I love gnocchi. At least, I love the gnocchi in my mind. Light, pillowy, flavor-packed, they're the perfect vessel for turning a good red sauce into a full-fledged meal. In reality, more often than not they're leaden, dense, mushy, or dull. And it's all the fault of the potato.
For years I worked at a restaurant where one of my duties was to make fresh potato gnocchi every day. I got pretty good at it by the end, but man, did it take some learning. Too much flour and they'd end up tough and dense. Not enough and they'd fall apart when you cooked them. And they're a serious time commitment if you want to do 'em right. I still enjoy good potato gnocchi, but I gotta be honest: I can count the number of times I've made potato gnocchi since leaving that job on the fingers of one hand.
But what if I told you that there was another gnocchi? A gnocchi that promises to be light, tender, and flavor-packed on your very first try? A gnocchi that you can have from the pantry to the table in under fifteen minutes?
Ricotta gnocchi, potato gnocchi's faster, easier (and I'll say it: tastier) counterpart truly is fast food—you can make the dough from start to finish in less time than it takes to bring a pot of water to a boil. I really mean that. Given that you can form the gnocchi while your water is heating, and that they boil up in just a couple of minutes—a fraction of the time it takes to boil dry pasta—it's actually faster to make these gnocchi than to cook dried pasta. Imagine that! With this recipe and technique under your belt, you might never make potato gnocchi again (and you'll certainly be spoiled enough that no restaurant-made gnocchi will ever be good enough for you).
Need proof? Here's a quick spoiler on the process. Note the live timer. From start to finish, it took me 8 minutes 53 seconds. I actually had to wait for my water to finish coming to a boil before I could cook them.
Now granted, I've done this a few times (and over a dozen times in the last week alone while developing this recipe), but even if you take, say, three times as long to make a batch of gnocchi as it takes me, we're still talking fresh pasta for dinner in under 30 minutes. It seriously can't be beat.
Recipes for ricotta gnocchi don't vary too wildly. You just combine ricotta, eggs, and flour, roll it into logs, cut it into gnocchi, boil, sauce, and serve. But of course, as with all simple recipes, it comes down to the details—the exact ratio between ingredients and the process by which you combine them.
Here's the method I've developed after some serious testing.
Let's get one thing out of the way right off the bat: not all ricotta is created equal. In fact, of commonly available supermarket ingredients, I'd say it's the one product that shows the most variation between low and high quality. The good stuff can be heavenly while the bad stuff? Gritty, watery, bland, sour-tasting dreck that's not worth the cost of the plastic tub it comes packaged in. So the real question is, how do you tell the good from the bad without tasting it?
Take a look at the ingredients list for your best clue. Low-quality mass market brands will have various gums and stabilizers listed as ingredients, included to bypass costly and time-consuming draining steps. You're essentially buying water that's been stabilized artificially to thicken up with the milk solids in the tub. Higher quality ricotta should list milk, salt, and, at the very most, either an acid or a natural culture. These are the only ones you should be buying.
This kind of ricotta often tends to have a much higher fat content as well, which can be a mixed blessing. High fat makes it creamy, buttery, and luscious for eating plain, but it can also make it a little heavy for gnocchi (higher fat ricotta also has a tendency to stick to the paper towels). Remember: Ricotta is traditionally made from the leftover whey from cheese production, so it should actually be quite low in fat.
I've found that the best ricotta for making gnocchi are those high end ones with a middling range of fattiness; look for three to seven grams of total fat for each quarter cup serving. Calabro is the finest nationally available brand I know.
The Drain Game
No matter what ricotta you choose, the first step is draining it. Fresh from the pot, ricotta is packed with water. This moisture is okay if you're planning on eating it plain drizzled with honey or olive oil, or perhaps spread on some toast, but excess moisture is not a good thing if you're planning on cooking with it. Gnocchi made with excess moisture in them require more flour, which in turn leads to denser, chewier pasta.
So the first step is draining off that water. To figure out the best way, I weighed out batches of gnocchi before and after draining and calculated the total amount of moisture lost and the overall time it took.
The standard method—placing the ricotta in a fine mesh strainer and letting it rest—is by far the most inefficient, draining off at a rate of about a quarter ounce of liquid per hour. Fully draining ricotta to the point where it's ready to cook is an overnight affair.
This is okay if you've got time to kill, but there's a much, much faster way.
How to Drain Ricotta in 1 Minute
I discovered this method a few years back when I was working on a recipe for a ricotta cheesecake. I had pounds and pounds of ricotta on hand, cheesecakes to bake, and not a lot of time to do it. I'd been on a tofu kick (I'm always on a tofu kick) so the process of draining tofu—pressing it between clean towels for a short period of time—was fresh on my mind. I wondered if it would work with ricotta as well. Turns out it does, and very well at that.
You start by lining a plate with a few layers of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, and then dump the ricotta onto it.
Next, spread the ricotta out with a rubber spatula into a thin, even layer.
Cover with more paper towels or a clean kitchen towel...
...and press down firmly with the palms of your hands all over the surface to blot out excess moisture.
