Food Lover Friday: Exploring the Different Types of Gnocchi

Last week, we went over the different types of pasta. This week, we’re looking at gnocchi. When you think of gnocchi, you probably think of pillowy puffs of potato pasta. But did you know there are several different types of gnocchi, made with ingredients as varied as ricotta, semolina and even a cream-puff-type egg dough? Learning more about gnocchi is an investment in food and cooking know-how: this is an extremely versatile and varied member of the Italian pasta family.

Gnocchi Dish, on Craftsy

Photo via Craftsy instructorGerri Sarnataro

In Craftsy course How to Make Gnocchi Like a Pro, you’ll learn the secrets to making tender, delicious gnocchi. Starting with the famous potato variation, chef Gerri Sarnataro breaks down the process in easy steps, from selecting the proper spuds to cutting and shaping perfect dumplings. From there, you’ll learn several creative gnocchi variations, including a spinach-and ricotti-gnudi and a rustic polenta gnocchi.

Chef Sarnataro’s pedigree in cookery is solid. After receiving her degree in culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute, she worked at several top New York restaurants, and eventually opened Cucina della Terra, Umbria’s premier hands-on cooking school. Today, in addition to being a Craftsy instructor, she teaches classes in professional-level pastry arts, specialty culinary skills, and Italian home cooking at the Institute of Culinary Education.

To give you a small taste of what you’ll learn in her class, check out Gerri Sarnataro’s butternut squash gnocchi recipe and top it with her delicious sage butter sauce.

Before you learn to perfect the art of making gnocchi, let’s learn a bit about the stuff. Here’s a helpful primer on all things gnocchi, including the different types.

What is gnocchi, exactly?

Basically, they are little dumplings that are either boiled or baked. Perhaps owing to their strong presence in Italian cooking, they are often treated and served similarly to pasta. While potato is probably the most popular type, gnocchi can actually be made out of just about any ingredient that can be formed into a dough.

While typically these little pasta dumplings are described as “pillowy,” visually, they can vary. Some are round, some are oval. Some are even sort of pillow-shaped, like a rounded square. Some are grooved (this helps them hold sauces).

How did it get its name?

There are a few different stories behind the name gnocchi (which, by the way, is pronounced “NYO-key”). Some say it is derived from the Italian nocchio, which translates as “gnarl,” after its resemblance to a knot or gnarl in wood. Others say it’s derived from nocca, which means “knuckle,” which could refer to its knobby appearance or to the use of one’s hands in the making of the pasta.

Where did it come from?

Most of us think of Italy right away when we think of gnocchi. But actually, the pasta is said to be of Middle Eastern origin. Apparently, original versions were made with semolina dough. The recipe was picked up by Romans as their empire expanded, and adapted in a number of ways dependent on local ingredient availability and flavor preferences, including the famous potato variation.

Regional variations

Does gnocchi sound like a dish you’ve heard of or tried in a different culture? You’re probably right. Many different cultures have their own unique spin on gnocchi, using a different shape or different ingredient for the dough, although the dish may be known by a different name depending on where you are. It’s similar to how many different cultures will have a regional variation on sweetened fried dough (for instance, how the doughnut has cultural variations including zeppole, beignets or pazcki).

Key variations

There are several key types of gnocchi: Roman-style, potato gnocchi, Parisian gnocchi and ricotta gnocchi, from which many variations will root. Here’s an explanation of these key types.

Gnocchi in Pan

Roman-style gnocchi via Gerri Sarnataro

Roman-style gnocchi (gnocchi alla Romana)

  • What it is: the key ingredient is semolina flour, which is boiled into a mush, then cooled and made with semolina that is cooked into a mush. Once cooled, it’s molded into a thick but flat dough, from which shapes are cut out and then baked.
  • Serving suggestion: typically served right out of the oven, these flat gnocchi are great with butter and cheese, but are also sturdy enough to hold up to meatballs and tomato-based sauces.

Rolling and Shaping Gnocchi, on Craftsy

Gnocchi dough via Gerri Sarnataro

Potato gnocchi (gnocchi di patate)

  • What it is: mashed potatoes are combined with egg and rounded out with some all-purpose flour and made into dough, which is then cut and shaped by hand. These gnocchi are briefly boiled to cook. While potatoes are the most famous ingredient, this style of gnocchi can also be made with other starchy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes or squash varieties.
  • Serving suggestion: this type of gnocchi is excellent served with butter and a dusting of Parmesan cheese, but it also takes well to a variety of different textured and flavored sauces, from tomato to Gorgonzola to pesto.

Parisian gnocchi (Gnocchi Parisienne):

  • What it is: a type of gnocchi made with pâte à choux (yes, that would be cream puff dough). The dough is piped right into boiling water, and as the gnocchi float to the surface of the water, they’re done. This quick cooking gives them a delicate texture. It’s an extremely light and airy variation.
  • Serving suggestion: simple cooking methods suit the delicate nature of this type of gnocchi. Gentle pan frying in butter will give them a nice, crunchy finish, and they’re great tossed with herbs. Keep sauces on the lighter side to let these light gnocchi really shine.

Vegetable Gnocchi in a Bowl

Spinach ricotta gnocchi via Gerri Sarnataro

Ricotta gnocci (gnocchi di ricotta)

  • What it is: made by straining ricotta of excess liquid, then combining it with a flour and egg mixture to form a dough, which is shaped then boiled until the gnocchi float. Extremely easy to make, this is a great sort for beginners to try.
  • Serving suggestion: cheese loves tomato, so ricotta gnocchi is wonderful with Italian tomato-based sauces. Also, consider incorporating any flavor you’d usually pair with ricotta, like basil or black olives. Included in How to Make Gnocchi Like a Pro is a particularly toothsome recipe for spinach ricotta gnocchi served with tomato sauce and cheese.

Have you ever made gnocchi at home?

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