Outside of chicken and dumplings and matzo ball soup, you don’t see many recipes for humble blobs of boiled dough. This is a huge missed opportunity. Fast, simple, comforting, and cheap, dumplings are the ultimate home cooking hack, and as we round the corner on Soup and Stew Season, it’s the perfect time to get acquainted.
Dumplings truly contain multitudes. Every culinary tradition in every part of the world has at least one take on simple boiled dough. Some versions are cooked right in the soup or stew they’re served with; some are boiled separately, then pan-fried until crisp. But however they’re cooked, the actual preparation is remarkably similar: Take some flour or starch and mix in water, eggs, and/or dairy products until the dough reaches the desired texture. Depending on the ingredient proportions, the finished dumplings range from firm and chewy to fluffy and pillowy-soft—and everything in-between. And, being neutral carbs, they’re equally as at home stretching leftovers into a full meal as they are sitting pretty on your fanciest serving platter (ideally next to a festive roast).
I have two recipes for you that illustrate a tiny sliver of the wide and wonderful world of boiled dough. On one end of the spectrum, we’ve got a real showstopper: Nudli, a hearty stew of pork ribs, potatoes, and onions topped with breathtaking chewy dumpling spirals. On the other is a simple formula for soft, fluffy, bread-like dumplings that work with any weeknight braise. Both are central European in influence—because that’s my comfort food wheelhouse—but the dumpling universe obviously extends far beyond Europe; you should explore it to your heart’s content. With that said, let’s start with the showstopper.
Nudli (Pork rib stew with spiral dumplings)
This is my take on the nudli recipe from Mamushka, Olia Hercules’ excellent Ukrainian cookbook. I’ve made changes over the years to suit my pantry and preferences—extra potatoes and some brown sugar in the stew; apple cider vinegar instead of apple juice to deglaze; yogurt instead of kefir for the dough, which I like to grease with pan drippings—but the base techniques are the same.
Speaking of substitutions, don’t swap in beef short ribs or even a different cut of pork here. The ribs make this dish. If you don’t eat pork, an equivalent weight of bone-in, skin-on chicken leg quarters is the next best thing, though I can’t personally vouch for it. If you don’t eat meat, save the dumpling recipe for your favorite vegetarian stew.
For the stew, you will need:
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2-3 pounds pork ribs, cut into single rib sections
- 1 1/2 – 2 pounds russet or golden potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar, plus more to taste
- Salt to taste
Heat the oil in a 6-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Brown the ribs, removing them to a bowl as they finish. Do the same with the potatoes. Drain the fat and add the onions to the pot; cook until translucent, scraping up the fond. Deglaze with the vinegar and a splash of water. Add the ribs and potatoes back to the pot, along with any accumulated juices, and barely cover with water. Season with salt and brown sugar until the liquid tastes good, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours.
While the stew cooks, prepare the dumpling dough. You will need:
- 3 cups (450 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 3 teaspoons (12 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 1/2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder
- 3 teaspoons (15 grams) table salt
- 1 1/2 cups full-fat yogurt, thinned with water to a pourable consistency if needed
- The reserved drippings from searing the ribs
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl and set aside. Pour the yogurt into the dry ingredients and stir with a flexible spatula until it forms a shaggy dough.
Work it with your hands until all the flour is absorbed and you have a cute little ball of lumpy, slightly sticky dough. If it still looks dry, add a little more water or yogurt. Cover the ball with plastic and rest until there’s 30 minutes left on the stew timer.
Generously flour your counter and rolling pin and divide the dough into three pieces. Take a piece of dough and roll it out into a rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. (The other dimensions don’t matter; you just need a short side and a long side.) Evenly spread a tablespoon of pan drippings over the surface. Starting with the long edge, roll the dough up into a tight log, then twist the ends a little bit and set it aside. Repeat this process with the other two pieces of dough. Finally, cut the logs into 2-inch pieces, collecting them on a plate or sheet pan as you go.
Before you add the dumplings to the stew, check the liquid level. The top layer of pork and potatoes should be just barely peeking through the broth. If it’s completely exposed and dry on top, add 1-2 cups of water to loosen things up.
Bring the stew to a full boil over medium-high and carefully arrange the dumplings on the surface with the spirals facing up. When you run out of dumplings, place a piece of foil over the pot and set the lid on top to create a tight seal. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 40 minutes, at which point the dumplings will be plump and the pork will fall off the bone. Serve immediately with pickles, grainy mustard, and a stack of napkins.
Obviously, nudli is a little too involved—and rich—to be an everyday recipe. But that’s a function of the stew and the spirals, both of which are fussier than average. Boiled dough is, by design, a thoroughly weeknight-friendly addition to your favorite recipes—one you don’t even need a recipe to make.
How to improvise your own dumplings
Cold-weather food just isn’t complete without carbs—but, for obvious coronavirus-related reasons, popping out to the store to acquire specific carbs for a recipe isn’t an option. If you’re craving stew and fresh out of bread or noodles, dumplings have your back. This is the basic formula I use for fluffy yet substantial dumplings:
- 2 cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon (about 14 grams) baking powder
- 1 teaspoon (4 grams) table salt
- 1 egg, beaten
- Up to 1 cup leftover cooked root vegetables, mashed (optional)
- Up to 1 cup shredded cheese (optional)
- Up to 1/2 cup chopped herbs (optional)
- Up to 1 1/2 cups milk, yogurt, buttermilk, or sour cream
Combine the dry ingredients, stir in the egg and any optional extras—I added leftover mashed sweet potatoes today—and work it together with a spatula. Drizzle in your dairy of choice little by little until you have a sticky, yet cohesive, batter.
To cook them, simply drop spoonfuls of batter into a simmering pot of stew. (This is the Smitten Kitchen mushroom bourgignon, a perfect recipe.) Pop the lid on, simmer for another 35-45 minutes, and enjoy.
The final dish may not win any beauty contests, but those who would judge comfort food by its appearance are fools unworthy of its rewards.
Once you’ve got the basic formula down, you may feel compelled to add dumplings to any and every recipe that crosses your path. This impulse is worth indulging. Every warm and comforting dish has a dumpling to match: Try cornbread dumplings with chili, sour cream and dill dumplings in borsch, or Gruyère-stuffed dumplings for French onion soup. You really can’t go wrong.