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Self-Raising Versus Plain Flour for Potato Gnocchi


doctortim
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I have too much time on my hands, so this afternoon I decided to answer a question that no one else asked :hmmm:. Since I was doing it, I thought I might as well post the results and at the same time highlight a way of making gnocchi that has always worked for me...

Background

One of the researchers at work is a lovely Italian woman who I often talk to about cooking. She's a wonderful cook and I love exchanging recipes and ideas with her. She tells me about her baked trout with olives and potatoes, and I tell her about my steamed flathead with Thai chilli sauce and snow pea salad. She tells me about her risotto Milanese with roasted bone marrow and I tell her about my seared tuna steak with rosemary and baby potato and capsicum salad. She tells me about her zucchini flowers stuffed with Brie, prosciutto, and deep fried and I... drop my jaw in awe.

The other day I was telling her about some gnocchi I made and she told me that she always uses self-raising flour. The idea is that it helps fluff up the gnocchi and makes an even lighter dumpling despite the same amount of flour. The idea was intriguing, and I wanted to try it. Not long ago I was chatting with a family friend about the perfect potato gnocchi, and he disagreed, vehemently declaring, "No! It's plain flour without a doubt".

Fast forward to now. I've got 3 weeks off, while my girlfriend and all of my friends are at their busiest time of the year. Even with sleep and the world cup, there's still a lot of time left in the day. I finished all of my PS2 games. I love gnocchi, so I decided to put both experts' advice to the test. Because I'm a huge nerd first and a lover of cooking second, a controlled trial was in order to test the hypothesis: that self-raising flour produces fluffier potato gnocchi.

Methods

The ingredients used were:

1 large red skin potato (~225g)

~25g plain flour

~25g self-raising flour

Salt

The plan was to boil the potato, mash it and then halve the mixture, with half combined with self-raising and half with plain flour. In general when making potato gnocchi I use 1/4x grams of flour for every x grams of potato, plus a bit of salt. Marcella Hazan doesn't use eggs, and that's good enough for me! I’ve found that gnocchi made with eggs can be too heavy, and requires more flour to come together into a good dough. Also, why complicate things?

First I boiled the potato (skin on!). How about this for an exciting photo?

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When the potato was done, I peeled it and mashed it with some salt. Ideally you'd want to put the potato through a ricer or food mill, but since I'd lent mine out to someone this had to do. It wasn't a big deal, just make sure you don’t mash the hell out of it or it'll become too starchy and sticky.

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I halved the mashed potato and set to making the gnocchi. First with plain flour.

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Rolled out, then chopped up.

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Time to shape them. I've seen Italian grandmothers and mere mortals with good manual dexterity who can shape them in one bewilderingly-fast and fluid motion, but I've never known how to do it. My technique is simply to squash them on the bench top with a fork.

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Then roll them.

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One batch done.

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For the self raising flour it was the same deal. Done! Closest are the plain flour (PF) gnocchi, and furthest are the self-raising flour (SRF) gnocchi.

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Time to cook them. Boiling salted water. Realisation that with all of this spare time I should have cleaned my stovetop.

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I put the SRF gnocchi in first, and now the PF gnocchi. You can see that the SRF gnocchi are starting to rise.

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I took the SRF gnocchi out. Although the rule of thumb is to take gnocchi out of the water as soon as they rise to the surface of the water, these ones rose really quickly, before they were done. Possibly an effect of the carbon dioxide released by the self-raising flour? I let them simmer for maybe an extra minute before taking them out.

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The PF gnocchi on the other hand, were done as soon as they rose to the surface.

Gnocchi: cooked (SRF on left, PF on right).

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Results

Now the best part! I tossed them in some fresh pesto and topped with tomatoes sautéed with a splash of balsamic (SRF on left, PF on right).

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Both gnocchi were robust enough to not get damaged when I tossed them with the pesto, so they passed the first test. Both gnocchi tasted the same. The difference was where it was always going to be: the texture. I tried to help illustrate the texture difference with Daniel-esque "bite" shots. Kudos to Daniel, bite shots are damn tricky to get in focus.

The SRF gnocchi was like a puff of mashed potato that by some miracle had managed to hold together into a coherent dumpling. It was a wraith of a gnocchi, so soft and fluffy it was barely there at all. I tore one in half to give an impression of the texture inside. You can see that the edge is quite rough – compare it to the shot of the PF gnocchi. While they were strong enough to hold together, they didn't stand up very well to gentle pressure under a fork.

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The PF gnocchi were soft enough that they didn't yield to the teeth, but firm enough that they kept their shape with gentle pressure under a fork. I was still able to tear it in half, only this time the break was much cleaner.

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I thought the difference might be that the SRF gnocchi were either under or overcooked, but I cooked some more for different times and that was not the case.

Conclusions

I have too much free time.

Also, I preferred the PF gnocchi. The SRF gnocchi were lighter and fluffier, but there's such a thing as too fluffy. In my opinion gnocchi need to have some bite and some presence, but the SRF did not have that. Also, that they rose before they were done made them harder to cook. At best the gnocchi made with self-raising flour weren't better, and at worst they were noticeably worse.

Data were pooled, covered, and refrigerated for dinner.

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Dr. Zoidberg: Goose liver? Fish eggs? Where's the goose? Where's the fish?

Elzar: Hey, that's what rich people eat. The garbage parts of the food.

My blog: The second pancake

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Cool experiment and one that would have really shaken some of my preconceptions if the SRF gnocchi worked out. But aren't you supposed to use baker potatoes for the gnocchi?

I've made pasta out of a yeasted dough before and found similar results: interesting at first, but then you kinda miss that toothsome bite.

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Thanks everyone for the positive comments!

Cool experiment and one that would have really shaken some of my preconceptions if the SRF gnocchi worked out.  But aren't you supposed to use baker potatoes for the gnocchi?

Good point. I used what was in the cupboard :smile:.

Since you have so much time on your hands. . .what would you think about trying a batch with 1/2 PF and 1/2 SRF?

And how about with Italian "tipo 00" flour?

I was planning on making gnocchi tomorrow, so hey, why not. Stay tuned..

Dr. Zoidberg: Goose liver? Fish eggs? Where's the goose? Where's the fish?

Elzar: Hey, that's what rich people eat. The garbage parts of the food.

My blog: The second pancake

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Tried gnocchi again with (1) Tipo 00 flour; (2) Plain flour; and (3) 1/2 Plain, 1/2 self-raising flour. I had a friend around, and we both sampled (without knowing which was which until after) the gnocchi. In order of goodness, we both ranked them (1) 00; (2) Plain; (3) Half-half. I thought there wasn't much in it between (1) and (2), but he did. The difference between (1), (2) and (3) was enough that when we mixed the three batches together for lunch we could tell when we were eating a (3) compared to a (1) or (2).

Think your research will convince your co-worker of the error of her gnocchi?

As a staunch supporter of evidence-based gnocchi, I hope that this inspires her to give plain flour another shot. And then I hope she lets me try some.

(By the way, slkinsey is totally spot on. His tomato sauce here is perfect for gnocchi)

Dr. Zoidberg: Goose liver? Fish eggs? Where's the goose? Where's the fish?

Elzar: Hey, that's what rich people eat. The garbage parts of the food.

My blog: The second pancake

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Great experiment doctotrim, it was fun to read. Well done!

I personally never use SRF for gnocchi, so I completely agree with your conclusions :smile: .

I would say you are now ready for part two of your research project: the potatoes. you could test waxy vs floury and boiled vs baked... just in case you still have some free time to fill .

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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