I recently remarked “There are very few foods indeed that compare with a high-quality Russet potato, properly baked.” A voice in the comments wondered “And what do you call ‘properly baked’?” A harmless enough question, but then aluminium foil was mentioned; shudder. Please don’t do that. Here’s how to bake potatoes correctly.

The Spuds · The best I’ve ever baked were Russets purchased from a Mennonite farmer at the Waterloo (Ontario) farmers’ market; but Russets are actually pretty reliable; even the most love-starved product of Big Corporate Ag will come up OK if treated with respect.

Failing that, Yukon Golds bake decently; the skin doesn’t quite match the Russet but the flesh may actually be tastier. I note with delight that the Yukon Gold is not only a product of the University of Guelph, my alma mater, but graduated in the same year.

This best time to bake is late fall and early winter, when the crop is still reasonably fresh.

I prefer to work with specimens which are elongated, tending to the cylindrical rather than the spherical; just because they cook faster and more evenly. It’s really hard to get a good result with something shaped like a softball.

Preparation · Wash the potatoes. They grow underground and are thus dirty; not in any negative way and it wouldn’t really do you any harm, but you do want to eat the skins, and most find soil unpalatable.

You need a good stiff-bristled brush, a stream of hot water, and some elbow grease. Which creates a problem: Unless you’re the kind of person who is so organized that they plan their potato-greasing well in advance (in which case please go away) you’ve ignored the washing problem until you’re about ready to put ’em in the oven. And you have to grease ’em first, and everyone knows that oil and water don’t mix. I usually have recourse to paper towels at this point, and my spirit darkens as I think of the softwood forest giants slaughtered so that I may dry my spuds because I Wasn’t Organized Enough. But I digress.

The skins of potatoes, like ours and like our souls too, are sadly imperfect. There will be eyes, grungy spots, and perhaps not-fully-ripe green bits. (Did I mention our souls?) The green must be cut out; spuds and nightshades are cousins and this stuff might even be toxic. Grungy spots are judgment calls, but make sure you apply the brush and elbow grease first, and bear in mind Jesus’ reminder about judging and being judged. Eyes can safely be ignored; think of poor Colonel Tigh.

Before cooking the potatoes must be greased. This really has to be done with your hands; if you’ve invented a kitchen implement which conforms to irregular tuberal curvatures you’re sitting on a gold mine, time to do a start-up.

I have heard suggestions that vegetable oils, even those with a suspiciously Mediterranean provenance, may be deployed. This seems dubious, but then I’m a pale bald participant in the North European gene pool, whose ancestors rejoiced in the smell of their enemies’ tents burning and the sound of their women wailing. Which is to say, I use butter.

In a well-run household there will be a butter dish on the kitchen counter. If anyone’s looking I extract it from the dish with a knife before transferring it to my fingers.

The Skin · This is the best part of a properly-baked potato, and also the most nutritious. But to achieve its full potential it must be exposed to the hot air in the oven. Which is to say, God kills a kitten every time someone bakes a foil-wrapped potato. Also consider the appalling environmental costs of extracting and refining the bauxite. So please don’t do that.

Cooking · Before I put them in the oven I always prick them a few places here and there. This lore comes down from prehistory, accompanied by stern warnings about exploding unpricked potatoes. I’ve never had one explode nor have I ever heard of this actually happening, but then almost everybody pricks them. Think of it as another Pascal’s Wager.

It’s hard to overbake but easy to underdo a potato; and undercooked, they are deplorable. A serious tuber, the kind that will satisfy a hearty adult appetite, can usually be baked in an hour at 350°F if the oven was pre-heated. Anomalously huge vegetables may be cut in half; an extra-thick coating of grease on the exposed flesh, please.

But there’s no need to guess. If you think they might be done, you get a fork and stab the biggest potato in the oven. The difference between properly-cooked and not-yet-done is obvious; as with many other things in life, you need to get the wrist action right.

Eating · You bisect the potato along its longest axis, you squash each half with a fork, you cover it with whatever condiments float your boat, and you eat it with a knife and fork, including the skin, right down to the plate.

Reasonable people may disagree as to condiments. Generally I’m fine with salt and butter (tents burning, women wailing, remember), but there’s room for creativity. I’ve never seen the appeal of sour cream, but on the other hand, some finely-cut fresh green onions can be pure magic. You can go all multicultural with chutneys and salsas and so on. Do please try to avoid disrespecting the essential vegetable protagonist.

Meal Suggestions · Potatoes suggest meat-and-potatoes and that’s just fine, although I tend to prefer rice with real red-meat showpieces. If you are doing a traditional roast of beef, a few spuds tossed in the roasting pan are apt to come up very nice, but you need to calibrate sizes to arrange for everything to be done at about the same time.

