When I lived in Torino I spent a good amount of time each winter in the Alps. For years, my parents have owned a cozy vacation home in the village of Oulx, where the butcher still does his own slaughtering, and herds of cows amble down from high pastures in early fall (you can see them go by our kitchen window). But unlike most of my friends, I didn’t do much skiing or hiking in the cold season. I preferred to help my mother prepare warming dinners in the tavernetta, the snug, comfy wood-paneled family room next to the wine cellar.
In the tavernetta’s rustic kitchen we made robust winter braises like brasato al Barolo (beef braised in Barolo wine), creamy polenta with fontina and Gorgonzola, and my mom’s famously soft, pillowy gnocchi (pronounced NYOH-kee) tossed in a rich sausage ragù. They were so ethereal they almost melted in your mouth, leaving nothing but pure potato flavor. Guests always clamored for her gnocchi when they came for dinner.
So I could barely hide my disappointment when I first ordered gnocchi at an American restaurant. They were tough and chewy, hard to eat after the first few bites. And the gnocchi you buy in stores, I soon discovered, suffer from the same unappealing texture. If this was what Americans thought of gnocchi, I realized, they must be wondering what all the fuss is about.
Though I admit I’ve since eaten delicious gnocchi at a handful of good Italian restaurants known for their authenticity, I’d still rather make them at home. It’s not hard, and I know I won’t be disappointed.
The keys to delicate gnocchi
Good gnocchi, which are essentially light potato dumplings, shouldn’t be tough or chewy at all; they should be soft and delicate, with a silky-smooth texture—just like my mother’s. It’s easy enough to make gnocchi like this at home: All you need is potatoes, flour, eggs, and a little salt. But you do have to pay attention to a few key points in the process to achieve the right texture.
First, use russet potatoes. They’re dry and fluffy and produce the lightest gnocchi. I also find that it’s best to use a ricer instead of a masher to crush the cooked potatoes, because it keeps them aerated and soft. Never use a blender or a food processor, or the potatoes will turn into glop.
Add just enough flour to hold the dough together, and don’t overmix. The culprit in tough gnocchi is usually one of two things (or both): too much flour in the dough or too much kneading. In the years of making gnocchi with my mother, I’ve learned exactly how much flour I need to add, although I had to adapt the recipe here to American flour and potatoes, both of which are slightly different from what you find in Italy. I’ve also learned that the dough should be kneaded just until the flour is fully incorporated, not a moment longer; otherwise the flour’s gluten will make the gnocchi tough.
Save time: skip the fork
Classic Italian homemade gnocchi are pressed on a fork to curl them and impart the traditional ridges. To save time, I just cut them in small squares and leave them as cute little pillows. I think they look prettier, and they’re a lot less fussy to make.
Finally, I like to toss gnocchi with a rich, hearty sauce. The ones here are a match made in heaven for homemade gnocchi, and they’re surprisingly easy to prepare. There’s a variation of my mother’s simple ragù with sausage and leeks, perfumed with lots of fresh herbs; a melty, creamy Gorgonzola sauce that comes together in minutes; and a brown butter and sage sauce that I pair with pan-seared gnocchi for a little variety.
In Italy, gnocchi are usually served after appetizers (antipasti) as a first course (or primo piatto), instead of pasta. And they’re followed by a meat and vegetable course (secondo piatto and contorno). When Italians eat gnocchi this way, the portions tend to be on the small side. However, gnocchi can just as easily be served as a main course, preceded or followed by a light green salad. (The servings here are for gnocchi served as a main course.)
Make ahead and freeze
You can serve freshly made gnocchi right away or within a couple of hours, or you can freeze them for later use. Put the gnocchi in the freezer while they’re still on the baking sheets and freeze until they are hard to the touch, at least one hour. Transfer them to a large zip-top bag or several smaller bags and freeze for up to two months.
Cook frozen gnocchi in boiling water in two batches. Frozen gnocchi cause the temperature of the cooking water to drop, so they’ll fall apart before the water returns to a boil if there are too many in the pot.
Don’t refrigerate fresh gnocchi for more than two or three hours, as they tend to ooze water and become soggy.