If I could only eat one food for the rest of my life, it would definitely be potatoes. In fact, when I recently saw The Martian, I didn't feel that badly for Matt Damon. I mean, sure... he was stranded on a hostile planet, millions of miles from home. But he got to eat potatoes all the time! Pretty fair trade, if you ask me.
Then again, poor ol' astronaut Watney (played by Damon) didn't have an actual oven, so he couldn't make baked potatoes… okay, maybe I'm a bit more sympathetic now. A perfect baked potato—with brown, crispy skin and a fluffy, mouthwatering interior—is truly a thing of joy.
If that description makes your mouth water, then you've come to the right place: here is a step-by-step guide to help you achieve tater nirvana.
Russet potatoes are, hands down, the best potatoes for baking. There are numerous types of Russets, but they all have a high ratio of solids (starch) to moisture to produce a drier, fluffier interior. Idaho Russets are among the best available, according to Dr. Potato. Alton Brown weighs in by saying (and I quote) that if your potato "looks like Mr. Potato Head, you've got the right one."
Also, make sure your potato doesn't have too many sprouts (also known as eyes) and isn't greenish in tint. Both sprouts and a green hue are an indication of a concentration of glycoalkaloids, which are toxic in larger quantities. Rachael Ray says that it's safe to eat a potato once the sprouts have been cut out; however, if you have to remove more than one or two from your baking potato, you will end up impacting the integrity of the skin and the baking process. In the end, it's better to go with a pristine tuber.
There is a lot of debate over the best temperature for baking a potato. Sam Sifton of the New York Times recommends a very hot oven (450°F) for 45 minutes, while Bon Appétit advocates a 350°F oven for one hour. The aforementioned Dr. Potato says: "…bake at 425°F for one hour if using a conventional oven. Many recipes call for 375°F, which is too low."
Of course, the higher the temperature, the shorter the baking time. But in order to achieve that perfect crunchy skin and soft interior, it may be best to follow Dr. Potato's example and pick a temperature in between.
Regardless of the temperature debate, it's very important that the oven be at the heat you decide on before bake. Be sure to preheat your oven!
Thankfully, there is no disagreement about how best to ready your tater for baking. Scrub the exterior (a stiff brush works well) using cold water; hot water may begin the cooking process prematurely. Dry thoroughly, then poke holes in the potato using a fork, the tip of a sharp knife, or a skewer.
Speaking of skewers, here's a handy hack from Martha Stewart: if you push a skewer through your potato lengthwise, it will heat up in the oven as your potato bakes and help cook the center of your spud more quickly and thoroughly. You can also buy specialty "potato nails" that accomplish the same thing... but really any old metal kebab skewer will do the trick.
Brits and Aussies refer to baked potatoes as jacket potatoes. If you want the "jacket" or skin of your potato to be extra crispy and delicious, brush it with olive oil or melted butter and sprinkle with salt before baking. If you really want to go whole hog, melt some bacon fat and brush that on. Mmm, decadence.
The potatoes pictured above look absolutely delicious, but they're actually not being baked in the optimal fashion. Here's a news flash: foil and baked potatoes should never go together! For the love of all things tubular, do not wrap your potatoes in foil. If you do so, you're essentially steaming them—and denying yourself the sweet, sweet pleasure of that crispy, salty skin.
Here's the best method for perfect baked potatoes: place your taters directly on the oven rack to allow air to circulate around them and therefore cook more evenly. As for the foil, you can still use it—by placing a foil-lined baking sheet on the lower rack to catch any drippings from the potatoes.
Now, all that's left is to set the timer—based on the temperature you've decided on—and wait.
When your timer rings to signal that it's almost tater time, make sure your potato is actually as ready to eat as you are to eat it. Take it out of the oven with an oven mitt and give it a squeeze: It should have some give. Additionally, that skewer you stuck into its center should come out without any resistance.
If you're a real stickler for proof, an ovenproof thermometer should read around 210°F when stuck in the potato. Just be sure to avoid taking the temperature near the skewer; if it's still in your potato, it will influence the reading.
Now, before you slice that potato open, massage the outside gently. According to Rick Martinez of Bon Appétit, this gentle massage maximizes the fluffiness of the interior.
Finally: the time has come to enjoy the fruits (or vegetable) of your labor. Slice into the potato, being careful not to cut all the way through. Push together the long sides to split the top open, add your condiments of choice (I'm a purist—nothing but butter and salt for me), and sink your fork into the best baked potato ever.
After you've devoured every fluffy inch of the interior, enjoy the crackling good exterior—the skin is full of fiber and, with the vitamin C-rich flesh, makes baked potatoes a treat that is delicious and nutritious!
Were you familiar with any of these pro tips, or have you been potato enlightened? Do you have any additional tips to add to our extensive list? Let us know in the comments below.