A suggestion: Skip the meat. Serve a meal of baked potatoes, a nice light salad, and an intensely-green vegetable like broccoli. Accompany it with a bottle of northern white wine, say a Riesling or Alsace or especially Gewürztraminer. Even better, two or three bottles.

Raise a glass to the good earth and what grows in it.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Matt Thompson (Dec 08 2009, at 01:35)

Tim, you poor soul...

Years ago my mother bought my wife and I a baked potato maker (from a TV commercial no less). You pierced two potatoes lengthwise with skewers, put them in the machine with a little water in the bottom, and 30 min later you had amazing baked potatoes. Alas - the build quality matched that of other "sold on TV" items so it only made it through maybe 100 spuds before falling apart. It did a really good job of cooking the potatoes, just couldn't hold up to consistent use.

What we use now is a GE Advantium oven (cooks with convetional heat and some waves at the same time) - we've programmed in a "baked potato" setting - it will cook two good sized spuds in about 25-30 minutes, and only in the rare case can you really tell the difference between a potato cooked this way vs.a conventional oven.

Strangely - I'm now hungry for a baked potato, and at 1:35AM, that may be a hard craving to fulfill (if I want to be asleep by 2AM)

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From: Stuart Dootson (Dec 08 2009, at 01:41)

Grease the outside? Nah - leave the butter to mix in with the potato after cooking.

And with roast beef (any roast meat)? Roast tatties, cooked in a small amount of goose fat. Crispy, brown shell with soft fluffy insides. A winter treat...

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From: Sean Gillies (Dec 08 2009, at 02:34)

Guns, germs, and ... butter?

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From: Toby Atkin-Wright (Dec 08 2009, at 02:37)

Never has reading a blog post made me feel so hungry. There will be a spike in potato consumption worldwide as a result of your words.

I have a fondness for the red-skinned rooster potatoes, filled with a mixture of grated cheese, mayo and onion. Mmm not long till lunch time.

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From: John Wilson (Dec 08 2009, at 02:51)

After cooking we bang each potato as hard as possible on the kitchen work surface before cutting open. This makes the potato flesh very fluffy and it absorbs the butter/filling far better

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From: David Anderson (Dec 08 2009, at 04:41)

Over the past year I spent a lot of time in Hamburg, Germany, where I gained a deeper appreciation of the baked potato. Most because of this fast-food restaurant (and others like it) devoted to selling nothing but baked potatoes: http://www.qype.fr/place/12793-Kumpir-Hamburg. One of the cheapest meals around, but quite yummy and served hot with a crazy variety of toppings. Sample http://images.google.fr/images?q=kumpir to get some idea of the variations.

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From: Connor O'Hare (Dec 08 2009, at 04:48)

The beauty of the baked potato summed up in this lovely 30sec commercial for a well known brand of butter. Says it all really.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ycSY7tHSdU

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From: Meganwf (Dec 08 2009, at 05:04)

I have no fear--I use bacon grease instead of butter. Not sure what that says about my ancestors. If really worried about extra fat on hands use wax paper to apply. Also, feel free to use a kitchen towel for drying pots vs paper towel. I'm assuming you have some that are not monogrammed.

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From: Tony (Dec 08 2009, at 07:05)

I have had potatoes explode! I had a party and at one point in the evening we began to hear dull thuds in the kitchen, I couldn't work out what it was at first but soon realised it was the potatoes in the oven exploding.

I tried to get one out but it exploded - fortunately I was keeping well to one side of the open door as the insides blew right out. I shut the door and turned the oven off and left them to defuse. Needless to say, I now prick potatoes before I bake them.

I am a staunch fan of mixing the innards with some fried onions and a little mayo and then returning the mix to the skins and baking for another ten minutes. Heaven.

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From: John Cowan (Dec 08 2009, at 07:17)

Well!

1) I quite agree about the elongated or ellipsoidal shape being preferable for reasonable cooking times.

2) If there is butter sitting on the kitchen counter, then it is by definition rancid, unless you keep your house at 3 C or some similarly Canadianly unspeakable temperature. Rancid butter is not, I grant, actually harmful, but the capric, caprylic, and caproic acids give it a certain ... distinctive goat-like reek.

3) The trouble with leaving in eyes is that eyes are incipient sprouts, and may contain green bits where you can't see 'em. When dealing with solanine, much better safe than sorry.

4) Though still fully equipped with hair, I am as much a part of that gene pool as you; indeed, the micks and krauts in my background took up the potato considerably before you scowegians and jocks, though admittedly mostly because we were starving at the time. (Millet is not a grain you want to support yourself on if you have *any* decent alternative.)

