- Uniformly Fluffy Interior
- Thin, Crisp Skin
- Fastest Possible Method
Baking a potato is about as basic as cooking gets—so basic, in fact, that it doesn’t even seem to require a recipe. Simply stick a russet in a moderately hot oven directly on the rack, and after about an hour, give it a squeeze. If it’s still firm, bake it longer; if it gives to pressure, it’s done.
The beauty of that method is its simplicity, but how often does it produce a truly great baked potato? In my experience, almost never. Whether the center is dense and gummy or the skin is soggy, shriveled, or chewy, the best I can do is slather on as much butter or sour cream as possible to cover up the flaws.
I want more from a baked potato than a dense or desiccated log of starch, and I was determined to examine every variable to nail down ideal results. That meant a fluffy interior encased in thin, crisp skin.
Russets are the classic choice for baked potatoes because they’re a dry, floury variety, meaning they contain a relatively high amount (20 to 22 percent) of starch. (So-called in-between varieties like Yukon Golds or waxy types like Red Bliss contain 16 to 18 percent and about 16 percent starch, respectively.) The more starch a potato contains, the more water from inside the potato can be absorbed during baking. As the starch granules swell with water within the spud’s cell walls, they eventually force the cells to separate into clumps that result in the texture we perceive as dry and fluffy.
Everyone knows that you have to prick potatoes before baking them so steam doesn’t build up inside and cause them to explode. Well, we baked 40 potatoes without doing this, and not one exploded. But since it takes so little effort, here’s one time we’ll err on the side of caution. It could be the 41st one that explodes.
But when exactly does a potato reach that dry and fluffy stage—the point at which it is done? Taking a closer look at the bake-until-it’s-squeezable approach would at least give me a baseline temperature to work from, so I pricked an 8-ounce russet a few times with a fork and placed it in a 400-degree oven. Once the exterior had softened, I cut slits to open up the potato and stuck an instant-read thermometer in several places. The outer ½ inch or so, which was soft enough to squeeze but not quite fluffy, registered 195 degrees, while the dense core, which was clearly underdone, was 175 degrees. From there, I baked off several more potatoes, placing probes at exterior points in each and removing them from the oven at different temperatures. At 200 degrees the outer edge was light and fluffy, while the core was just tender, but at 205 degrees the whites of the potatoes were at their best: fluffy from edge to center. A few more tests revealed that the method was somewhat forgiving; I could bake the potatoes as high as 212 degrees and still achieve perfectly light and fluffy results. The only hitch, I discovered, was that it was crucial to cut the potatoes open immediately after baking to let steam escape; if they sat for even 10 minutes, they retained more water than potatoes that were opened immediately and turned dense and gummy even after cooking to 205 degrees.
Now that I knew exactly when the potato was cooked through, I wanted to see how fast I could get it there. Microwaving the potatoes would surely speed up the cooking, I assumed. But further tests proved that this was actually the worst approach. Whether I used the microwave alone or in tandem with the oven, the potatoes always cooked unevenly and were often gummy and dense. Why? Because microwaves heat potatoes very unevenly, rendering some portions fully cooked while others are still rock-hard.
A microwave might seem like a fast way to “bake” a potato, but we found two reasons why it’s actually the worst approach. First, microwaves heat foods very unevenly, so some parts of the potato might rapidly reach 205 degrees while others get to only 180 degrees. Second, rapidly heating a potato causes pressure to build and cell walls to burst, releasing starch molecules that glue together the broken cell walls.
Back to the oven. The potatoes took between 1 hour and 1 hour 20 minutes to cook through at 400 degrees, so I hoped that cranking the heat up to 500 would hasten things. Unfortunately, this caused the outer portion of the potato to overbrown and almost char in spots, leading to a slightly burned flavor. Going forward, I turned the oven temperature down notch by notch and eventually found 450 degrees for 45 minutes or so to be the sweet spot—the interior was soft and light and the skin nicely browned. Now I just had to see about crisping it up.
Since frying potatoes in oil crisps and browns their exteriors, I hoped that coating the russets’ skin with oil might do the same as they baked. But as it turned out, painting the spuds with vegetable oil (1 tablespoon coated four potatoes nicely) and then baking them yielded disappointingly soft and chewy skins. The problem was that the oil created a barrier on the skin’s exterior that prevented moisture from escaping, so the skins weren’t able to dry out and crisp.
The better method was to apply the oil once the potatoes were cooked, by which point the skins had dehydrated considerably. Returning them to the oven for 10 more minutes rendered them deep brown and crisp (the extra time increases the interior temperature of the potatoes by just 2 or 3 degrees).
I was very pleased with my method, which really wasn’t much more work than baking a potato without a recipe. But one variable lingered: seasoning. Sure, I’d sprinkle salt and pepper on the potato at the table, but what I really wanted was even seasoning all over. My first attempt, brining the potatoes for 1 hour before baking, delivered skins with fantastic flavor, but did I really have to add that much more time to the method? Instead, I tried simply wetting the raw potatoes and sprinkling them with salt—and when that failed (the salt crystals didn’t stick), I simply dunked the potatoes in salty water. The flavor was just as full and even as that of the brined potatoes, but this step added mere seconds to my recipe. The last tweak I made, baking the potatoes on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, prevented drips of salt and water from staining the bottom of my oven and allowed the hot air to circulate evenly around the potatoes during baking.
Crisp and thoroughly seasoned on the outside and light and fluffy within, my baked potatoes were perfect as is, though nobody disagreed that a pat of butter or sour cream was in order. And for the times when I wanted a real showstopper of a side dish (or even a main course with a salad), I put together a few simple toppings that could be made while the potatoes baked. Topped with a creamy egg salad–like mixture or herbed goat cheese, these spuds were an unqualified hit at the dinner table.
We found that if a baked potato reached between 205 and 212 degrees, the interior was uniformly fluffy—just the way we like it. The question was how quickly we could achieve that texture and if we could crisp the skin, too.
Microwave for 6 minutes
Uneven cooking; gummy, stodgy interior; shriveled skin.
Pressure-cook for 40 minutes
Fluffy inside, soggy skin, not much time savings.
Bake at 500 degrees for 40 minutes
Overbrowns and slightly chars exterior, leading to burned flavor.
Bake at 450 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
The sweet spot for evenly cooked potatoes.
Deep-fry fully baked potato
Skin crisps nicely, but too much work.
Butter skin before baking
Water in butter keeps skin from crisping.
Oil skin before baking
Oil keeps moisture in skin from evaporating; cooks up soggy.
Oil skin when almost done
Skin dehydrates during baking, then crisps in oil.
The sweet spot for evenly cooked potatoes.
Uniformly Fluffy Interior
Baking the potatoes to 205 (and as high as 212) degrees and checking the temperature with a thermometer ensures that a lot of their moisture evaporates and that their interiors turn light and fluffy throughout.
Thin, Crisp Skin
Brushing the potatoes with oil after they’re fully cooked (so they have a chance to dry out first) and then briefly putting them back in the oven crisps up the skin.
Fastest Possible Method
Unlike the microwave, a pressure cooker, and a 500-degree oven, all of which yielded speedier yet flawed results, a 450-degree oven produced ideal results—fluffy interiors and crisp, nicely browned skin—in about 45 minutes.