Great potato gnocchi should be tender, ethereally light, nicely potatoey and able to stand up to any sauce. So why does this marvelous dish, composed of just three ingredients (potatoes, flour and salt), so often come out doughy and tasteless?
Though I've been writing about food for 40 years, it's only in the past year that I've figured out how to make perfect gnocchi. From my explorations, I've come up with the following six indispensable steps.
Step one: Start with Yukon Gold potatoes. Russets will do, but Yukon Golds have more of the nutty flavor of the yellow-fleshed boiling potatoes used by the Italian and Provençal cooks who have mastered gnocchi.
Step two: Bake the potatoes, don't boil them. Water is the enemy of good gnocchi dough. I cook my potatoes by piercing each of them several times with a fork, then baking them on a bed of coarse salt to draw out excess moisture as they cook.
Step three: Rice the potatoes with a fine potato ricer or, better yet, a drum sieve or tamis. Avoid mashers and food mills, which compress the potatoes. You want to produce tiny crumbles that will release yet more moisture, producing extra-light gnocchi.
Step four: Use two-thirds all-purpose flour to one-third cake flour. Ordinary all-purpose flour is all right, but it isn't milled finely enough to be fully absorbed into the potato crumbles. Plus, it has too much protein: High-protein wheat results in chewy gnocchi. If you want to be truly Italian, look for imported Italian flour marked 00 TENERO, which is milled from soft wheat with a low protein content.
Step five: To calculate how much flour to use, weigh the potatoes after you've baked and riced them, not before; after baking and ricing, the potatoes will have lost almost half their weight. You'll need about 1 cup of flour for every pound of riced potato—more if the potatoes are very young, or if it's quite humid out.
Step six: Use a bench scraper to incorporate the potatoes and the flour. Most books instruct you to knead the dough until smooth, but kneading is too harsh for gnocchi made without eggs and will make them tough. I use a bench scraper to blend in about three-quarters of the flour. I incorporate the remainder when I roll and shape the dough.
Once you have followed these six steps to perfect potato-gnocchi dough, the rest is fairly straightforward. You can shape the gnocchi according to your whim; cooks in many areas of Provence, Corsica and Italy have their own preferred shapes. This is the fun part, where you get to flip, curve and press the dough.