5) I did speak, you'll note, of reuse and recycling. I can readily use a piece of foil for 3-4 potatoes before it springs a serious leak, and then it goes in with the cans to form part of the 30% of U.S. aluminum that is *not* refined direct from bauxite. (This percentage is a little low, I grant; in Europe they do these things better.)

6) Potatoes do not, under any circumstances, explode in the oven. Hard-boiled eggs *will* explode in the microwave, however. Learn from my experience.

7) I also agree about eating the skin, which is precisely why I don't want it to be paper. Perhaps your tribe can face paper-eating with equanimity, but my mother instilled in me at an early age a distaste for eating books, which has remained a veritable millstone around my neck for the rest of my life. (Alas, this is not hereditary; my grandson still struggles with every board book: to consume or not to consume, that is the question.)

8) Condiments are indeed a matter of taste: for myself I favor salt and salt alone, but margarine is much used hereabouts. Butter is just not worth the trouble, despite its impeccably European roots, though truth to tell it is India that consumes butter profligately, about a tonne per person per annum. I also point out the potentially nasty consequences of eating fully saturated fats, though I confess to being a carnivore.

9) As such, when roasting, I bake potatoes alongside the roast for its last hour. Seems to work well. Potatoes in the roasting pan soak up too much grease.

10) I have used aluminum baking nails. They do, as advertised, cut cooking time in half, but this rarely seems worth the trouble of hunting them up from whatever drawer they are in at present.

11) Sweet potatoes are a fine thing too, cooked the same way.

Further deponent sayeth not.

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From: Mik Lernout (Dec 08 2009, at 07:52)

Mr. Kumpir, the Turkish baked-potato chain, just opened a location on Denman (near Davie). High quality Russets baked in lovely little black ovens equals crazy delicious. Skip most of the condiments though.

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From: Carl Forde (Dec 08 2009, at 08:44)

I agree with the 'no foil' rule. The idea is to _bake_ the potatoes, not steam them. I prefer to use olive oil to coat the outsides before baking. I keep a bottle of olive oil by the stove, it comes in handy for a variety of uses.

For someone as obviously fastidious as our host, I'm surprised at the lack of attention to the selection of the potatoes. One should select potatoes that do not require the gouging and loping off of parts. Baking potatoes should be well-formed, and of good appearance to start. Other lesser potatoes are fine for mashing and scalloping where gouges and truncations are not apparent.

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From: Tim Ayres (Dec 08 2009, at 10:17)

Thanks for the article - I too am a fan of the naked baked potato, that is to say, without foil. I must admit to never having greased a potato before - I will try this the next time.

I have, however, had a potato explode on me before - despite pricking it with a fork. I pulled it out of the over, hearing a hissing sound. As soon as I touched it with a fork, it exploded, all over the tile backsplash and range hood. I stood there, dumbfounded, as up to this point I was only pricking the potatoes as a precaution, never actually believing that they 'sploded.

Thanks again.

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From: Michael Guterl (Dec 08 2009, at 10:44)

For what it is worth, my mom always told me to wash vegetables with cold water.

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From: Greg Davidson (Dec 08 2009, at 10:44)

Great stuff. I was hoping you might write this up.

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From: Preston L. Bannister (Dec 08 2009, at 10:59)

Oddly, I have been on a bit of a potato cooking kick the last few weeks. Found an easy combination we like.

Wash and split lengthwise. Place skin-up on a metal pan in plenty of oil. About 30 minutes at 350°F in a convection oven crisps the skin and nicely browns the exposed flesh. Turn over, flatten to maybe 1/2 inch thick, top with cheese, and return to the oven for about 15 minutes.

Easy to make, and all those nice flavors from browning (skin, flesh, and cheese). My picky teenage daughter eats skin and all without a second thought.

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From: Remus (Dec 08 2009, at 11:31)

It is a tradition in my family but also in Transilvania, the part of the country I live in, as the winter approaches to eat backed potatoes with butter, onions, pickled cabbage and a very specific type of cheese called "Brinza de burduf" which is cow or sheep based cheese with a strong taste that is hand kneaded with salt and stored / fermented in sheep’s stomach or pine bark.

There is such a balance between the ingredients that needs no other condiment except salt, and sometimes because the cheese is salty not even that. I don’t think you can find exactly that type of cheese outside Romania but maybe you could replace that with a nice blue cheese.

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From: Scott (Dec 08 2009, at 12:43)

What are your thoughts on starting in the microwave and finishing in the oven?

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From: Colin Toal (Dec 08 2009, at 14:25)

Thanks for a great article.

In a prior life I worked in a booth at a flea market that sold imported British candies, sausages and baked goods. North Atlantic islanders (not to be confused with South Pacific islanders) can be fanatics about sausages.

