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Knoephla (North Dakota Cream-and-Dumpling) Soup Recipe

Why It Works

  • Adding milk and baking powder tenderizes the dumplings.
  • Resting the dough briefly after mixing relaxes the gluten for easier dumpling shaping.
  • Stirring heavy cream into the soup off heat adds a welcome rich finish without running the risk of curdling the cream.

I was fifteen minutes from Strasburg, North Dakota, Lawrence Welk’s hometown, when I saw the red-and-blue lights in my rearview mirror. Oh, no. I’d been road tripping through the Midwest for more than a decade without a speeding ticket.

As it turned out, I was going 70-something in a 65, driving like I was still on the interstate. I did get a ticket. I also got the officer’s thoughts on knoephla—a beloved North Dakotan creamy dumpling soup with roots in Germany—after he asked what brought me to the state. (Answer: the food, mostly.) “My grandma put potato in her dumplings,” he said. “There are different ways to do it. Not sure what the right way is.” He shrugged.

There are different ways to do it, and adding potato to the dumplings is one of the less common, but the knoephla (pronounced nef-la) soup story is usually pretty much the same. It typically involves someone’s grandma, and people who grew up on grandma’s knoephla soup seem to agree that the dish should be a simple and comforting soup, with little more than good chicken broth and handmade (not frozen!) dumplings.

For two months, I ate my way toward the perfect bowl of knoephla soup, maxing out on heavy cream and carbs while testing potential secret ingredients, including miso, celery seed, and various herbs. “I think there’s always a desire to try something new with traditional recipes,” says Jeremy Kopp, interim director of the Germans From Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University, who went through dozens of community cookbooks with me while I was in Fargo researching knoephla. “Historically, everyone had something a little different, but when you boil it down, it’s really all the same. Now, people try to differentiate themselves. There’s that need to be different, or why would someone come to my blog, or read my cookbook?” 

After all my attempts at innovation and differentiation, I ended up with a knoephla soup recipe that’s pretty traditional, resembling many of the recipes in the community cookbooks I’ve been stockpiling (but tested and tweaked for the best possible result). It’s what the dish, which is well known on the Plains but not part of most American cooks’ repertoires, deserves—a straightforward introduction.

Nailing the Soup for My Perfect Version of Knoephla

The knoephla soup that I find most satisfying is comforting but not too heavy, with a texture somewhere between a rich chicken broth and a béchamel. Some knoephla soups are gravy-like in texture, but while a rib-sticking soup can hit the spot in the depths of winter, I can only drink gravy every so often. Other soups are thinner, like chicken and dumplings without the meat, lacking the comforting richness that I associate with the dish. For this recipe, I split the difference by thickening the soup with a small amount of roux, which gave the soup base just the right body.

Cubes of russet potato, softened in the broth, complement the dumplings, adding earthy flavor and extra heft to each spoonful. Chopped celery adds savory depth. (A 2008 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry helped establish why celery is a popular addition to soups like these—it concluded that volatile compounds in the vegetable enhance perceptions of sweet and umami flavors.) I left carrot, a common ingredient, out of this recipe. It adds color to the bowl (as does turmeric, for some cooks), but it isn’t in many of the older recipes, and to me, knoephla soup’s plainness is part of its appeal. Would you add carrot to your mac and cheese? No? Then you won’t miss it here. (Yes? Sounds interesting, but bear with me.)

The Dumplings

I’ve heard more than one North Dakotan compare the dumplings used in knoephla to spaetzle, a close relative. Most North Dakota knoephla are dense and a little bit chewy, unlike fluffy Southern dumplings—but tender, too, after a twenty-minute simmer in the broth. Using milk in the dough and adding a touch of baking powder makes the dumplings soft and slurpable. 

Serious Eats / Qi Ai

In this recipe, I’m asking you to cut your dumplings ahead of time, so you can add them to the soup all at once. Many of those North Dakota grandmas I mentioned snip the dumplings directly into the soup with scissors. That works, too, and it can be cleaner and more efficient, but it means slightly different cook times for your dumplings, because cutting eight dough ropes can take a few minutes, especially for a first-timer. The difference in texture is negligible after a 20-minute simmer, but if you cut the dumplings beforehand, you don’t have to—literally—sweat it, standing over a hot pot of simmering soup while snipping frantically.

The result of my months of interviews, sampling, and tinkering is a simple and satisfying dumpling soup. “You can take something as simple as knoephla and make it so complicated,” says Robert Serr, who serves the soup at Bismarck, North Dakota’s beloved Little Cottage Café on Mondays and Wednesdays. “You know, you don’t even know what you’re making anymore, and it tastes like crap. Or you can keep it simple, use stuff you can buy at the grocery store, and turn out a pretty decent product. That’s what I’ve always done.” And I’m pretty sure that’s the right way.

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