I grew up on my mother’s gnocchi, and I remember not only their incomparable lightness, but the sight of her shaping them one by one in our kitchen. By the time she had finished, the whole kneading board was covered with plump, ridge-backed dumplings ready to be cooked in boiling water, and then tossed in a long-simmering ragù or warmed through and browned with a little Parmesan in the oven. It was easy to eat too many, and often I did.
My mother’s method was governed not by a recipe, but by her good instincts and feel for the dough. With a bit of practice, you too can develop a feel for gnocchi. A starchy potato, a short knead, and a little practice flicking small nuggets of dough off the tines of a dinner fork will give you light gnocchi that are great with all kinds of sauces, from a hearty ragù to a deliciously simple sauce of brown butter and sage with a dusting of Parmesan.
Gnocchi come in many forms
Because my mother’s family is from the Veneto, we always ate potato gnocchi, which are typical of the region; that’s the kind I’m making here.
Gnocchi (pronounced NYOH-kee) is a general term that describes boiled, baked, or fried dumplings. You may have come across the other versions that abound throughout Italy: fried and leavened dough, meatball-shaped dumplings made with wild greens and ricotta cheese, or porridge made from semolina enriched with butter and cheese, cut into disks, and browned in a broiler.There are savory gnocchi, sweet gnocchi, and gnocchi to be eaten simply as an appetizer. Gnocchi take on regional names, too. (In Campania, they go by the unsettling name strangulapreti—priest stranglers.)
High-starch baking potatoes make the lightest gnocchi
Despite the differences, all gnocchi are composed of a principal flavor ingredient (in this case, mashed potatoes), a binder (here I’m using wheat flour), and a simple seasoning (these are tossed in browned sage butter right before serving) to support and enhance the principal ingredient.
Baking potatoes produce the lightest gnocchi. Large potatoes that are dry, fluffy, and starchy when cooked produce the lightest dough. I’ve had good results with russets, also known as Idahoes. Yellow Finns, slightly lower in starch, work well, too. Avoid low-starch, “waxy” potatoes—they turn especially gluey when added to flour, producing leaden gnocchi.
Boiling the potatoes in their jackets, draining them in a colander, and letting them dry in their own steam gives you a fluffy, starchy potato that in turn helps you get the lightest, driest, most tender dough. I’ve tried baking the potatoes for gnocchi, but again, letting boiled potatoes dry on their own makes fluffy, starchy mashed potatoes that are easier to incorporate into the flour, giving you a lighter result.
Use minimal kneading and just enough flour to bind the dough
With the first knead, you’ll be mixing the dough until blended. The mass should feel slightly firm, a little sticky, and malleable. Here it’s important not to knead the dough too much, because kneading strengthens the gluten in the flour, producing tough gnocchi.
The amount of flour you’ll mix into the gnocchi dough is crucial—you need to straddle the line between not enough and just enough flour. Follow the recipe until you get a good feel for the dough. It should feel soft, pliable, and slightly sticky. Adding too much flour makes the gnocchi heavy; adding too little means they’ll fall apart in the boiling pot.
With cutting and shaping, the dough develops elasticity. As you quarter it and roll it into rope-like lengths, the dough becomes firm enough to allow the characteristic scoring of the surface, and to let the dumplings hold their shape in the boiling water. At this point, it’s fine to liberally flour the work surface, your hands, and the dough. Any flour that sticks to the gnocchi will dissolve in the boiling water rather than being incorporated into the dough.
Rolling the dumplings over the tines of a dinner fork gives gnocchi their characteristic shape. The fork will mark ridges, and turning with your finger results in a small indentation in the back, as you can see in the photos. This scoring and turning isn’t just for looks’ sake. As you’ll taste, the ridges, valleys, and cavity all trap the sauce, which helps add flavor and creates a pleasing texture.
Brown sage butter is a simple, satisfying sauce. To make burro nocciola, as it’s known in Italian (“brown butter”), you brown whole butter to a deep amber, with darker flecks of slightly caramelized butter. There will be a tiny bit of smoke, but if you get lots of black smoke, you’ve gone too far. The sage leaves will be quite dark, crisped, and tossed with the pasta as part of the sauce.