Across from this booth was a main with a cart that looked like an old timey movie house popcorn cart except stuffed with potatoes. He sold baked potatoes as a snack, much like a hot dog vendor would. He had an arrangement of high quality garnishes for his potatoes - but the potatoes themselves were the star attraction. Thick, rough, tasty skin, with pure white fluffy perfection inside.

They were, without doubt, the best baked potato I have ever had. Just amazing - and despite my best efforts, I cannot seem to replicate them. This man, and his cart, were ahead of their time.

I wish I could find a cart like that again.

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From: John Dowdell (Dec 08 2009, at 15:48)

If you had to survive on only one type of food, then potato-and-milk would be the ticket... complete protein, most minerals. A little bit of cheese would do it too. I don't have a good web link handy, but keep it in mind for gameshows.... ;-)

And if you're keen on crispy-skin baked potatoes, keep an eye out for the sweet-potato man next time you're in Asia... here's one nice story, from Japan:

http://www.jref.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-13276.html

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From: Spudulike (Dec 08 2009, at 17:19)

Alas, I am forlorn for the loss of a childhood favourite; there simply was nothing like a baked 'tattie' filled with canned beans in sauce.

Totally unreproducible, I've tried!

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From: Rob (Dec 08 2009, at 18:59)

Do you just put them straight on the oven rack or put them into something? (excuse me if I missed a part that says this)

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From: Michael H. (Dec 08 2009, at 22:52)

@Scott:

I start squash in the microwave to finish in the oven; I've never tried it with potatoes, but the same principle might apply.

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From: John Cowan (Dec 09 2009, at 13:29)

Evidently I must retract my claim that potatoes don't go splodey. However, the evidence as it stands is that this is not a jacket effect, which is why pricking the potato has no effect.

To those who claim that foil-wrapped potatoes are steamed, not baked, I ask if they consider bundt cakes to likewise be steamed.

John Dowdell: As you probably know, before the black '49, the entire native Irish population pretty much subsisted on potatoes and milk, with a fish perhaps once a month for a few extra nutrients. That was why the blight reduced the population (by emigration and death) from 8 million to 1 million.

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From: Will Snow (Dec 10 2009, at 06:46)

Thanks Tim for the reminder of the ultimate goodness of potatoes. What's strange is I watched a show on potatoes last night saying how the russet is almost grown in monoculture as it's used for virtually all french fries made by all fast food restaurants *everywhere*. And they do Evil Things to keep the nasty bugs from killing off the crops.

That said, it's 630am, and I want potatoes now. Great. Your suggestion for proper consumption (with a salad, etc.) is one of our families favorite meals as the potato is a rather complete food.

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From: Gary Machin (Dec 10 2009, at 16:21)

Back when I lived in dear ole Blighty my local pub served up a marvelous dish to go with my pint of Courage Directors. It was called a Full House. A perfectly baked spud, spit open covered with butter, grated cheddar, chopped up pork sausages, baked beans and more cheddar on top......Oh baby, I could do one right now.

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From: Rob (Dec 10 2009, at 17:05)

Me, I agree, foil is an abomination. I like my baked potato skins crunchy. Which is why I don't even oil them, there is no point. And I usually cook them at the 400 - 450 range too. There is no scripture that says all foods must be cooked at either 325 or 350.

The reason for the foil is that for some reason the potato industry has convinced people that pale, dry "bakers" are the way to go (I admit they are shaped better for the deed), but they are terrible. Usually what you get in restaurants. They need to be steamed.

Here is another really cool potato thing, a bit labor intensive but worth the effort: Hasselbach potatoes. You get some cylindricalish spuds, Yukon Gold are the best but russets work fine, you peel them (unfortunate, but necessary). You get a wooden spoon and put each potato in it in turn, and with a sharp largish knife cut down at about 1/4 inch intervals or less. The wooden spoon will stop you from cutting all the way down, so you end up with a potato with a spine holding a bunch of sections.

In the meantime, you have melted a 50:50 mixture of butter and olive oil (olive oil has the major advantage of having a far higher burning temperature; in any hot recipe, adding even a little olive oil to the butter will greatly reduce the chances of burnt butter). The amount you need will depend on the amount of potatoes. However it is hard to use too much.

You pour this butter over the potatoes, opening up their sections to ensure that the mixture gets down in there. Make sure every bit of the surface of the potato is greased. Do this in the pan you will cook them in, it will thus self-grease, as you will probably find yourself pouring, recycling, and pouring again as you bend open the potatos. Sprinkle with some kosher salt and maybe a bit of freshly ground pepper if you are so inclined.

Bake them at about 400 for about 40 minutes (times may vary, depending on oven, size of potatoes, other things in the oven, how much crunch vs buttery tenderness, etc.).

What you get is something halfway between french fries and baked potatoes. It is heavenly. And probably artery busting enough to satisfy your burning tents/wailing women urges for a while.

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