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.