Making fluffy gnocchi like your favorite trattoria starts with picking the right potatoes.
When I started writing Food IQ with my buddy Daniel Holzman, we sent out a survey to a couple dozen friends and family asking for their burning food questions, and the request for an “easy way to make really good potato gnocchi at home” came up more than any other. So let’s dig in. Daniel has been making this foundational Northern Italian dish for almost 25 years, and he believes firmly that the key to a good gnocchi game is all about timing—and burnt fingertips.
Potato gnocchi are a gift from the culinary gods—the transformation from simple spud to something fluffy, ethereal, and soaked in brown butter. But that truth is lived only when the gnocchi are made fresh. Store-bought gnocchi (and we’ve all gone in this direction; there’s no shame in it) fall into a different category—gummy, chewy, and definitely not what you order at your favorite neighborhood trattoria. This is because shelf-stable gnocchi have way more flour in them (flour = gluten = toothsome), and they’re extruded under pressure and dried so that they won’t lose their shape. Perfect, pillowy, platonic-ideal gnocchi are made mostly of potatoes, with just enough flour and egg to bind them together. It’s executing this balance that will win the day.
The key is using starchy potatoes and removing as much moisture as possible. Baking the spuds works well, but the microwave is the fastest dry-heat method to cook them through. You can also boil the potatoes in their skin, but make sure to drain them thoroughly before peeling them. This all leads to the critical ricing step. Ricing the potatoes while they’re still hot (using a kitchen tool called a ricer, akin to a garlic press) allows the steam to escape, drying the potatoes further. Yes, your fingertips may suffer a little. And yes, your gnocchi will be the best possible gnocchi.
The real challenge with gnocchi is judging how much flour to add. Add too little, and your gnocchi will fall apart; add too much, and your fluffy pillows will better resemble dense bricks. No recipe can account for the exact moisture content of the potatoes, or the yield amount once the potatoes are riced, so it’s up to the home cook to pick the proper amount of flour and adjust as necessary. The challenge is compounded by the tendency for potatoes to become gummy when worked, so the more you mix, the worse your gnocchi become.
Ideally, you’d add the perfect amount of flour at the beginning, give it a quick mix, and knead—but unless your name is Nadia Santini, you’ll likely have to add a few extra scoops to get the consistency right. You’ll know when you nail it because your pile of mashed potatoes will magically transform into a soft and malleable dough, just barely tacky to the touch but not sticky enough to adhere to the table or your fingers. Once you have your dough ready, you can chill out a little bit, maybe cool your scorched fingertips in an ice bath, and roll the pile of potatoes into long, fragile logs, then cut and shape your gnocchi.
Cooking these clouds is a cinch. Gently drop them into boiling, salty water and wait for them to float, which shouldn’t take more than a minute or two. Scoop them out, and they’re done. Once you’ve got the technique down pat, you can try your hand at some of gnocchi’s more uncommon cousins and distant relatives. The technique works with other starchy vegetables like pumpkin or sweet potato—just beware that the additional moisture adds an extra level of difficulty. Ricotta gnocchi are made with fresh cheese instead of potato, and the curds are drained overnight, then mixed with flour and egg before being formed. Gnudi is made by burying dollops of ricotta in semolina flour and waiting for them to dry. The semolina absorbs the moisture from the cheese, hardening after a few days into a crusty dough around each orb. The end result is a soft ball of delicious cheese, held together by an ifluffy-potato-gnocchi-with-pistachio-pestompossibly thin layer of seamless dough that bursts open when bitten.