I don’t think I’ve ever once been happy with the quality of store-bought, shelf-stable gnocchi. To me, these simply aren’t gnocchi; they’re something else entirely. If gnocchi are supposed to be light, fluffy, ethereal little potato pillows, then what the hell exactly are the gnocchi you see on store shelves? Tasteless bricks. Cheap, formidable tanks without any potato flavor whatsoever. Gnocchi, I’ve come to understand, are meant to be enjoyed at a restaurant or through the laborious process of making them by hand. Recently, though, I picked up some store-bought gnocchi after a friend told me I had been cooking them wrong.
I did a gnocchi tasting last year for Sporked in which I boiled each of the gnocchi according to package directions, and boy, was I pissed. All of them tasted pretty much the same and had the same awful texture. (I ended up being partial to the cauliflower gnocchi because at least those seemed to emulate that sort of soft, pillowy nature you want in good gnocchi). Boiled gnocchi are gummy and bland.
It’s not just the off-putting texture, it’s the taste. Shelf-stable gnocchi are tart and acidic, with an unpleasant tanginess that I just can’t wrap my brain around—my best guess is that taste comes from preserving agents like lactic acid. Preservatives are simply not gnocchi’s friend.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time as a line cook, it’s how to polish a turd. That’s what I’m doing here today. It turns out that store-bought gnocchi are actually great if you know what you’re doing. Admittedly, I didn’t. Now I do.
Oven roast gnocchi on a sheet tray
The first suggestion I received from friends was to oven roast gnocchi instead of boiling it like the instructions say. This set me on a journey to stop treating store-bought gnocchi like homemade gnocchi. That’s the theme here.
I boiled Simple Truth organic gnocchi, and they were gummy, sour, and sticky, just like I remember. They also only vaguely tasted like potatoes. For my next batch, I took the gnocchi and tossed them in olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasted them in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. They were crispy on the outside, tender and soft on the inside. Not exactly little pillows, but really damn good. Roasting them on a sheet tray also caramelized them somewhat, so there was a really great sweetness to them, not that sourness you get from boiling.
Whatever else you decide to throw on that sheet tray—carrots, shallots, garlic, onion, mushrooms—will impart their flavors to the gnocchi as well. I’ll never boil store-bought gnocchi again, and I honestly think everybody should just disregard the package directions and switch to oven roasting from here on out.
Pan sear gnocchi in butter
Another way to improve the flavor and texture of shelf-stable gnocchi is to drown it in butter. If your plan is to buy store-bought gnocchi and cook it for a weeknight dinner, you’re going to need fat. Lots of fat. Grapeseed oil and olive oil will do a good job, but really what you want is to sear these little tanks some clarified butter or ghee. Really brown them. You’ll get the same effect as oven roasting them, but by searing and basting them in butter you’ll achieve some nuttiness, too. Butter fixes a lot.
Embrace bastardized American pasta techniques
Try as I might to make store-bought gnocchi taste like my mom’s Sunday version, it just wasn’t going to happen. Kroger gnocchi softly boiled and tossed in a pomodoro sauce just isn’t going to taste homey and comforting like I want it to. So instead, let us embrace all of the nasty, crude versions of pasta that many Italians hate. Yesterday, I made a quick, thoughtless carbonara with peas and bacon, which satisfied intensely. By no stretch is this elegant food, but I found it to be wonderful.
Shelf-stable gnocchi is simply not the pasta to pair with simple tomato sauces and traditional preparations. Get nasty with it. Use cream, add lots of butter, blast it with cheese, etc. Do all of the things that would undoubtedly upset an Italian chef.
Embrace sweet flavors, and go for caramelized onions
After I oven roasted some gnocchi, I got to thinking that maybe sweetness is the name of the game here. Sweetness from caramelization, from the heavy cream in an American carbonara, and from caramelized onions. The sweetness of the onions will mask some of the tough and tart qualities of the gnocchi itself. With shelf-stable gnocchi, you’re starting off with a pretty acrid flavor, so sweetness will balance that.
Overall, think of this gnocchi like miniature baked potatoes
There’s a reason sheet tray gnocchi recipes are so popular. It actually works. Oven roasting gnocchi is the same technique you’d use for potatoes, so I now think of shelf-stable gnocchi as simply potatoes. Searing some De Cecco gnocchi and topping it with sour cream, bacon bits, and chives is definitely not its intended use, but who cares? I just polished off a bowl of oven roasted gnocchi with labneh and hot sauce. Is this pasta? No. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just fucking good.