The towels should then be easy to lift clean off the ricotta, taking the excess water with them. (With very high fat ricotta, the cheese may stick to the paper towels—you'll need to scrape it off with a rubber spatula.)
With this method, you can drain your ricotta in a matter of minutes as opposed to hours or days. Super premium-quality ricotta that's quite dense to begin with tends to lose relatively little moisture—about 25% or less according to my tests.
Second-tier ricotta sold in tubs or made in-house will lose more like 30% of its weight in moisture after draining. But the interesting part is that even cheaper ricotta, like a standard mass-market supermarket brand, shows very little moisture loss when draining—even less than the premium brands! What gives?
Turns out the culprit is once again those gums and stabilizers that are packed into mass-market ricotta. Ounce for ounce, supermarket ricotta has a higher water content than fancier ricotta (which explains its low price, bland flavor, and inferior texture), but those stabilizers are specifically designed to ensure that water doesn't weep out of the product.
I'm going to say it again because I simply can't say it enough: Do yourself a favor: ignore that bad ricotta and spend a couple extra bucks on the nicer stuff.
Mixing the Dough
We're about halfway through the battle, and it feels like we've only just begun, right? Next step: adding our remaining ingredients.
It's important to weigh your ricotta post-draining in order to guarantee consistent results from batch to batch. This is one realm that many recipes leave up to chance. We've already seen that depending on the type or brand of ricotta you use, the weight after draining can vary wildly. How can you expect your gnocchi to be the same with varying amounts of ricotta in each batch?
To solve this problem, I drain my ricotta, then use exactly 8 ounces of the drained ricotta per batch of gnocchi, saving the rest to serve as an appetizer or for another use.
To the eight ounces of ricotta I add:
one ounce of Parmesan that's been very finely grated on a box grater or a microplane.
If you're counting, that's four ingredients plus salt. Four ingredients, all in a single bowl, no measuring cups or spoons required. Let that simplicity sink in for a minute.
(By the way, that minute of simplicity-sinking just added 10% to your total start-to-finish cooking time. Let that sink in for a minute.)
With potato gnocchi, you have to be extremely careful about how much excess flour you add to the mix. Too much, and it becomes hopelessly dense (a fate that befalls 94% of the gnocchi I've eaten in restaurants). Ricotta gnocchi are far more forgiving. Because of ricotta's high protein and fat content, even with excess flour the dough will have trouble forming gluten, the protein network that can make dough tough to chew. Want proof? I tried purposely adding up to 50% more flour to my mixture and it was still as tender as the best potato gnocchi.
I incorporate my ingredients and knead my dough with a silicone spatula. For optimal conditions, you're looking for a relatively sticky dough that can form a ball, but will still stick to the bottom of your bowl.
Forming the Gnocchi
We're in the home stretch here. Set a large pot of salted water on a burner and then transfer your dough ball to a lightly floured work surface.
Gently shape it into a rectangle.
Using a bench scraper, cut the dough into four even quadrants.
Working one quadrant at a time, stretch the dough into a log (or, as Marco Canora calls them, "dongers"*). The key here is to use just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking completely to your work surface. A small amount of sticking is good—the added friction will help keep your log rolling nicely as you stretch it.
*Coolest moment on Twitter: that time Tom Colicchio tweeted at me with a single word that said "dongers".
Divide each of those logs in half with your bench scraper.
Stretch out each half into a log about a foot long, and then repeat the process with all of the remaining dough.
Cut the logs into individual gnocchi with your bench scraper.
Dust the cut gnocchi with semolina flour and transfer them to a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper and another light dusting of semolina.
At this stage, the gnocchi can be completely frozen and then transferred to a zipper-lock bag to store for up to 2 months (and they can be cooked directly from the freezer). By this stage, your water should be pretty close to a boil.
Cooking and Serving
Once your water is at a boil, drop the gnocchi in, giving them a very gentle stir at the beginning to ensure that they aren't sticking to the bottom of the pot or to each other. Let the gnocchi cook until they've been floating for a good minute. The total time should be around 2 to 3 minutes for fresh gnocchi, or around 5 minutes for frozen. Unlike many other types of fresh pasta, I actually feel it's a more egregious sin to undercook gnocchi than to overcook them. Undercooked, the centers remain dense and pasty. You need to heat them all the way through for the raw flour and egg to set, giving the gnocchi a much firmer—but light—bite.
Drain the cooked gnocchi in a strainer, reserving a bit of the cooking water.
Now, just transfer the cooked gnocchi to your pan full of sauce that's ready and waiting on the side (you did get that sauce ready and waiting, right?), add a big splash of pasta water to help emulsify and bind the sauce, bring it to a hard boil, and cook, stirring and tossing until the sauce has reached a perfect gnocchi-clinging consistency.
Whether I'm making a creamy sauce, a tomato-based one, or simply tossing them in browned butter, in my head, gnocchi and chives simply go together, if only because that's how we served them at that restaurant I used to work at. Parsley or basil would also be great here, and of course, grated Parmesan and a big drizzle of your very best olive oil is essential.
Whoever told you that fast food can't be fan-freaking-tastic is a straight-up liar, or perhaps just an ignoramus. I suggest you school them with a bowl of fresh gnocchi.