
Now, take about two-thirds of your flour, and sift it all over the potato. I like sifting, since it aerates the flour and provides very even coverage.
Here's where I use Canora's trick of cutting the flour (and egg, if using) into the potato. You can use a bench scraper, but a pastry cutter, like the one pictured here, works even better, since its multiple wires do more work with each downward cut. Chop all over until you have a fairly uniform crumble of flour and potato; it won't be perfectly mixed together yet, but it should be close.
Using a bench scraper, gather up all the little bits, and collect them into a mass in the center.
And pat it all together into a loose ball.
Fold it over itself, and press down gently to make a flat area.
Now sprinkle most of the remaining flour on top.
Then gently fold and press, without stretching the dough as you would when kneading bread...
...until that second addition of flour is incorporated. If the dough feels very sticky and wet, add whatever is left of your flour (and possibly even a little more, if necessary).
The dough may still be slightly warm, almost like it's radiating body heat, and incredibly supple without any elasticity, yet it should also feel like a cohesive dough.
Pat it into a log and dust all over with flour to prevent sticking. This is a good time to scrape your work surface clean of any loose bits.
Looks like the stork dropped off a little gift. By the way, this is also where babies come from.
Let it rest for a few minutes, then, using a clean and dry bench scraper, slice off about an inch-thick slab. Inside, you should expose a tender potato-dough surface with tiny little air pockets.
Dust the slab you cut off lightly with flour, and roll it into a small log.
Keep on rolling it into a thinner and thinner log until it starts to resemble those Play-Doh snakes we all used to make as kids. Here's a tip: Be gentle as you roll (since pressure will flatten the tender snake and prevent it from rolling), and try to use your palms more than your fingers, since fingers have a tendency to leave indentations that will lead to thick and thin spots along the snake. Still, sometimes you'll have to use your fingers. Dust with flour as needed to prevent sticking.
If all goes well, you'll end up with about a half-inch-thick snake of dough, like this.
Now take your bench scraper, and cut the snake crosswise into one-inch gnocchi.
Gently push those gnocchi aside, keeping them well floured to prevent them from sticking to each other, then repeat with the remaining dough.
When it's time to cook them, bring some very generously salted water to a boil. Gnocchi can be served with all kinds of sauces, including tomato sauce, a creamy sauce made from melted gorgonzola dolce, or a simple sage-butter sauce, which is what I'm showing here. To make the sage-butter sauce, just melt some butter in a saucepan and fry fresh sage leaves in it. If the butter browns a little, that's a good thing.
Then drop the gnocchi into the water, and when they're all in, give them a gentle stir to make sure they don't clump, while also being careful not to damage them with your spoon.
Pretty soon, they'll start floating to the surface. I let them go about 20 seconds longer, then taste one. It should be cooked through, with no raw flour core, and tender throughout. Then I scoop them out with a strainer and dump them in the skillet with the sauce.
You want some of the cooking water to get into the skillet, too, so there's no need to drain them carefully. For a butter sauce like this, your goal is to have it emulsify with the starchy cooking water to form a creamy (not greasy) sauce. If need be, add a few tablespoons of extra cooking water.
Then simmer the gnocchi in that sauce, tossing, for just a few seconds to bring it all together. Your gnocchi should be just firm enough to withstand the gentle tossing.
At this point, you can carefully spoon the gnocchi into bowls, top with cheese, and serve.
If they're to your satisfaction, you may be tempted to rest your head in the bowl and take a nap. I don't recommend it. As pillowy as they may be, that butter will do a number on your skin.