Back in January when Denise and I outlined our year, I knew that “comfort food month” would include potatoes. My absolute go-to whenever I want comfort food is some form of potato. For me, the fries at 5 Guys are safe, so on a road trip, I’m likely to hit them up. I have made meals out of mashed potatoes, potato patties, tater tots, and any other form of potato you can think of. We have a lot of potato recipes! And they aren’t even all mine.
But what I eventually landed on were baked potatoes. So this isn’t really a recipe. You’ve probably baked a potato — you have, right? Maybe you loved it, maybe it was just okay. But if you bake a perfect baked potato and top it with enough stuff, you have a great dinner — warm and hearty and satisfying. And then you can eat the skin, like a reverse appetizer.
So I went looking for the “best” baked potato recipe and found that cookbooks and internet writers had SO MANY different ideas on what makes a perfect baked potato. Now almost none of them describe the intended results, so it’s hard to know what they see as perfect. For me, the perfect baked potato is soft and fluffy on the inside, with a tender and crispy skin.
People suggest a lot of different temperatures, but 350ºF and 425ºF come up more often than 375ºF and 400ºF, so I stuck with those two. Most recipes tell you to scrub the potatoes and poke holes in the skin with a fork, though the old Joy of Cooking has you poke holes only halfway through baking. While this makes some sense, the joy of baking potatoes is that, though it takes a long time, you don’t have to DO anything during that time. Try it if you want, but I’ll never remember to do that again. Coating the outside of the potato is also popular — wrapping it in foil, oiling the skin, oil and salting the skin, buttering the outside. My mom never did any of that, so I never did, but I’ve now tried them all.
So here’s my verdict:
First off, I think Alton Brown’s recipe worked the best for me. I think that 350ºF produces the fluffiest potatoes, but it takes 20 minutes longer than 450ºF. I think that lightly coating the skin with olive oil does actually produce a fluffier potato, but with a slightly less crispy skin than no coating. Vegan margarine will produce an even tenderer skin. I do not want to foil wrap my potatoes as it seems wasteful, so I didn’t try that. I think poking holes in the potatoes with a meat fork (long tines) makes a fluffier center than using a dinner fork. Two stabs with the fork seem to be enough; 4 stabs (2 per side) didn’t make a noticeable difference to me.
If you don’t have 85 minutes to wait for dinner (assuming 5 minutes of prep), a good compromise is to microwave the washed and stabbed potatoes for 10 minutes and then bake them at 425ºF for 20-30 minutes. I know this doesn’t save a bunch of time, but it is half. I do not coat the potatoes with anything when I do this, and I use the toaster oven because my big oven won’t heat up in 10 minutes. This is not AS good, but it is good.
As for topping the potato, here are just a few of my thoughts:
- butter, vegan margarine, or a margarine that’s safe for you
- cashew sour cream, tofu sour cream, or dairy sour cream
- chives, salt, pepper
- any form of cheese or cheese substitute that is safe for you
- cashew ranch dressing
- leftover chili, pulled pork, pot roast, or other meat
- barbecue sauce
- any form of chickpea masala
- curried vegetables
- any combination of the above that sounds good to you
- anything else in the fridge that seems like it would taste good
- 1 potato per person
- 1 teaspoon olive oil or margarine or other oil
- salt if desired
- potato toppings of choice
- Pre-heat oven to 350 F
- Wash and scrub potatoes, being sure to remove any patches of dirt.
- Dry the potatoes. Poke 1-2 times per side with a long-tined fork (as in one for serving meat) or a small paring knife -- holes should go at least 1/3 of the way through the potato if possible.
- Rub potatoes with the oil of your choice -- olive oil will yield a slightly crunchy skin, vegan margarine gives a more tender skin. Alton Brown claims that the oil will help hold in more steam, making the potatoes fluffier, and my skepticism at that is now cured. It seems to work. Add a sprinkle of salt if you want it.
- Place potatoes in oven, directly on the rack. Bake for 80 minutes. If you're impatient, you can check them at 60. Using a pot holder, squeeze the potatoes to see if they give easily. If so, they're done.
- The way my mother taught me to open a potato gives you a good container for stuffing it full of fillings. Cut a slit lengthwise in the top of the potato, but leave 1/2 inch or so from either end. Push in at either end sort of "pop" the potato open. Pop the sides and the ends again if you need to -- you should get a solid base and a wide open potato.
- Stuff it with everything you love. When you're finished with that part, add some margarine and salt and pepper to the skin and eat that, too.
- Feel the potato joy.
I tend to buy potatoes that fit solidly in my hand. I like a nice regular oval shape, same thickness throughout. Buy the appropriate size for the part of the meal -- I like them big because they ARE the meal. Potatoes should be firm, with no soft spots, irregular ends, eyes growing out of them, and no green hue to the skin. Use those for something else where you can cut away the questionable bits.
The potatoes in the photos above just have some vegan Earth Balance margarine and chives on them.